Learning German with unexpected consequences

In the early nineties, whether it was in Europe or in India, a career as a postdoc always seemed to be linked with deadlines: a fellowship or project ended every two years or so. Given the nature of such precarious short-term contracts, most postdocs rented fully furnished apartments, especially when living abroad.

During my first postdoc stint, my husband and I rented a furnished apartment in the international guest house – the IBZ – in Göttingen, Germany. The Humboldt Foundation had suggested it to my husband as it was located within walking distance of the university where he worked as a Humboldt fellow. So, on a fine summer’s day in May, I entered a swanky apartment that came with ergonomically designed furniture which could have been from an IKEA catalogue and it had a fully furnished kitchen with utensils. I was a newly married bride and enthusiastic to start my journey as a new postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, so I came armed with a German dictionary wanting to communicate with my neighbours and lab mates in German.

The IBZ had a live-in janitor. He was the handyman performing small repairs inside the apartments or on the washing machines in the common area. His apartment had the only telephone in the building and, in the pre-mobile and pre-internet days, those who wanted to call home to India or any other country could fix a time with him to use the phone.

When an appointment becomes a date

One afternoon, after consulting my German dictionary, I walked to the janitor’s apartment to fix a time for my phone call to my parents in India. As I rang the bell, I practiced my sentences again and again in my mind and, on seeing the man face to face, I delivered my three sentences with great aplomb asking for an ‘appointment’ to use the telephone.

Only, instead of using the word ‘Termin’ I had used the word ‘Rendezvous’, which actually means arranging a date! The poor man looked shocked and stammered a quick German ‘Ja’ (Yes) and I told myself it must have been my perfect German that had flustered him. I later came to realise my mistake and after that I tried to avoid him when I happened to meet him on campus.

My German colleagues at work always had a good laugh at my attempts to use German words that I had learnt or seen in the dictionary. One afternoon, I ended up telling Elvie, the technical assistant who washed the department lab equipment, “I will help clean you thoroughly with my glassware” instead of saying I wanted to help her clean the glassware. I had forgotten that in German the verb is always placed at the end of a sentence. Another time, when celebrating a colleague’s silver wedding anniversary, I wanted to show off my proficiency in German and ended up telling the Director’s wife that she was ‘nicely disguised’ instead of complementing her on her lovely dress.

A vocabulary trainer weighing 40 kilogrammes

Seeing my overenthusiastic attempts to learn and speak German, a friend suggested I obtain a TV to increase my German vocabulary. I ended up buying a used TV that was huge and weighed 40 kilogrammes. It was a bargain at just 20 D-Mark (~ 10 euros). The lady who sold it to me mentioned something about ‘nicht handlich’ on the phone. I had somehow overheard the ‘nicht’ and thought she meant it was handy and useful! I couldn’t carry it all by myself of course, so I enlisted the help of two of my institute workshop friends to carry it to the flat after office hours. Thanks to this TV and my friends at work, by the end of the year I could speak and understand German reasonably well and I even began to feel confident about cracking jokes in German.

Looking back at my initial two years as a postdoc in Göttingen and despite the gaffes I made in German, I kept attempting to learn it and this enabled me to widened my circle of friends – not just at work, but also where I lived. I got to know a lot of interesting people in the local village and ended up working on interesting projects, both personally and professionally.

These have definitely shaped my career choices and perhaps I wouldn’t had enjoyed such experiences if I had taken the more traditional route of attending an English-speaking institution. I learned to speak ‘directly’ when the work and circumstance needed it, without beating around the bush. I learned how to use proper time and resource management to cope under immense pressure, and sometimes even when not to cope. My time in Göttingen marked one of the best periods in my life.

Author: Aruna Dhathathreyan

Who is Aruna Dhathathreyan?

Aruna Dhathathreyan is a Professor and Emeritus scientist at CSIR – Central Leather Research Institute, Chennai, India. Her fields of work and research include biophysics, biophysical chemistry, and surface sciences. She received an INSA-DFG Visiting Fellowship at Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces (2010).


She was among 98 scientists featured in Leelavathi's Daughters, a compendium of female scientists in India created by the Indian Science Academy.

Her first stay in Germany was in 1983 at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Gottingen. Later she worked at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interface Research in 1996 and had collaboration with further stays in 2005, 2010, 2011 and 2014. Aruna Dhathathreyan is a mentor on the Alumniportal Deutschland and publishes articles about her time in Germany regularly.

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September 2020