Walking slowly, I look about me. People are bustling here and there, going about their busy lives. If I listen closely I can hear tidbits of conversation coming from every direction but I can’t understand a word of it — it all is foreign to me. With one last look around, I open the door to the coffee shop and approach the counter where I am immediately greeted by a spiel of German words, to which I reply:
- “Ich spreche nicht Deutsch.”
- “Sprechen sie Englisch?”
Living in Germany, I have become very familiar with these two phrases. Most Germans speak at least a little English and are willing to speak with the little English they know. Even so, I am glad I’m taking German classes to help me learn the language.
There are several things I realize have helped me become more familiar with the German language:
1. Taking time to read signs and advertisements.
Daily, I take the public transport to get around Berlin. There are signs and advertisements in German on the trains, in the stations — everywhere. It has helped me occupy time as I travel from one location to the next. I can practice reading and pronouncing German by attempting to read the signs. And boy do I feel accomplished when I come across a couple words I can actually understand.
2. Speaking the German I know confidently.
This is one I still need to work on. Often when I want to say something using my limited German, I will rehearse it in my mind, knowing exactly what I want to say. Then, when I actually go to say it, my tongue ties up for fear I will say it wrong and I stand there dumbly.
I shouldn’t be so afraid to speak though. I have found that once I do get the words out (and they were able to hear me – for sometimes my lack of confidence leads me to mumble) they are patient with me and willing to work with me, or they switch to English so it’s easier all around. Germans can often understand what you are saying even if you don’t get it completely right, so speak confidently.
3. Speaking the language often.
Find some people you can practice your German on. Whether it is your host family, if you’re staying with one like I am, or a German friend you make, practice the language with them. Most evenings during dinner, I will tell my host mom about what I learn in German class and she gladly lets me practice some phrases on her, helping me with my pronunciation and teaching me some new words, too.
4. Give the locals grace.
The other day I went into a shop to buy a SIM card for my phone. They guy at the counter started speaking to me in German, so I gave my usual reply: “Ich spreche nicht Deutsch.”
“You don’t speak Deutsch? What is your problem?” he asks in English.
Truly puzzled, I simply reply, “I speak English.”
“What is your problem?” he asks again.
“I’m sorry?” I said.
“What is your problem?”
Finally, it clicked: he wasn’t asking why I don’t speak German! All he wanted to know was what I needed help with (i.e. my problem).
Give grace to Germans when they speak to you in English, it’s not their first language. Just like your German may not be the greatest, their English may not be that great either. Just roll with it and be thankful for the English they know.
This post was contributed by Laura Gottfried, who is spending her spring semester studying abroad with AIFS in Berlin, Germany.