Learning a new language is always a difficult task, one of the most impressive things about Germany is that most people I encounter seem to have a fairly competent grasp of English. This is great for the casual visitor, but it can really make practising my German a little complicated. Most of the time I find myself in the odd situation of speaking German while everyone else is talking to me in English. If I go to buy a pack of cigarettes or a sandwich I order in German and am met with a ‘is that everything?’ or ‘that will be six euro, please’. Of course my English accent gives me away, as does my general inability to pronounce ü or ä in any sentence.
Another problem comes from my brain generally thinking in English for the majority of the day. When confronted with a German question my brain slows to a snail pace as I try to decipher what I’m being asked. This was certainly the case when my girlfriend sent me off to Nürnberg on my own, which is always a good test to see how far your language is progressing. Having got through most of the major tests such as asking for directions or getting information from the tourist office I was feeling fairly confident. As I walked through the Hauptbahnhof while waiting for the train I was suddenly stopped by a wall of a man, towering over me. He asked me something in German, but my mind wasn’t entirely focused on what he was saying but on the fact that he was almost a foot taller than me. As I attempted to process what he had said two equally large men appeared behind me. ‘Well’ I thought ‘you’ve had a good run, but I looks like these three men are going to spend the next few hours using your head for football practice’. The first man asked again, in a slightly more aggressive fashion. ‘erm…Ich bin… English’ I spluttered, ‘mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut’. The First man looked at me for what felt like hours and then in pitch perfect English said, “police, do you have your passport’.
Even when after taking intensive German classes, I don’t always know the right thing to say. After one such class, four hours of learning the names of fruit and vegetables and how to order them, I was waiting for my train. As it pulled into the station, I noticed an old women waiting for the train as well. Being fairly gentlemanly, I was about to say ‘after you’ but I couldn’t remember what to say. All I could think of was the various names for different items in a shop. I was fairly sure that shouting ‘onions, onions’ while pointing at the door wouldn’t have the right effect. Instead I opted to gesture to the door like some freelance butler, and hope she might understand. Thankfully she got the hint and as she got on the train she turned to me and said ‘thanks very much’. Since that encounter I’ve been looking for that tattoo on my forehead that says ‘English’…I still can’t find it.