really, europe?: a rant.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


CIMG4487^^ photo from st. sebastian, when i just wanted to go to bed, but caroline was scaling the side of vending machine...^^

as mentioned here, i really appreciate it when germans let me speak german.  this is because i think one of the most impolite things you can do is cut someone off in the middle of a conversation and switch to a different language.  why is that offensive to me?  well, i’m glad you asked.
***
1. i have a friend who lives in spain. she is eastern european but she's dating a spanish boy and she speaks, like, 5 langauges - spanish being one of them. while ordering in a restaurant a few months ago, the waiter cut her off mid-sentence and began speaking english with her (previously, she had been ordering in spanish). mortified, she assumed her spanish wasn't good enough (even though it’s so good) and that it was inconveniencing the waiter to stoop to her level of communication, so she proceeded in english (keep in mind english is not her native language, nor is it the waiter's). halfway through the conversation, she realized that the waiter's english was so bad, he was misunderstanding half of what she said. he realized this too and his face reddened. she asked him, ''so will you let me speak to you in spanish now?''. embarrassed, he agreed.  

2. story #1 reminds me of a time erica and i were on the u-bahn in vienna. now, i speak german but erica speaks german. her accent might sound american but she is never at a loss for words like i so often am. we asked an austrian girl standing next to us for the number of the ÖBB (austrian rail system). we asked her in perfect german (i mean, asking that question requies, like, level 1 german) and she replied in broken english, ''okay, you, um, you must, um, take the 1, 4, and 5 and then the, um....how do i say it in english...um, um....''. alright, maybe she was just excited to practice her english with someone but this interaction took way longer than it should have. had she told us in german, we would have understood perfectly and the conversation would have lasted 10 seconds as opposed to 2  minutes (we were in a huge rush). also, ''take'' in her mind apparently means ''dial'' or ''press'', which confused us and delayed the whole process even longer. 

3.  speaking of erica, we were on a train in austria later that same summer, when the food cart rolled by.  she asked the man who was pushing the cart (again, in perfect german) what kind of sandwiches he had that day (again, level 1, basic german).  when he began speaking in english, we exchanged a glance of “is this really happening again?” and as he was describing the menu to us in english, erica sighed, shook her head and told him never mind.  he rolled the cart away and she looked at me with tears in her eyes.  i mean, this man (totally unintentionally) made her cry!  she said to me, “i just don’t know how my german’s going to get any better if no one will let me speak it”. 

4.  i know a different friend who studied french for years and then moved to paris for awhile.  her french was good when she moved but after a few months it was awesome.  she was trying on clothes in an h&m dressing room when she asked an employee for a different size.  he interrupted her, laughed and asked in english, “are you trying to speak french?”.

5.  the most recent of these stories happened shortly after i picked caroline up from the airport.  i wanted to get a bagel from the munich train station and when i ordered it in german, the girl responded to me in english.  feeling discouraged, annoyed and frustrated, i switched to english and told her the bagel i wanted… to go.  moments later, she handed me my bagel on a plate with a fork and knife.  i stood for a moment, contemplating how i was going to carry this on the train with me and wondering, so the plate and silverware are free?  then i asked her in english since that was the game she wanted to play, if i could have a bag, which led to a pointless conversation that took much longer than necessary as her english wasn’t that good.  my german isn’t perfect but if my german is better than your english, can we please  just speak german?  we’re in germany, for crying out loud.  if you want to practice your english, either ask me if we can switch to english (i’ve had people do that before and when i know they just want to pratice, i’m happy to oblige!) or get a tandem partner.  but i didn’t move over here to practice my english.  sorry.  please stop treating me like an idiot.
***
basically, i just wonder -- how are we supposed to practice these languages and counter the stereotype that ''americans can't speak any language other than 'amurcan' '' when we aren't allowed to try? so, my plea to you, dear europeans (not all of you, but many of you!):  please think twice before switching to english and consider the possibility that doing so might be crushing someone’s self-esteem.  these 5 little stories are just 5 little stories but i could write a novel of my friends’ and my experiences with this.  sometimes, you might mistake us for dumb tourists, carrying around pocket language books and trying to pronounce, “where is the bathroom?” and for that reason, you switch to english, thinking you are making your lives easier. i'll offer up the benefit of the doubt; sometimes, yes, sometimes you are just trying to be helpful. but often times you’re not being helpful, you’re just being plain rude. when you roll your eyes at me and switch to english as though you can’t believe i’m hurting your ears with my non-native speaker’s accent, you’re being condescending and arrogant. i can think of more adjectives if you want.  it doesn’t make me feel more comfortable or “at home” to be speaking english.  it makes me feel defeated and stupid for thinking i could ever speak anything but english, so why even try?  why did i go to school for 4 years to get a degree in spanish?  and another degree in german?  these are the questions i ask myself when i can’t order a bagel without being patronized.

normally, i’m all about austria but this is one reason i love germany and one huge difference i notice between the two countries.  this is one reason why i love the germans i work with. they speak german to me.  every day.  even the colleagues of mine who are english teachers will wait it out if i struggle over a word and correct me when i make a mistake (i LOVE this… it’s super humbling and i learn so much this way…). 

so, my plea to you, dear germans (minus the bagel girl):  just keep doing what you’re doing and i’ll keep loving you for it.

