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I’ve already written about the ubiquity of English around the world and what you, if you’re a native English speaker, can do about it, but I feel there’s more to say about Germany.
Germany is a special case. Much like Holland, Finland, and the Scandinavian countries, Germans seem to inhale English like they do beer and potatoes. They just “get” English in a way that many other countries struggle to. Maybe it’s the similarity to their own language (“House” = Haus, “Music” = Musik, “to find” = finden; watch out for false friends, though, like das Gift, which means “poison”), or maybe it’s a more recent affinity for Hollywood TV shows and music, but Germans pick it up quickly. They get more than just the grammar and words, too. They manage figures of speech, colloquialisms, and slang, often without making it sound forced. I’ve exchanged several emails with Germans before realizing they weren’t native English speakers.
That said, the above cartoon is definitely an exaggeration. Go to a farmhouse in Bayern (southeastern Germany) and they’re not likely to speak much English. It’s more of an exaggeration, an allegory for the way I feel living here in Berlin. Especially among the younger generation, finding a Berliner who doesn’t speak nearly perfect English would be a difficult task indeed. I recently had dinner with several German friends and had to keep repeating “auf Deutsch!” (“in German!”) every few minutes because they kept habitually switching back to English when speaking to me.
Fear not! There is a remedy for this language learner’s headache, however.
Late last year I met an Australian woman who spoke excellent (if heavily accented) German. Better yet, Germans spoke German to her! I asked her how she managed this incredible feat. “I don’t speak English to Germans,” she replied.
At first this sounded harsh. After all, Germans are just proud of their English, or want to improve it, and relish the opportunity to speak with a native. But I realized it was more about changing your own headspace than being rude or snippy. When we communicate, we naturally want to take the path of least resistance. We search for the language we have in common with the person we’re speaking to, and once found, it’s very hard to change it. That’s why you have to be bullheaded. You have to insist on it, despite the temptation to slip back into your comfortable, familiar mother language, which even the natives of this foreign land can manage so irritatingly well.
What about you? Have you lived in or traveled through Germany, Denmark, or Scandinavia, or with someone from those countries? How do you get them to practice their language with you?
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