My Bad! Language Barrier

For those who don’t know, I’m an American living in Germany; an expat who still hasn’t mastered the language…or in my case, still is juggling the articles, das, der, and die. Since living here, I’ve had a bad habit of saying, Ja (Yes) to everything people say. Occasionally I’ll let them know my German isn’t the best, but for the most part, Ja happens to be my natural response.

It has been an adventure living in Germany. Besides becoming familiar with the culture, I’m getting to know the people. German behavior is different in different regions. Sometimes, it’s easy to generalize a group of people without having the knowledge of travel. Like Americans, Germans are guilty of generalization. I always love the questions that start out with, “Why do Americans…” as if I know why ALL Americans like, think, or do a specific thing.  

Now I’m trying to grasp the language with not much success. There have been a few situations where I presumed something different or there was a different outcome due to the language barrier.

Case # One

As I stated earlier, I’m in the habit of saying Ja to many of the conversations I find myself in while walking Shakespeare. Several years back when we were living in another flat, I came across a situation where I should have said Nein (No) instead of Yes.

Martin was at work and I happened to be having a conversation on the phone with someone from the states (can’t remember who). The doorbell rang, so I just buzzed whomever in, poked my head out, and then went back inside. I assumed it was a neighbor, who forgot their key, or a friend of a neighbor. Then someone knocked on my door. I opened it partway, grabbed hold of Shakespeare with my phone resting on my ear. It was an older woman in her 60s or 70s. This was at a time where I REALLY didn’t know German. The woman began talking. I juggled holding the phone and Shakespeare until she finished, and that’s when I said, “Entschuldigung! Wie bitte? Mein Deutsch ist nicht das Beste.” (Excuse me, come again. My German is not the best). She continued again, as fast and garbled as before, so the only thing I caught was blumen (flowers). I knew I’d never understand her, and my arm and shoulder were tired from holding Shakespeare and the phone, I nodded my head and said Ja. She perked up and repeated, “Ja?” And I repeated it.

When Martin came home, I explained to him about the woman and our conversation. I told him I only understood blumen and that was it. He shrugged and we had our lunch. Later that afternoon, we went to take Shakespeare for a walk, and when we stepped outside our main door of the building, I asked, “Where’s the Hydrangea bush that was here?” Martin was like, “Oh yeah, there was a bush there.” Then it dawned on him, and he asked, “Didn’t you say the woman said blumen?” and I agreed. Martin said she must have been asking permission if she could have the Hydrangea bush. My eyes grew and my jaw dropped. I told him she knew I didn’t speak German. Of course, I had to talk loud so he can hear me through his laughter. I then said who asks a tenant of a building if they can take a bush. Finally, after the shock wore off, I joined in the laughter. While we took our walk, Martin said that will teach me for saying Ja to everyone.

Case # Two

The first year living here, Martin, his brother, and I drove to Zoutelande, a seacoast town in the Netherlands. I sat in the back with Shakespeare while the two of them chattered on in German about many things including a Frikandel. Both of them were so excited about getting one. They kept mentioning it while we walked to the beach. They talked about it as we packed up our things. It was driving me crazy. I kept thinking, how weird that they were so excited about it.

We walked to a boardwalk area where there were stores and food places. They sat me down, went into a place and each one came out with fast food. We ate a selection of mysterious deep fried Dutch fast food.

On our way to the car, I asked them if they were still planning on getting their ‘free candles’. Martin looked at me and said we already got a Frikandel. That’s what we were eating. I said, “Oh, that’s a Frikandel. I thought you guys couldn’t wait to get a “free candle”. I kept thinking you were both crazy. Like what guy would be excited about getting a free candle.” He started laughing so hard and translated what I said to his brother who joined in. They were both crying from laughter. After a few glasses of water to hydrate myself, I was able to find the humor in it.

Language and Humor,
Denise

8 thoughts on “My Bad! Language Barrier

  1. As you well know Denise I have been an ex-pat in France for many years, and have used the whole business of ‘lost in translation’ comedy in my novels. Apart from my own linguistic gaffes with vocab and grammar (which, as you say, native speakers find absolutely hilarious) the thing that gets me most is when I answer simply ‘Allo?’ on the phone or intercom to flat, and the response I get from strangers is …pause…’Ah! vous êtes anglaise?’ (Oh, are you English?) One word, 2 syllables!!!! Is my accent THAT bad??? 😉

    1. Laurette, Yes, I do know you’re an ex-pat in France, and kudos to you in learning the language. You had a few of those lost in translations whether it be language or action in your last novel. It’s still an every day struggle for me in Germany. I don’t blame native speakers from scratching their heads and then laughing into tears. As for “All?”, not that is so funny that those simple letters cause pause.

Comments are closed.