I Don’t Speak German…Really I Don’t

One of the challenges for me the past few months has been trying to get by in a new language, that I don’t speak. Though it is getting better.

I’ve been trying to learn German online the last couple of months, with mixed results. My vocabulary has improved, but I have no confidence when it comes to conversation. There was no German language class at my absolute beginner level being offered in the area when we first arrived, but one finally started yesterday. (More about that tomorrow.)

I do try to speak what little I know. In the grocery store a smile goes a long way. I can order buns from the bakery in German, but I can’t answer any questions if the clerk has them. People who tell you that everyone here speaks English really don’t know the area. I’ve gotten conversationally lost and broken into English a couple of times in the grocery store, but it didn’t help. Pointing works though.

A couple of weeks back I had a problem I hadn’t experienced before. I met someone who didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t speak German. What do you do when that happens?

We were at the church we have been attending in the town of Mullheim. One of the reasons for choosing it is that there is translation, or at least interpretation. I can listen on headphones and have a fair idea what is being said. (The volunteer translator sometimes has difficulty keeping up with the flow, but I still get the gist of what is being said and I am grateful for it).

It was a Wednesday evening when this happened, a special service as part of a week of prayer to start the new year. I knew there was no translation for whatever message was being given, but there would be singing, which I enjoy. The words to the songs are projected onto a screen in both German and English (many of them are originally English and have been translated). I figured I didn’t need to understand the prayers because they weren’t directed at me and I could pray silently in English while others prayed in German.

When the church service was the man sitting behind us introduced himself and said something which I didn’t understand. I responded with the only German sentence I feel confident with: “Ich spreche kein Deutsch.” In English that means: “I don’t speak German.”

His response was to speak more German. I hadn’t a clue what he was saying to me. But my wife, who does speak German, was there to translate.

Apparently, he didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t speak German. (I can only presume he thought I was trying to be funny.) He said he knew I spoke German because he had been sitting behind me for 90 minutes and had heard me sing. I was singing in German. After three months I guess I have learned enough that, when singing anyway, I’m not mangling the language. However, if it weren’t for the translations on the screen I wouldn’t have a clue what I was singing.

I expect that as I learn more of the language I’m going to find myself in many similar situations. There will be times when I will know just enough to start a conversation and will get hopelessly confused after a couple of sentences. I’ll have to try and explain in my limited German that I really don’t speak the language.

The good thing is, at those times I expect my linguistic deficiencies will have been evident from the beginning.

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