33 comments:

Eva @ Four Leaf Clover said...

I'm sorry!! It's people like me.. my fault! I don't know a smidgen of German (except for a few words/phrases I've memorized from my dictionary) and ask people if they speak English before I begin to speak with them. I actually like it when people come up to me and start speaking in English. If that happened in Poland (which it never has), I'd probably be pissed, though.

I thought this was only in France, so it was really interesting reading this. When I went to Paris with a friend of mine who'd been studying French, her mom's a French teacher, she's visited many times and at the time lived in the country.. her French was great! Every single place we went to, people would either be rude to her or switch to English. That's why when I say I love Paris and people tell me I should go study there... nuh uh! In Italy, however, people were super nice and spoke to her in Italian (her French was practically fluent and her Italian at a beginners stage when we went on this trip) which was helpful to me as well with my five years of Spanish.

I'm really sorry you've had so many bad experiences and I'll definitely keep this in mind next time I'm happy someone approaches me, speaking in English, in a non-English-speaking country.

Jenni Austria Germany said...

Noooo, not your fault at all! Don't say that. That was not the point of this post!

I've actually heard that from American friends who have studied/lived in Italy; that the Italians don't even mess with English. I like that about them!

FeeMail said...

Dann kommentiere ich hier einfach auch mal auf Deutsch :)!

Wie wäre es, wenn du deinen Blog in Englisch und Deutsch schreibst?! Einfach zur Übung... Ich schreibe meinen auch zweisprachig und auch wenn ich sicher häufig Fehler mache, habe ich mein Englisch dadurch bestimmt verbessert. Und du würdest vielleicht auch mehr deutsche Leser ansprechen, die sich dann das was du oben schreibst auch zu Herzen nehmen :)!

Eva @ Four Leaf Clover said...

I know, I know. Not knowing the language in a country where you're visiting/living really sucks. One day I really hope to be one of those people (like your friend) who know 5+ languages. 2.5ish down! But still.. your post gives me yet another push to start learning this language better!

Xela Purple said...

I've been living in Austria for 13 years this month, and I'm not going to lie I've still got my funny accent but people dont give me a chance, even in University they insist on talking to me in English... I've convinced myself its cause everyone is super excited to get to use all the English they learnt at school, which I think is the case most times. But its uber frustrating! :)

TexaGermaNadian said...

agreed agreed agreed a million times over! I hate it too. I speak pretty good German. I mean, you can tell I am not German, but hello, after three years here, I obviously get by just fine. I have even asked a question in 'perfect' German, and the guy replied "I don't speak English" Ummm, thanks, that was NOT the question, but whatever. Annoying!

Dani said...

:) I can definitely relate. The other night in a bar (Ok, it was an American style sports bar, but still) I was the only one who actually looked obviously American, even though 3 of us were. And so despite the fact that we were all speaking in Spanish, and despite the fact that I spoke to her in Spanish, the waitress kept insisting on speaking to me in English. My friend kept saying "Who the hell does she think she is?"

Jenni Austria Germany said...

oh goodness....so good to read these. makes me feel better. i was afraid i'd get a million comments from other americans abroad saying, "umm...no idea what you're talking about, i have no problem with this". ahhh, validation.

artichoke said...

I really enjoyed reading this post. I haven't encountered any of these problems, as I'm not living abroad buuut I find it interesting all the same. I'm actually taking a class called Intercultural Communications and I'm surprised we haven't covered this topic yet. Unless they really do want to practice their English, than chances are it has to do with ethnocentrism (which is the tendency to believe that one's ethnic or cultural group is centrally important). So maybe they don't feel like you have the right to speak their native language or something along those lines. Either way, I hope you encounter these types of situation less frequent! :)

Erin said...

I can see how that would be so frustrating! When I've been in French speaking areas before, I'll try to piece together random words... but my French is really rough. I've always thought it is good to at least try to speak it, to show I'm not some cocky American who just expects everyone to speak my language. That being said, I'm always relieved when they switch to English!

You have every right to be frustrated! But keep pushing... maybe when someone switches to English, either keep trying to switch back to German, or even ask them if they mind speaking German, because you're working on your fluency. Some people will be jerks either way, no matter where you are or what you're doing :( Stay tough!

