Lost for words

Flat Natalie and I stand at the border of the "American Sector" in Berlin, Germany, but English is spoken throughout the city.
Flat Natalie and I stand at the border of the “American Sector” in Berlin, Germany, but English is spoken throughout the city.

In Bangkok, I learned how to say numbers, greetings, “Thank you,” “Yes/No,” “No meat,” “How much?” and the names of my favorite dishes in Thai (although if you asked me  to say them now, all you would get is a puzzled stare).

In Buenos Aires, my Spanish improved to the point where I could have very basic conversations with people (it especially helped if those people were under the age of 10).

In Berlin,  my German vocabulary has topped out at “How are you?” “Good-bye,” “Excuse me,” “Yes/No” and “Breakfast” (yes, I wake up too late most days to technically have this meal, but I just like saying “frustuck” (frouh-stook)).

While I firmly believe it is important to respect the language and customs of your host country, my desire to become a polyglot is still stuck at desire rather than actual polyglot-ness (maybe because I use words like polyglot-ness). Besides, I have heard that learning German is not the easiest of tasks. When I ask people who are actually enrolled in German classes what it’s like to learn the language, the answers have ranged from “hard” to “very hard” to “I want to die.”

Before this trip, I had hoped that simply being around a language would make it more familiar to me or easier to pick up. But I have discovered I am no sponge to foreign phrases or strange syllables. My language acquisition device only kicks in when necessary.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it turns out she’s also got a part-time job as the coat-check girl of language learning. By that I mean she’ll check in a few words at a time at an outrageous cost. She’ll begrudgingly hang them up in the closet of my mind, but doesn’t seem to notice or care when they fall to floor and become dusty and rumpled.  When I try to retrieve them, she makes me wait a long time and there’s no telling what may be missing  when she hands them over.

I feel kinda bad that I haven’t learned more German, but I’m impressed that I haven’t had to. I’d say it’s almost a guarantee that anyone under the age of 35 in Berlin will speak English fairly fluently, and most everyone else will have an inkling of what you’re saying.

In fact, I have found that in Berlin the most reliable indicator of English proficiency is someone saying, “My English is not good.” These words tend to preface intense, deep conversations on topics from  psychology to politics; they crop up again when the speaker is trying to remember words like “oscillate” or “synergistic.”

Plus, sometimes you don’t need words at all to communicate.

Late one night, I stepped into a kebab place for a doner (meat shaved from a vertical spit and served on flatbread). I wanted to know what type of meat was being used, but the man facing me across the counter was an older gentleman who didn’t speak English. No one was around to help translate. After I said, “Hallo,” I was at a loss for words.

I frowned.

He frowned.

Stepping closer to the counter, I pointed at the rotating meat and said loudly, “Mooooo or bawk-bawk-bawk?” (Complete with arm-flapping movements, I might add.)

He tucked his hands into his armpits and literally bent over laughing. He straightened up, shook his head and said, still laughing a little,  “Moooo.”

He then proceeded to shave one of the largest piles of meat I have ever seen onto my flatbread.

And it was, as they say around here, sehr gut.







8 thoughts on “Lost for words”

  1. hahahaah wow, you’re adding animal-speak to your language capabilities as well Jammie! Impressive. It’s almost kind of like charades which I assume how sometimes we have to communicate when we don’t know a language. We can act it out, dance it out, sing it out or make animal noises!

    I’ve heard German is a hard language to learn and unlike Spanish, I don’t think we can simply add an ‘a’ or ‘o’ to the end of the word and pretend its that word. Spanish is so much easier! My most development in Spanish came when I went to some countries where no one spoke English and took the speak or sink approach! It worked but a year later, I’ve forgotten most of it. lol Well, it’s a little rusty but good enough to get by in the US.
    Vishnu recently posted…Controlling Manipulative Relationships: The End of An EraMy Profile

    1. Hi Vishnu,
      Body language is powerful stuff indeed. :) That comment about adding an “a” or “o” to the end of words reminds me of the time that Bjorn and I went to a movie theater in Buenos Aires. I stepped confidently to the counter and was thisclose to saying “Dos ticketos” when I realized that might not be the right word. :D

      And I bet that if you found yourself in a Spanish-speaking country, you’d pick it right up again! Bjorn was the same way when we first arrived in Argentina but by the time we left, people kept saying he spoke like a native. :)

  2. Haha awesome story Jammie.

    When you know English, you can get by in most countries. A lot of kids in countries like Germany and Sweden are being taught English from a very early age and become super proficient.

    If language learning is something you’re fascinated with, you could always take some private lessons and then speak as much of the language as possible. But if you can get by, then there’s no huge need for it.
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    1. Hi Kevin,
      Yeah, I am super impressed by how fluently people speak English in Berlin. If I’m ever stuck, I step confidently to a 20- or 30-something and ask if they speak English. So far, 100 percent of the people I’ve asked have spoken it. :) Berlin is definitely one of my favorite cities so far.

  3. Ha! I did the exact same thing once during my days waitressing in a casino restaurant. We would get lots of Asians who did not speak English and they would typically just point to the chow mein on the menu. But I had to ask if they wanted chicken or beef. One day, in complete exasperation after no tactics worked, I did the same thing – Moo and then make arm-flapping movements! And it worked :) My customers also started laughing while pointing excitedly to my chicken dance. Great story Jammie.

    1. Thanks Ashley! I’m just glad I’ve never had to ask if anything was elephant or camel meat in a foreign language. I shudder to think of the sounds and movements I would have to make then. :D

  4. I don’t know what possessed you to start flapping you arms and making animal noises but that is brilliant. I don’t think that would have ever crossed my mind and I would have left frustrated and hungry. I only wish someone had taken a picture.
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    1. Hi Jenn!
      It was probably because no one was around that I felt free to flap. :) If too many people had been there, I probably would have mutely pointed at something and prayed that it was something that I could eat. :D

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