As many people know, when learning a language, you shouldn’t let pride get in the way, otherwise you’ll never learn.
Sehr viele Sprachfehler
When I was on my own in those early days, the mistakes I made while I was learning remain hilarious memories. Like the one time I couldn’t read the signs at the coffee shop and didn’t realize I grabbed a ‘schmutziger Löffel’ instead of a ‘sauberer Löffel’. The best part, I put the spoon in my coffee and my mouth.
There was also another time a friend asked me to pick up a pack of cigarettes for him, Gauloise “G6”. This is a real French brand of cigarettes and this label does exist. I told him it shouldn’t be a problem because this is basic, introductory German: letters, numbers and basic requests. I was ready for the task.
I showed up at the tobacconist and said as best I could: “Entschuldigung Sie bitte. Ich hatte gern ein Gauloise G6, Zwanzig Stuck, bitte.“
Seems easy enough. I said it repeatedly in my head as I did and still do with new words or phrases. I could do this. I did it!
Of course, my problem was, and still remains that I sound like a horribly nasally American when I attempt to speak any language. If you’ve ever attempted to pronounce anything French to a French person, they are ruthlessly unforgiving. Similarly, in even semi-provincial locations in Germany, or dealing with individuals who have limited experience or exposure to non-native German speakers, you are going to be misunderstood.
In the moment I didn’t understand this. And the fact that this was not as simple as a transaction as I had thought it to be was, at the time terrifying.
Later, my friend loved that I basically asked the man for ‘gay sex’ (the German pronunciation of ‘G’ is Gay and ‘6’ is ‘sex’, although it is written like sechs). That is pretty funny in retrospect.
Many years later, after my son was born I was at the local hospital recovering from the birth. I won’t get into the details of that experience, but I had to ask the orderly/nurse/assistant for paracetamol, also known as acetaminophen or Tylenol. I had asked about four times for this and they just kept responding with “Huh?!” Each time I attempted to say the word a little differently: “Entschuldigung Sie, Kann ich ein Par-a-set-a-mol haben bitte? Ich habe schmerz.”, then “Par-E-set-a-mol”, then “Par-e-set-A-mol”, and finally “Par-a-set-E-mol”. Each time becoming increasingly more frustrated.
Finally, the person I was attempting to speak to grabbed an English speaking colleague.
“What do you need?” They asked me. “Paracetamol, please. I am incredibly uncomfortable and in pain right now.”
The English speaking colleague simply turned to the person I was originally speaking to and said “Para-set-a-mOl“.
One more attempt and I would have come to that pronunciation.
Plus, as far as that word goes, is it really that difficult to imagine what I was attempting to say, given the context (hospital, just had a baby, had complications after the birth which lead to pain, which naturally leads to requiring pain relief)?!
I was so furious, I am sure I turned red. However, I didn’t say anything, except for ‘Dankeschon‘. Once the point was made and I had what I needed.
Exposure to the various ways people speak a language (ie; imperfectly, especially non-natives) is incredibly important. I think this is especially true in the fields of public safety, health care, and education, although all sectors of society benefit from this knowledge and exposure.
I keep this and similar experiences in mind when I teach English, I think this helps me to be an even better English language teacher.
Having these experiences and teaching the varied English courses that I do has helped me to retain my ability to speak and teach English at an advanced level without the traditional gaps in knowledge that come with additional language acquisition and high level use.
All of my friends who have learned German and use it regularly forget English words or phrases quite often, choosing instead to replace the forgotten English with the German word or phrase. This is my saving grace from a business or professional perspective, if ever there was one to have: this has not yet happened to me.
What does happen to me is that I will spend days and weeks and months learning and practicing German, and I improve greatly. I also will forget whole words or phrases when required to use them in a real-world context while my husband, who rarely studies or speaks German either, will pull the word right out of somewhere because he learned it in his German class nine years ago.