I still use my deer-in-the-headlights face any time someone speaks a sentence longer than four short words to me. And I’ve really had to work for that level of proficiency. When I go to restaurants, I always try to order in German, but I have to practice my order under my breath a few times before the server comes back. Even then, sometimes I say things like “Ein Schoko-schokolade bitte…” when that’s not what I meant at all. Then the server winces and writes down the thing that I meant to say.
So, it is with all respect for second language learners that I go forward with what I have to tell you.
When people say, “Oh don’t worry about not knowing another language proficiently. EVERYONE in Europe speaks English,” they are misleading you. Like you wanted to go to a fancy hotel, but they’re taking you camping.
When people told me that before I left, I felt comforted. I was thrilled that I could use my favorite language, the etymological love of my life, while I am abroad. I pictured people understanding me the first time I spoke and responding with their beautiful Austrian accents, perhaps using some words incorrectly but still communicating what they meant. I pictured at least some people using English on the streets or in their everyday conversations just because they love it so much, too.
Yeah, not so much.
People here like German. And people in Germany like German. And people in France like French. They use it whenever they can. It’s about a 50/50 ratio of people who get annoyed that I don’t speak German to people who are accommodating with their level of English. Usually people underestimate how good they are and tell you they only know a little bit, when they actually know how to tell you what every pastry in the display case is made of (always helpful information).
So there are lots of helpful people who will use their English to help you, but my accent (accent??? since when do I have an accent?) sometimes throws them off. Or my vocabulary. Or slang. And typically, you have to say things a few times with pointing and hand gestures, attempting to meet them in the middle with your meager German. (unless you’re actually proficient in German)
All that to say that communicating is much harder than I thought it would be.
My German knowledge is like a partial skeleton, no muscle or tissue or ligaments or skin. Heck, not even all the bones are present. There’s no life or breath or soul in it. And often times, I meet English skeletons, too. Usually they have at least the musculature but not always the circulatory system or the lungs. Somehow, between the two of us, we usually* find a way to communicate, no matter how confusing it is initially.
*usually as in there are some times when you just give up
I’m learning how to negotiate meaning. And I’m also looking forward to being back in the land of English. Until then, I’ll take any excuse I can to use my hand vigorously when I talk.