Monday, June 24, 2013

Some Things I Learned From a Long Trip - Language

Greetings from Nova Scotia!  I've been trying to write this post for days but life in Hamilton got in the way (which will be one of the final "Some Things I Learned..." post).

Now onto language and what one might learn while on a long trip to a country with a different primary language. But first a small bit of background to help you understand where I'm coming from.  Firstly, German is technically my first language.  Secondly, I was bullied as a small child when I was learning English.   I have, for years, beat myself up over the fact that I do not speak German fluently; it was only after realizing the second point that I understood (part of the reason) why as well as why I have a hard time speaking any language if I can't do it perfectly (as if!).  This, of course, underscored our trip to Berlin.

Whenever anyone says to you, "Oh, you don't need to speak German/French/Italian/Insert Another Language Here in X, everyone speaks English," be a little suspect.  Many friends who'd been to Berlin recently sang the same song, and even people we met who have lived in Berlin for many years asserted the same thing.  I think it might hold true if you either a) stuck to the more tourist/shopping areas, b) lived in a neighborhood like Kreuzberg (lots of expats and hipsters), and/or c) you weren't overly concerned with being understood or understanding.  A third point I should've added to the paragraph above is that being understood is VERY important to me - whether it's literally or emotionally or psychologically.

While one could navigate without speaking much German (I taught the ladyfriend two important (for her) phrases: Ich kann kein Deutsch - I don't speak German, and Entschuldigung - Excuse me), I think it's rude not to make an effort to speak some.  I even tried to speak a little French when in Paris as well as Morocco, and I only took one year in high school.  Yet I met people who had lived, yes lived, in Berlin for years (yes, years) who spoke basically no German.  WTF?  I think that's lazy and rude.

I spoke enough German to get things done and then some (ask the ladyfriend about the long conversation I had with our cab driver to the airport when we were leaving - all in German).  One may be able to navigate getting a drink, taking a cab, buying a hoody in English, but one isn't really communicating.  Even if someone responds in English, which many people did in both Germany and France, they generally appreciate the effort. 

So my basic advice is - learn a few phrases.  You don't have to be fluent, but you shouldn't just assume the arrogant posture of the English-speaker.  As for us, the ladyfriend and I are now committed to learning French.

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