Germany Absurdity: No One Speaks English


German Absurdity: No One Speaks English

Do not roll your eyes. I know where we are. But...

Why do people lie and say Germans speak English?

They say it with the confidence of a Spanish speaking Floridian assuring people that everyone in Florida speaks Spanish because they assume everyone in Florida does. They exude that confidence because MOST people in Florida DO speak some Spanish keyword SOME. However, no one and I am mean no one in Germany speaks fluent English. And that is fine. It is perfectly acceptable to say this is Deutschland and we speak Deutsch here. I have zero issues with that. My issue is the constant unsolicited advice, misleading websites and bumbling professionals (teachers, doctors, lawyers) claiming English can and will be spoken. It simply isn't true. And everyone knows it including those saying it. 

First of all, knowing a language from pop culture and movies doesn't make you fluent or even conversational. It allows you to open the gateway to conversation with others which leads you to a proper or better language to communicate in. 

Salutations, greetings, niceties in a country where small talk is frowned upon is utterly pointless. I am certain most English speakers know what Guten Tag means or implies but they cannot get past that with a native speaking German or visit Germany hoping to get by on that alone. Trust me I am thankful to hear whatever in English especially from a server or a receptionist. It makes me feel welcome, warm and fuzzy inside. But when I praise them for that, I expect to hear a disclaimer immediately after. If you speak English, you will continue without that warning and we can move on. I don't mind getting some unwanted, paltry explanation about how English wasn't taught to you in school. What I don't want is a sarcastic reception usually based on how I look and then an abrupt denial of the entire English language. I apologize for my Denglish and shitty Deutsch all the time. But I seldom tell someone I do not speak Deutsch and then flatly refuse to communicate because I didn't have a class in grade school. I cannot for the life of me understand how the above is allowed and accepted in positions of hospitality or authority. How is it possible you cannot communicate with me in ANY language while doing your job?

I thought English was universal?

Isn't it supposed to be the lingua franca? The top tier choice in education and business. The language on every sign in every countries airport. Well, Germany stands by this and then quickly reverts to the single minded Texan approach that when here you speak what we speak. They demand it. You can be having an innocent chat on your phone in a public space here and have someone randomly approach you and ask that you speak German. This is troubling in more ways than one because I thought Germany was also a free country. But aren't I just as entitled to use my mother tongue as anyone else in this free country? Aren't I allowed my freedom of speech, demonstration and opinion too? And if I have jumped through the rings of fire called integrating here can I at least call my fucking friend in California in peace. It takes a lot for us to connect being that we are on opposite sides of the Earth and he doesn't speak German so can I live? Apparently, allegedly not because "Wir Sind in Deutschland!" the land of someone earning theirs and me taking it away by being on my phone. 

I operate with fear now.

My stomach had been in knots for weeks knowing I had an important appointment. I struggled with the notion of having to explain myself in my now fourth learned language  (elementary understanding in all of them). I was also contemplating waiting all this time to ultimately forfeit the opportunity from lack of understanding. I tried everything to prevent this from happening. Bartering. Begging. Showing up unannounced asking what could be done in advance. I was always met with disdain. Then about 48 hours prior we noticed their had been a change to their website. They had new colleagues that announced they spoke multiple languages. I was elated. However, I forgot that in order to get to one of those people I would have to get through a front desk with the same xenophobic c*nts I had interfaced with weeks prior. I practiced a formal speech of asking for a colleague that spoke English to be met with one of the longest pauses and loudest sighs I had ever experienced in my life. Then "Nein" was literally blown in my face like a trumpet mixed with the smell of cigarettes and energy of 1000 parading, drunk jecks. I had forgotten my sunscreen ritual so I actually turned around and went home. After applying my lotion I figured the waiting room was full anyways so I would just return in thirty minutes and act as if I was waiting in the hallway the entire time. My name was called over an hour later (Wilkommen in Deutschland) and thankfully the lady I was paired with did speak fluent English. She was able to pick up quips, puns and idioms so I didn't have to talk like Siri to her. FYI - she wasn't German so don't. She told me how a lot of places I had been before just "bullshitted" me. I thought I had died and gone to Heaven. I didn't have the heart to tell her that the dragon pit up front almost kept me from seeing her. But she did volunteer to walk a note up there on how to proceed with me for my next appointment. Perhaps she could sense my anxiety on having to face those bitches again. Of course they completely ignored her instructions because for some reason everyone here loves pushing their employers buttons. I had to repeat myself and raise my voice multiple decibels three full times before my needs were met. Had I not sat through years of German language courses I wouldn't have been able to do that. But why should I have to leave such a refreshing interaction where I was fully understood to yell at people in their language who are paid to help me regardless of what language I speak? It was really dehumanizing to me and of course everyone there now thinks I am crazy. Because obviously those people do not treat anyone German or look as if they speak Deutsch like that. Therefore furthering the fear, stereotypes and border control Germans already love to bitch about. I do not wake up trying to be obtuse with people but the lack of empathy and patience constantly exhibited here pushes me to that. 

