Monday, July 15, 2013

Language Files

There were a few things I had wanted to say about the experience of speaking/not speaking the language here, so I decided to just condense them all into one post while I had it in mind.

I'm going to relate to you an incident that is by no means isolated, but just a rather egregious example of something that happens to us more commonly than you'd think.

(You walk into a pharmacy to get some Tylenol. You have to ask the pharmacist for it, because THAT makes sense.)

YOU: I would like some Tylenal, please.

PHARMACIST: I'm sorry, Tyle-what?

YOU: Tylenel?


YOU (pointing to head): For the head.


This actually happened to us, except in German. What makes it even more ridiculous is that in Germany, Tylenol is called Paracetamol. So yes, we had four syllables he could understand but apparently there are SO MANY products in there that start with Paraceta- that he had no way of possibly knowing what we could be talking about.

Basically if you get like one sound wrong in a word, they have no idea what you're saying. If that were true in the US, I wouldn't even be able to understand half the people I know in Alabama.

2. It Takes Two

I often say that together, Hunter and I make one normal person. I don't mean that in some kind of cutesy-romantic "you complete me" kind of way. I just literally mean that in many ways our weaknesses are such that it takes both of us to do what one normal person could do. I've noticed this with speaking German recently.

Hunter knows a lot more German than I do. He took 3 semesters of it in college and can understand and read it pretty well. He knows more of the prepositions and grammar than I do. However, when it comes time to speak it, he wants to compose a sentence in his head that makes sense and is grammatically correct and that can cause some freeze-up. I, on the other hand, know very little German. I can make some basic present-tense sentences and go to the grocery store, and that is about it. However, if I'm in a situation where I need to convey something, I'll just say what I know how to say without worrying too much about if it's correct or not, figuring the general meaning will come across, which it usually does (eventually). Today I went in to buy a washer and the salesman seemed to speak basically no English. If Hunter had heard what I said to the guy, I'm sure there would be numerous corrections. I mean some of the things I said weren't even sentences, just words. I couldn't actually even spell my name in German. But I'm pretty sure I managed to buy a washer (we'll find out Wednesday when it's supposed to be delivered).

Maybe in the future, I should have Hunter write down what I need to say and then I can be the one to say it.

3. Both Sides Now

I'm guessing if you're a person I know who is reading this blog, this one isn't going to be revolutionary to you, but I feel like it bears saying anyway. I grew up in white, middle class America and I LOVE talking. Communication was never a problem for me, and on the rare times I couldn't make someone understand me (on a semantic rather than linguistic level) I got really frustrated. Now, I'm in a situation where I encounter people on a daily basis who have no idea what I'm saying, or if they do, might think it's "cute" or "quirky," which is something I sometimes thought about ESL friends when they made mistakes that were understandable but still kinda funny.

Now that I've experienced both sides of this, it gives me so much compassion for people who come to America and don't speak English well, if at all. I think about the way I feel when I'm trying to come up with some word that can at least get across something close to what I want to say, or when someone just speaks to me in really fast German and then when I don't understand repeats himself at the exact same speed (NB--It's a stereotype of an ignorant/insensitive person but talking louder and slower would actually be REALLY helpful as long as the person you're talking to knows a few words). Just doing simple things like going to church, doing laundry, making sure we are legal to be here--this all is much harder when this barrier is in the way. So I have a lot of respect for people who come to America without speaking the language because it is such a difficult thing and many Americans are not very tolerant of it. Add to that the fact that many of these people don't have the same advantages I have had and I can't even imagine what that would be like. So I guess you could say this has been a sanctifying process in some ways.


  1. My dad has some really great stories about his first 6 months in America. His English classes in Italy sound a lot like my French classes. I can order food and travel like nobody's business, but when it came to actually DOING something or speaking in complete sentences, I'm SOL.

  2. I understand, Scarlett! and it sounds like it has really been a lesson in compassion and empathy - those are great experiences!