On Not Speaking the Language

Unexpected consequences of not knowing German whilst living in Germany:

1) You miss jokes. Or to understand the joke takes so much effort on your behalf that it ceases to be funny. Or you understand the meaning so broadly and with so little nuance that it just seems like someone is stating the obvious, rather than saying something witty (‘have you ever noticed that men are men and women are women?’ HA OMG LOL) Or it takes you so much time to understand the joke that everyone’s moved on by the time you’re ready to laugh. If you happen to get the joke, with the right amount of impact, at the right speed, you inevitably laugh too loudly and too hard and too desperately just to make sure everyone realises you got the joke.

2) If you happen to manage to make a joke in German everyone laughs really deliberately and encouragingly, like you’re 6 years old and you’ve just managed to tell the one about the chicken crossing the road without screwing up or peeing your pants.

3) In fact, you spend a lot of time feeling like a child, because:
a) children are generally the only people you can properly understand (and the really young ones especially. Like, the ones that talk one word at a time and most of those words are ‘dog’ or ‘mama)
b) adults talking to children are generally the only adults you can understand
c) people don’t talk to you anymore, they talk around you and about you and make decisions on your welfare and happiness without your input
d) you have to take people with you to the scary official places to talk to them on your behalf
e) things are usually confusing
f) you feel completely helpless, unable to fix or influence the world around you, because of your inability to explain yourself, your opinions, desires and beliefs with other people
g) waiters and shopkeepers and other people who want to ask you questions are terrifying (was anyone else terrified of telling the waiter what they wanted to eat when they were a child? No? Just me?)

4) Every day chores like grocery shopping or buying a post stamp become complex and intimidating, something that you can procrastinate for days over, just because you’re worried they might ask you, ‘Do you have a loyalty card?’ In a different way to what you’re used to and how on earth would you respond then? Probably by flapping your arms like a circus seal and crying, probably that’s how.

5) You find yourself rehearsing conversations with people before attempting them, repeating phrases over and over again in your head so that you don’t trip over your words or hesitate or use the wrong gender for a noun (seriously, what gender is Nutella?) or the wrong conjugation or the wrong word order when you get into the real conversation. Getting asked an unexpected question is both distressingly confusing and heart-breakingly disappointing because you’re pretence of competence and fluency has been destroyed.

6) Paranoia levels increase ten-fold. Hundred-fold. Everyone is talking about you at all time forever and all they are ever saying is bad things, because they could talk about you if they wanted, they could say all the bad things about you and you wouldn’t understand it one little bit and that’s probably what they’re also saying after they’ve said the bad things, is they’re probably saying, ha ha ha, she can’t even understand the bad things we’re saying about her, ha ha.

7) You find your own English becoming stilted and weirdly accented through a combination of hearing other people speak a differently modulated and rhythmed language all day, and from hearing them speak your own language with their accents when they speak to you.

8) You spend most of your time around people feeling guilty and apologetic for not speaking their language. When I’m not rehearsing potential German conversations in my head, I’m just saying sorry. All the time, forever.

9) When someone speaks to you socially in English, you get so ridiculously excited that you are basically this puppy:
And so you tell them all the English thoughts you’ve been having since the last time a person asked you an English question, at full speed and in a weird, high-pitched, desperate voice, thereby ensuring that nobody ever speaks to you in English ever again.

10) When people do speak to you in English it’s hard-work and awkward for them, so they look uncomfortable, or unhappy, or scared, or anxious, and then you think, ‘oh god! What have I done to make them look so uncomfortable/unhappy/scared/anxious? I bet they don’t even WANT to talk to me! I bet they don’t even LIKE me! I bet they think I’m really strange because I’m doing the weird, high-pitched fast nonsensical English talking again!’

11) You read out-loud any sign you can understand because you’re so proud you understood it. You read out-loud signs that you almost understand, hoping that by saying them out loud their meaning might become clearer. You read out-loud signs that look funny and have stupid long words, which let’s face it, is a lot of German. You spend a lot of time on public transport reading advertisements to yourself under your breath and looking like a crazy person.

12) Your brain somehow manages to alter all German conversations into German words that you already know, either ignoring words that do not make sense or making them sound like words that you do know, which only becomes awkward when you have to respond to something that someone has said and instead of helping them to go down the slide, you offer them a lollipop.

13) You realise that a lot (most) of the German you understand is only understandable through the added assistance of context, body language and facial expressions and then you feel sad.

Language learning is going swell you guys!

An acctual photo of me studying German

An acctual photo of me studying German


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