Anonymous said...

Amen sista! I am half German/ half American (dual citizen), have been speaking German MY WHOLE LIFE (though I grew up in the US and English is my first language), studied at the Uni. Munich direct enroll, and then lived in Vienna for 4 years. Point being, though I sometimes have a vague 'English-speaking' accent, speaking German is not really a problem for me. Nevertheless, in Vienna people would often switch to English without asking so that they could practice their English. Shameless! I would always make a pretend-joking comment in German that I charge for conversation lessons, starting at 20 Euro per hour, and continue speaking German. You should try that next time! This story is just to show you that people are trying to get free practice, rather than offend you. Stick up for your right to speak German in a German-speaking country : )!
I totally agree with you that this is an Austrian tendency, rather than German.

Lisa Z.

Eeny said...

Ich habe lange nachgedacht, ob ich diesen "Comment" auf Deutsch oder auf Englisch schreiben soll und habe mich jetzt für Deutsch entschieden. Es fühlt sich zwar etwas komisch an, auf einen Englischen Blogbeitrag auf Deutsch zu antworten aber ich denke es ist in diesem Fall ok =)

Ich muss ganz ehrlich sagen, dass ich es noch nie aus dieser Sicht betrachtet habe, dass es unhöflich sein könnte auf Englisch zu antworten, wenn man zum Beispiel von einem Amerikaner angesprochen wird. Aber ich denke du hast Recht. Wie soll man eine fremde Sprache richtig lernen, wenn keiner mit einem diese Sprache spricht. Ich hätte in der Zeit in der ich in den USA gelebt habe auch nicht gewollt, dass alle versuchen Deutsch mit mir zu reden. Ich wollte ja mein English auch verbessern.

Normalerweise antworte ich in der Sprache, in der ich angesprochen werde (vorausgesetzt ich spreche sie). Wenn ich aber merke, dass mein Gegenüber Probleme hat mich zu verstehen, dann frage ich höflich nach, ob es für ihn/sie leichter wäre dieses Gespräch in Englisch fortzusetzen.

Ich bin aber auch der Meinung, dass viele vielleicht einfach nur helfen wollen. Sie denken es ist einfacher für einen "Fremden", wenn sie mit ihm seine Sprache sprechen und sie wollen ihm dass Gefühl geben willkommen zu sein. Ich weiß es nicht. Oder sie freuen sich, ihr Schulenglisch endlich mal anwenden zu können. Wofür haben sie es schließlich Jahre lang in der Schule gelernt?

Ich freue mich manchmal auch, wenn ich jemanden Englisch sprechen höre, weil es mich einfach immer an meine Zeit in den USA erinnert. Da würde ich mich dann gerne mit demjenigen auf Englisch unterhalten einfach um mal wieder Englisch zu sprechen. Aber wie schon gesagt, wenn mich jemand auf Deutsch anspricht, dann antworte ich auch auf Deutsch.

Ich habe aber auch schon Amerikaner getroffen, die es anders sehen. Einer hat auch mal zu mir gesagt: "Why learn another language if the whole world learns English?" ... Guess that's the other side of the picture, right?

Candice said...

gosh that would be annoying! Unfortunately , I didn't speak the language at all when I was in Norway, although everyone assumed that I did, and would begin conversations in Norwegian..but if I'd at least tried to attempt to speak the language, I would definitely appreciate if they'd give me the chance to converse a little!

Brittany said...

Haha Im sorry thats so frustrating!!

Katherina said...

Shit, I had written a long comment and it disappeared! Now I'm just going to sum up what I had written: I've been in both situations - I've switched to english and people have switched to english when I asked was talking in german or french (for french, I understand, but seriously? german? I have no accent at all). And to be frank... I don't mind, cause I know their intention is harmless - they don't want to annoy you, but make things easier and help you. If you don't want to switch to english (which is perfectly fine), then kindly let them know on the first sign. I've told people in shops a million times that I'm trying to speak french and I want to practice. And so, there I am *trying* to explain what I want, when there's a missing word in my vocabulary.
Just don't take it wrong... chill ! :)

Anonymous said...

i love the comments in german!!! really cool.

totally justified in thinking it's rude. it is. sometimes, they wanna be nice....sometimes they're being condescending. it's easy to spot the difference. i'm living in europe and it happens to me all the time so...i can say that ;)

Jan said...

You go girl!!! I guess tourists like us would love it if they switched to English!! But I totally admire you for your determination!!!

mj { a r c h i ♥s m a r y - j a n e } said...

Ugh! Story number one is killer. That kind of stuff always happens to people who look different than they speak. (my husband the tall blonde who speaks perfect Italian) Why?

