Foreign Language, Foreign Country

As mentioned in a previous post, I recently traveled to a foreign country. In this case, Germany.As a stereotypical American, this was my first time outside the country (besides Canada) and therefore also my first time in a country where I wasn’t a native speaker of the language.

I studied German in school, and before I left I did some half-hearted studying, listening to some audiotapes for a refresher course. I would characterize my knowledge of the language as about 25% fluent – I can make myself understood, can read elementary/middle school level and can follow basic, slowly spoken German.

Learning a foreign language is a very common goal for many people. Here are 7 observations on speaking a foreign language in a foreign country:

  1. The embarrassment is mostly mental I went in optimistic that I could communicate. But I was also terrified of saying anything. My mindset was “I want to be mistaken for a local,” but if I so much as opened my mouth I knew I would make grammatical mistakes. So, I mostly nodded and didn’t say much more than “Yes, please” or “No, thank you.” But you just have to accept – people will know you’re not a local. And they won’t care – they’ll speak the language to you. In many European countries, if worst comes to worst, they probably speak at least basic English.

    The alternative, by the way, is much worse. I observed a dinner table with two older couples (about 55), one German and one a German man and American woman. The American woman was the thin, dignified, greying hair type. And she didn’t speak German. It was just brutal watching her wearing this polite frozen grin as she waited for each comment to be translated for her by her husband. Meanwhile, the rest of the table would sit there until she was caught up.

  2. Bring a dictionary Does bringing an English/foreign dictionary with you sound like an admission of your failure to learn the local language to ? It isn’t. There are a lot of cases where it’s useful. Perhaps you’ve heard some word a lot in other conversations and want to know what it means. Or perhaps you saw a word, understood it, and then forgot it – nothing’s worse than having it on the tip of your tongue. And the dictionary can help reassure you that you really were using the right word, or if you had to lapse into English, it can prevent that from recurring. If you know you’ll be using some word, you can prepare in advance.
  3. Know common interactions cold If you don’t want to lapse into English, you’ll really need to know common phrases completely. You should know each phrase and any basic variations, and should be used to hearing it spoken. Many courses will not prepare you for this. Instead, their conversations will focus on “Hi, my name is…” or “Have you met my friend …? She plays tennis” or “I will be driving to England tomorrow”. Here are some common phrases that you might not have thought of:
    • “After you” (Usually making the motion to ‘go ahead’ is enough, but sometimes other people will also be polite and then you get into an awkward staring contest)
    • “How much are tickets?”
    • “Here is my reservation.”
    • “Should I seat myself?”

    You get the picture. Basically, you ought to visualize all the things you’ll want to do in this foreign country, and what you’d say to people in order to do them, and how they’d respond.

  4. In practice, speaking is informal When learning a language, you usually learn full sentences, and for good reason. But in everyday conversation, you speak in fragments. For instance, when asked “Where do you want to go?” you’d be more likely to respond “The museum” than “I would like to go to the museum.” In English, it’s common to trail off at the end of a sentence: “I was thinking maybe we could go …”

    Take a look at transcripts of conversations, or record a conversation and transcribe it yourself. It’s not at all the same as the conversation in a novel.

  5. There are lots of shortcuts There are a lot of ways you can compensate limited vocabulary or lack of grammatical knowledge. One is through hand motions. For instance, whenever I said “Das ist doch Wahnsinn” (That is crazy), I would make the spinning-ear lunacy signal in case my pronunciation was off or I misremembered something. Just check beforehand to make sure you know the offensive gestures where you’re going.

    You can cut your sentences off and speak in fragments, if grammar eludes you. You can be more expressive by modifying words you know. For instance, if you forgot the word “bad” you could say “not good.” Does it mean the same thing? Not exactly, but people will understand. You can try to ask more questions instead of speaking yourself (this is a good conversation tip in general).

  6. Some phrases are very useful Some phrases can be used in a lot of contexts during the course of a conversation. Examples of these might be:
    • “Sounds good”
    • “Let’s go!”
    • “Of course”
    • “I understand”

    These might not be common phrases, in the sense that a native speaker wouldn’t use them repeatedly. But they can be used a lot if someone is seeking a response and you don’t know grammatically how to reply in a full sentence.

  7. Many interactions are universal When a waitress stops by to ask if you’d like to order, or if you’re enjoying the meal, it’s usually pretty clear what she’s asking. You’ll probably get by with “yes” or “it’s good” even if you don’t understand the question.

    While standing in the S-Bahn in Berlin, an older gentleman was standing next to me, and he first said “Your shoelace mumble mumble mumble” (pointing to my shoe). I said thanks, and that I knew. Evidently taking me for a German, he asked “Do you know mumble mumble mumble mumble Hertha mumble mumble?” It took me a second, but I knew that Hertha was a German soccer (football) team, and that they had just played a game, so I was able to respond “zero – zero,” to which he said “Es ist besser als gar nichts,” literally “It is better than nothing at all,” same as you would say in English.

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