I would say that, at this point, my German is at an intermediate level. I have most of the grammar I need to express myself in complex sentences, and I can put together a sentence correctly, only pausing to come up with the right vocabulary. But here’s the problem: My vocabulary isn’t all that big right now.
I find myself, over and over again, limiting what I say because I can’t figure out how to say it. In a recent class discussion on environmental issues and food, I was trying to explain the possible negative impacts of corporate farming and single-crop farming on the land. I couldn’t come up with the words to express the nuances, so I simplified my statement, saying that big farms can be more harmful than small farms. Other students quickly jumped in to add their two cents and move the discussion on to other topics. Afterwards, I felt frustrated that I hadn’t really explained myself.
Today, while at the laundromat, a woman walked up and started talking to me. I was listening to a podcast and checking emails, so I paused the audio and put down my phone to talk to her. She was talking very fast, but I understood that she wanted me to stop using my phone in the laundromat. I explained that I didn’t speak German very well and needed her to repeat herself. She kept going on at essentially the same speed, insisting that I must have understood her because I put down my phone. Finally, I got the sense that she was anti-cell phones and just kind of a nutcase. But I couldn’t find the words to respond in any way other than telling her that I didn’t entirely understand why she was objecting. A girl near me started arguing with the woman (on my behalf, I could tell, although it was still too fast for me to understand everything she said). The girl and I exchanged some exasperated glances—it was the most nuanced communication I felt like I managed in that entire interaction.
I feel like I am missing a piece of my personality every time I try to speak German. I know this is entirely normal for a non-fluent speaker, but it doesn’t change how frustrating it is. Despite the fact that I can talk about a lot of things, I still can’t really express myself. And in normal situations, I am still so often at a complete loss for words.