What Language Should You Speak In Germany?

What Language To Speak In Germany

While in Berlin I found it incredibly difficult to know which language to speak. German is the obvious answer of course (the clue is in the title of the country) but since I don’t actually know any German my options were limited to either English or (questionable) Dutch.

Both of these languages have their own merits of course. Out of the two Dutch is the closest to German both linguistically and geographically which should make communication easier. On the other hand; English is the most widely understood language in the world (or at the very least the most widely shouted at people) which should increase the percentage chance of being understood.

Because of this conundrum I often found myself unintentionally switching between the two languages during our visit. Several of my conversations with locals started with a mumbled greeting in Dutch followed by the realization that I might have made the wrong choice, a collection of nods and nervous laughs in case I had, and finally a mumbled English goodbye just to be safe. It’s questionable which one of us walked away from the conversation more confused.

One evening I even had what I can only describe as a moment of panic when an Italian waiter suddenly greeted us in Italian. The addition of another language proved to be too much for my easily confused brain and I suddenly blurted out something that sounded distinctly French in reply (I don’t know any French).

After the French mix up I decided it was best to let my wife do all the talking. This seemed like a very good idea since she actually knows some German… In hindsight I probably should have actually told her this was my plan rather than simply assuming that she would now know that all foreign relations and communications were suddenly her responsibility. My ‘plan’ resulted in quite a few awkward silences because whenever someone tried to talk with me in German I would simply stare back blankly at them, thinking my wife would know she was supposed to heroically save me. Of course, since I had not filled her in on the details of the plan she probably wondered what the hell I was doing.

Either way it turns out there was an even bigger hole in my plan. After my wife had had what seemed like a very long and complex conversation with our hotel manager (with which I had been very impressed) my wife later confessed that she had not understood a word that he had said. In other words it turns out she knows German just as well as I know Dutch.

I should have realized something was up when she accidentally referred to Check Point Charlie as Check Point Charlie Chaplin.

Checkpoint Chaplin

12 responses to “What Language Should You Speak In Germany?”

  1. Alison says:

    I have my own little tower of Babel going on in my head. It seems to be like a slot machine and I never know which language is going to come out. Rarely the one I need! I’m glad you both survived the German visit. My German is limited to occasional Rammstein lyrics and “Achtung!”. At least the Achtung is vaguely useful. ;)

  2. Aledys Ver says:

    I know what you mean! I feel rather stupid in Germany every time I go, since I can’t speak the language at all (though one ends up picking up a bit through similarities with Dutch)… I am not used to not being able to communicate in the local language, it feels weird.
    While in Düsseldorf we once went to the Kö gallery and there in an Italian caffé the waiter greeted us in Italian too – to which I jumped relieved, answering and ordering in Italian, for this time yeeeeeeeeyy I actually could speak the language and didn’t feel stupid anymore! :D

  3. French Bean says:

    LOL! I probably wouldn’t have fared any better. When I leave France next month, I’m going to have a nice 11-hour stay in the Berlin Tegel airport while I wait for my connecting flight back to Miami. I just hope the airport workers have a fairly decent level of English, Spanish or French.

    Kinda reminds me of my trip to Italy last year where I either spoke Spanish or English with the natives. Italian, while being similar to Spanish and French, is certainly not in my list of spoken languages. However, using my Spanish-English, I did manage to explain to a shopkeeper in Venice that I was searching for a squirrel made out of Murano glass (“my little squirrel” was my ex’s nickname and I thought that it would have made a cute gift).

    I learned two things from this experience: 1) the Italian for “squirrel” is “scoiattolo” and 2) they are effin’ expensive and difficult to find made out of Murano glass. Had I known that I would break up with him, I wouldn’t have bought the damn thing in the first place. :-P

  4. linda@adventuresinexpatland.com says:

    Oh I am a charter member of the ‘confused in whatever language’ club. When I visited Spain, it took a day or two to stop using Dutch or English and remember and use the Spanish I knew. When we returned to the Netherlands, I was saying ‘gracias’,’de nada’ and other Spanish phrases for another two days. I want to get a necklace that says ‘I speak foreign languages so much better in my mind’!! Great post

  5. MissNeriss says:

    It sounds to me like you were spying on me when I went to Berlin earlier this year! You described my own experiences to a tee. Right down to the throwing in words in an extra language! When people would start talking to me I would give the husband the hairy eyeball so he would speak for me as he doesn’t get the subtle hint that my silence as meaning he should jump in. After four days I could manage Zwei bier bitte, which is obviously the most crucial bit of lingo in any country!

  6. dragonlady says:

    I can’t get a picture of Charlie Chaplin on duty at the check point when the wall was up. So much better than the soldiers.

  7. Dave2 says:

    Where is C3PO when you need him?

  8. I love these sort of linguistic problems and have experienced quite a few myself.

    One point about your cartoon though – I think that’s incorrect; Eddie Izzard explains it best here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GaDAjHKYC4

  9. Invader Stu says:

    Alison – A slot machine is the best way to describe it :D That’s how it feels to me sometime. And most of my German is limited to World War 2 movies but warning people about grenades is not that useful in modern Berlin.

    Aledys Ver – I wish we had you with us when I had my moment of panic with our Italian waiter.

    French Bean – While I was there I got the impression that locals understood English good enough but just would not speak it. They seemed to understand me when I spoke English but I didn’t understand them which added to my uncertainty about which language I should be speaking.

    Linda – I do the same but even in my own country. It takes me at least a day when I’m back visiting in London the stop talking to shop assistants in Dutch. It confuses the hell out of them.

    MissNeriss – I’m so glad I am not the only one.

    DragonLady – You gave me an idea so I added a new image at the end ;)

    Dave2 – I could not get him on lone from Jabba

    Unexpected Traveller – Oh but I am a dount :p (I was wondering if anyone would spot the joke)

    The Wife – I can tell by the fact that you are now watching him on YouTube as I answer these :p

  10. The Wife says:

    I loooooveeeeeeeeeeee Eddie Izzard in that sketch!

  11. Heather says:

    You are so spot on! When we were in Germany I kept switching between English and Dutch.

  12. Invader Stu says:

    I’m happy I’m not the only one :)

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