Wednesday, April 04, 2007

It All Flashed Before My Eyes

Not my life, thankfully. My German knowledge. This happens to me every time I encounter a language situation where I am not the instigator and I don't know where it's going to go. The other day a man came up to me in the street after having clearly not gotten good information from someone else he asked, making a "please help me find something" face. My brain: "Oh God... links.... rechts... bis.... geradeaus... will I remember all these words, will they be enough, what if I can't understand his accent..." To my enormous relief, all he wanted to know was whether the street we were standing on was the Sofienstrasse. It was. I didn't even have to formulate a complete sentence. Then, a block later on the bridge, it happened again. My brain didn't even know where to start in its guesses of what words and structures might become necessary because they didn't seem to be lost. Luckily, I saw the camera in her hand and she handed it to me. Okay. Say you'll do it. Take a photo. As I took the camera she rambled into another sentence. The only word I understood in the entire thing was "technological". I just smiled and took the picture. Thankfully the camera worked and I got away, once again, without needing full sentences.

I don't think it's a good thing that, six months in, I'm still considering my real-life encounters with Germans who aren't waiters/clerks/German teachers as something akin to near-death experiences (near-language-failure experiences?). But, there it is. I know I should practice, but it's frustrating both for me and the Germans I speak with to try German when we both know their English is far and away above my German. And thus everything continues in English.

Today a new girl in our lab, also from outside Germany and not great yet with German, and I had to go to another building across town. We got on the bus and she asked for a ticket to the stop we were sitting at right then! The bus driver looked at her like she had lost her mind and the passengers were looking at us funny, too. When he tried to tell her in German she didn't understand and asked him in English to repeat it. At this point I realized what was going on and asked for the correct stop. She was able to just laugh off this experience by the time we found a seat, but I think I would have passed out. I really need to be more like her and not care if I look like an idiot, but when being thought of as stupid is one's second biggest fear (hey, nothing beats death), it's hard not to care!

Must stop caring! Then maybe I would try more.

In the meanwhile, Germans think, and are probably right, that Americans are just so awful with languages. In one example, a friend with a short "oo" sound in his name can't understand why Americans simply never get it right, but the British can do it. Americans are just pathetic pronouncers. I don't know if the British use the short "oo" in their English or are just better exposed to foreign languages. In another example, a coworker rambled on and on to me for about 10 minutes about how Americans just don't pick up German like people from other countries, and how she knows an American woman who has lived here 20 years and still can't have a truly good conversation in German. She blames it on the fact that you can get around here in English. I guess it's a combination of a lot of factors. And being American, I'm guilty of all of them - falling back on English, not enough exposure to foreign languages early in life, being afraid of looking stupid. (Is that last one American? I really don't know.)

In other news entirely, Damon went to book tickets for our trip this weekend today and discovered that there were no reserved seats remaining on any trains back here Monday. None. This is really disastrous - it's about 6-7 hours and with no seat (and not a good place to stand, either - the trains aren't built for that) it will be really hellish. 20% of the seats on the trains are left unreserved but you can bet those are very hard to find. We are debating whether to try and find a place to stay an extra night to see if we can get a better train situation on Tuesday...but I really need to get in some work hours that day, so I don't know. Moral of the story: Book early!!!


  1. Hi there. Just wanted to say I commiserate totally. I've finished my 6-month intensive German course and still about panic whenever a German tries to speak with me. You mentioned that last factor of being afraid of looking stupid. The typical dumb American. Yep! I'm always too afraid of saying something wrong, so I whimper through it, questioning each word until the German gets too frustrated and talks to me in English. Maybe we'd be braver if we told people we're Candian instead, lol ;-)

  2. Ooops. Of course that was supposed to be "Canadian". ~sigh~

  3. I am an ex-pat the other way round - I grew up in Austria and I am living in the US now. I love reading your blog with your German experiences, about things which are normal to me but most times not obvious since growing up like that everything is "normal".

    I think most Germans are happy if they see someone making the attempt to learn their language. Nothing is worse than ignorant people not even trying. My advice to you: just try speaking the language. Yes, it will be frustrating at times, but with practice you will feel more comfortable. Yes, there will always be people who will make you feel dumb - just ignore those.
    Yes, it's true: it's really easy to fall back into English. I am also guilty not teaching my husband enough German to have a conversation...

  4. I think that the fear of looking stupid is not innately American, it may be a perfectionist problem. I had the same problem when I first moved to Germany many moons ago. I found it much easier to talk after a few beers! Perhaps you should try that (not being drunk all . the time, but at least using the lack of inhibitions that a few drinks brings to practice your German on real Germans!) I swear my German improved immensely after a year of hanging around in pubs when I was a student. And Americans CAN learn foreign languages - and speak them properly. The problem with those here in Heidelberg is that there are too many other Americans and military bases, etc. There is no incentive!
    There, my long-winded opinion.

  5. And now you know why I still tell everyone that I don't speak Spanish. If they know I can speak it, they're going to want me to do so, and then I would have to speak to a real Spanish-speaking person, and I am going to use the wrong word or mess up the grammar, and look like a complete idiot...

    Oddly enough, I am much happier using my few remaining words of German or Russian than I am the language that I actually know. Have no clue why this is. (Things to ponder the next time I am in a hugely boring meeting.)

  6. Debbie: You're right - there could be an element of "If I say it wrong, I just affirm to the world that Americans are dumb" that I might not have if I were British, for instance!

    Barbara: Where is your blog? :) I would love to read the other side of the story!

    Sarah: Oh no, more excuses to go drinking! :) hehe...

    Dru: I think Spanish would be so much worse...the Spaniards would be less forgiving than the Germans, plus the structure and sounds of it are so different from English, and German is thankfully not quite so different!

  7. I wanted to let you know that you are not alone! I went through Hamburg thinking of all the correct sentences to say, and when the moment came for me to replicate the sentence, my mind went blank. No words would come out other than English.

    Many times, I paced in front of a dry-cleaners or a bookstore, while thinking of the exact sentence to say, which never helped. Eventually, it will come to mind, I keep saying...

    I even got yelled at when I gave the wrong change to the checkout lady at Aldi. Instead of giving her acht und dreizig, I gave her 83 cents. "WAS MACHST DU DENN? SPINNST DU?" are the only words I understand as a fumbled to correct my mistake.

    You have to love Germans' sense of perfection :)

  8. The blog I keep is very personal and therefore private only. I hope you don't mind.

  9. Hi
    I definately agree the comment that the ability to learning languages has nothing to do with being American per se. I do believe though that it relates to education; many countries teach foreign languages to children at much earlier ages. In addition learning a language is easier for individuals if they have studied another language (other than their mother tounge). I speak German; I know my grammar is lacking, but according to other Germans I have a very good accent.

  10. Barbara: No problem! :)

    Anonym: If the problem is education, and the American public school system isn't teaching languages early enough, then it does have something to do with being American, no? ;)

  11. So I was sitting in a restaurant the other day and I said to the Partnerin, "Wow, first time in years I haven't heard anyone speaking german or spanish." So the annoyed couple next to us switched to spanish, and the partnerin switched to german. Funny how quickly I have "forgotten" both.

  12. You comments that you would be interested hearing from the other side, made me start another, more public blog about cultural differences. You can find it here:


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