Ahn said...

guh...i 100% agree with this post. when i lived in france (and mind you, most college students live in france to LEARN french) this same kind of thing happened to me CONSTANTLY. thank god i lived with a woman who spoke no english and took all my courses in french...or i would have learned nothing.

Zoe said...

YES!! That is all I have to say. You said it ALL. Glad I'm not the only one, but come ON people! We're trying so hard for YOU, give us a chance pleeease :) xo

magdalena viktoria said...

Yeah, I totally get you.

Kathrine said...

You are absolutely right. My husband doesn't speak German, well he doing this intensive course right now. But, every-time he tries to speak, Germans reply in German, and correct him...his German has improved so much! I can feel you.

bbrooks said...

i fully understand why they switch to english. for them, it's far more important to learn english than for you to practice german. english is the commercial language for now. the next struggle will be their learning chinese. now that will be tough.

Barbara said...

The first time I was in Poland I was so scared to speak Polish (to someone not in my family) that I just spoke English (which made me feel like such a dud, given I'm fluent in the language!). The second time, I just went for it and loved the satisfaction that I could communicate and people understood me!
Agree with you about the Austrian tendencies, though their dialect is different to German so maybe it's not YOUR accent per se, rather they hear you as speaking 'German' German as opposed to 'Austrian' German (if that makes sense??). x

Catita said...

I loved this! I live in the Netherlands and althought my dutch is basic, everytime I put a little effort to communicate in Dutch everyone replies in English! I don't mind speaking English but then don't expect foreigners to learn your language!!! EUROPEANS HEIN!!!! I love your face! ANd I could go on and on over stories like this, same happens to me in France and I am from Montreal where we speak french only with a different accent and in Paris half of the time they switch to English but the funny thing is when they visit Montreal, all of a sudden all these Frenchies understand our accent! Brilliant no!?
xoxo
Catita

ashley @ chasing heartbeats said...

I SO relate to this! Although I must admit one good thing about living in a smaller city is not everyone speaks english. Strangers never speak english to me, the problem is always friends and family of my boyfriend. It is so defeating to be speaking German to someone who replies in english, and also I find it rude. I lived in Paris for a year and my french hardly improved because virtually everyone would reply in english to my accented french.
Maybe we can send a memo across europe?

Krystal said...

It's definitely definitely frustrating as it happens to me a lot - except for yesterday! yesterday the waitress said something in english THEN SWITCHED TO GERMAN! i've never had that happen before, haha!

but yah, it's frustrating - i'm not sure i'd say it was rude though - i think they are just trying to be helpful. I know when i interacted with spanish speaking people in the US - I would try to speak to them in Spanish to make them feel more comfortable. Plus, when they are waiting on you, they pry just want you to get your stuff and leave - they don't want to spend time waiting for you to practice your german! My german speaking friends are really good about talking to me in german though and almost insist on it - i like it!

Krystal said...

Oh, I had another thought - I think that they might not be used to americans genuinely trying to understand their language so they assume we want them to speak english. that has to be a big part of it - i mean, how often have i asked them in the beginning stages to speak english -and then now i'm mad that they do it? ha!

Anonymous said...

i already commented on here earlier but i just can't stop coming back to this post. i want to print this out hang it around europe. i just agree with everything 100%! totally!

Nuha said...

I have soooo many incidents with this happening to me. I think it's more based on the other party trying to be "cool" and speak english versus me speaking Arabic. It gets really frustrating because like you said, I want to learn the language too!

:)

Mighty Burns said...

lol i love your disclaimer lol. I also love your stories, however this one made me very sad. One: i am soooo an american who doesnt know another language but not becuase I think everyone should know english for MY comfort. ick no. If all I knew how to say was "where is the bathroom" in whatever country I am in, then you bet your boots each time I needed to go, i wouldnt ask it in english. I agree... hey man help a sista out and if it seems like we are in too deep then yeah let us know your ok with switching to english. But otherwise I dont really understand these people?

Hannah said...

Sooo true. I was born in Switzerland but am British and no matter how long i've lived here for (10+ years), or the fact I spent my primary years in a Swiss School, I still have that slight accent -> staying true to my roots. I completely 'get' where you're coming from and found this post hilarious.

I am now a jenni-austria-germany follower

p.s your blog reminds me of when I was on exchange in Munich and on work placement in Stuttgart :-)

Emily, Ruby Slipper Journeys said...

Ah, just found this post and love it! This happens to me all the time (I live in Barcelona). It used to make me feel crushed and depressed, and sometimes still makes me cry, like your friend. But mostly now it makes me mad, and I will happily chew whoever's ear off with the "don't patronize me/I'm not a tourist/why don't you move to England if you want to speak English" rant.

Perhaps I should have this post made into a t-shirt and wear it around. Except I'm pretty sure that most of the people who speak English to me wouldn't understand it. ; )