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As you can see from my profile picture at the bottom of this post, I’m relatively Germanic-looking: blonde hair, blue eyes, pasty white skin. This means I often get confused for an actual German person, usually by Germans. They’ll approach me on the street selling this or that or asking directions, beginning with a veritable flood of German slang and casual idioms – if I’m unlucky enough, it’ll be in the near-incomprehensible Berliner dialect.
Now, I quite enjoy being mistaken for a local. Though I’m an expat, I like to think that I’m integrating well into German society, and I like to think that my German is so good that even a local can’t tell the difference. This may be very, very far from the truth, but I like to think it.
So when Germans think I’m German, I don’t like to disappoint them, because it tickles me that they think I’m one of them. I’m just now getting to the point where my accent doesn’t immediately betray me, but at the time of writing the above strip, if I opened my mouth, the jig was up. As soon as they discovered I wasn’t German, they’d switch to English, and Germans are frustratingly good at English. Then things get complicated – oh, you’re not German? But your father is German? But you don’t speak German? But you’re learning German? Don’t ask for my life story, just sell me your product, make me feel German, and we’ll both be happy!
My wife is Italian. She rarely has this problem, in Germany anyway. Rather, she gets confused for a Turk, mostly by other Turks. She’s considering learning enough Turkish to say “sorry, I don’t speak Turkish, I’m Italian! Let’s speak in German!” (Maybe a Turkish speaker here can help her out?)
Still, there have been many times I’ve wished I looked more like a local, particularly traveling through countries where pasty blonde folk aren’t the norm – they’re the most interesting thing to happen that day. I remember coming back to Berlin after a month in the Congo and just being so happy that nobody paid me the slightest attention. I could blend in and be forgotten, for once!
As a language learner, however, there’s a certain benefit to looking foreign. Even better if you don’t look American – though Turks mistake her for being Turkish, Germans rarely speak English with my wife, even after they learn she’s not German. They can’t assume she speaks English, so they simply slow down and speak German more clearly. If there’s no other language to fall back on, the locals enter into to a conversation with you knowing that you’re learning their language, and treat you accordingly. It’s like having a shirt on that says “Be kind, I’m learning your language!”
But things are different everywhere for everyone. Trying to learn Arabic in Morocco as a white person might be difficult since Moroccans will almost always default to French (which is much easier to learn passably – you might even end up learning that first!). And of course we haven’t touched on the myriad racial prejudices out there – I’m sure non-whites have an infuriatingly difficult time in countries like Switzerland, where no matter how good your Swiss German might be, you will always be an outsider. The same is true for whites in China or Japan, I’ve heard.
That said, speaking new languages can often transcend the visual barrier. In many countries, like Italy, the locals will be delighted that you can speak even a little Italian. The more obscure or lesser-known the language, the fewer words you have to learn before you’re being invited over for dinner. And there’s nothing better than meeting someone in a foreign country where neither of you speak the other’s native tongue, so you meet halfway in a language you’re both learning. Then the struggle is mutual!
How you look and how you’re perceived has a big impact on language learning. What role has it played for you?