Like why even bother saying that your firm, business or club accepts English as a form of communication? If you don't, you don't and I can prepare for that. But I don't prepare most of the time because I am assured and mislead that doctors speak English, retail employees speak English and that the guy at the ticket booth at the Haupbahnhof speaks English. No, they do not. They muddle through the English language. They use Google translate. They bullshit. And dare I try any of that as a resource. I am always left wondering why I wasted the energy in preparation or anxiety. I do not need English to survive here but sometimes I need it to get my foot in a door. Sometimes I need it to clarify myself. Sometimes I need it to fully understand. Typically, there is someone that has basic knowledge that can help me. All you have to say is I don't but my wife does, my friend does, let me ask in the waiting room or please hold while I get someone who can. I do not need them the entire appointment or interaction but maybe at the beginning or just to hand over or possibly to confirm what I have heard. I have had the wrong tooth get drilled on because of a language barrier. I have shown up in the morning when my appointment was at night. I have come to class on a holiday. I have bought kilos of roast beef when I wanted grams. I have been short changed. I have waited for a hour and no food came. These experiences are never ending and throughly disappointing. And I can try for the remainder of my life to grasp this language but when I am hungry, in pain, upset or passionate my mother tongue is all I resort to. It is simply too hard for my brain to disconnect from it. I am patient with menus. I can read through something a few times until my mind translates it for me. But what I cannot do is read lips, repeat a long statement or pretend like so many people do here. I require subtitles or footnotes. I need you to slow down. And if I manage to ask if you can get someone who does speak English for me in your language and do so patiently, graciously and politely can you not just do what I am asking? Can you not empathize? Is there no #2 to press? Can you not take your fucking time? 

Anywhere but Here

Trust me, the Netherlands and France are not the most wonderful places on Earth but coming from Germany they are night and day. I have never encountered anyone in these places that says flat out no to me. Or that doesn't at least try. To be honest, I have fucked up plenty of Dutch and French in multiple environments and no one has laughed at me, denied me anything or walked off in the way a German would. I have always had people find someone on the street or on a train to at least try to help me. What is super mind boggling is the amount of compassion that is held for people who have clearly had the opportunity to pick up Deutsch but chose not to. When I go to my local Ausländerbehörde there are signs in Turkish. Do you know how many Turkish people are born in Germany? There are generations of Turkish people who are fully invested in the German way of life, the school system and contribute to society with zero obligation to fully commit to the language. Yet they are allowed a pass. If I dare speak English in any German amt which I have done and learned early on not to, I am punished for it. But someone who is literally raised with the language in school and at work doesn't have to try? And no one holds them accountable for not learning the language. And not because they are born here or contributors but because Germans and their beaucracy somehow think that obligation is more legitimate. However, if you come to the United States we will offer you a translator in your language at every aspect of immigrating. Hell we will give you whatever language you require in banking, government, retail, Disney ... just ask and we shall provide! Don't even ask - just struggle and we will provide whatever it is you need in your language. This is the norm in most countries. But not here. Why is that? Because Germany! That is the only explanation I have ever gotten. There is simply no excuse or policy in place that says it is acceptable for one to struggle to have their needs met. I can count on one hand the amount of times someone has generously spoken to me without me having to struggle. I have been here five years! Surely, my language skills have improved but I am not capable of speaking Deutsch to the level of a native German. If you are visibly under thirty and claim to not know any words in English I am skeptical. You know how to read a Subway menu? You know how to get American style nail designs? You know the difference between pounds and kilos at fucking McFit? Egal!

Zero Expectations, No Disappointment

I never want to deter people from coming to Germany. I really don't. If you want to be here, please by all means come. However, if you ask my advice around language skills here I would advise that you 1. Learn the basics of Deutsch before stepping foot in this country. 2. Prepare yourself for endless forced obligation to learn the language to a certain level and 3. Never expect for anyone, anywhere to speak English. This way you have something to start your integration with, an honest portrayal of the immigration process in terms of knowing the language and zero expectations for support for or in the English language. Sadly, even an immigrant from a non-English speaking country may default to English when in company with other immigrants. A lot of Africans speak an insane amount of languages and dialects and it is far easier to speak English than i.e. z.B. French or Swahili or Twi. Surely, some Europeans know French but not everyone does but MOST people in the diaspora have some understanding of English words, terms and expressions. Sadly, using English in the wrong environment can pose so much difficulty for ones experience in immigrating, you can't use it with just anyone. You have to seek permission. You have to be aware of your surroundings. You have to be concerned about the consequences. Using English in my Deutschkurs even during a pause caused a problem. Defaulting to English while pursuing my residency forced me into more Deutsch classes. Asking doctors and professionals to speak English with me has caused translation issues for my husband, my medical records etc. Had I known in advance this would be so difficult I would have learned ahead of time. But in my circumstance I only had months to prepare for moving to Germany. I am speaking to and about those who are six months, a year or a 5 year plan out from coming here. I won't say that you can master the language in whatever time but you can get yourself to a level to avoid disappointment. Trust me, the language learning part is harder than the stares, the culture shock and the paperwork - I assure you of this.

It Is Ass Backwards to Know it All 

I am fortunate to have a German spouse. Although he gets tired and sometimes mean about being my personal translator. So I understand the blessing it is to not be alone but the curse it is on my German speaking companion be it my husband, my in laws or a perfect stranger. I feel for the au pairs, students and 30 somethings who are trying to navigate Germany without a foundation and no one to assist them. Not knowing the language and finding that English is hated is like being deaf, dumb and blind. It is nice and an advantage to vent to someone who understands what it is like to learn another language or to have them for situations that are beyond scope. I couldn't imagine not having him to map things for me, or assist me in filling out forms or to prepare me for situations I am unfamiliar with. He is the one who knows the right amount of knocks on Frau Immigrations door. He is the one that says wear closed toe shoes around a CDU'er. He is the one who listens to me bitch and moan about trying to get the simplest task done. He is also there to push me to go ask at the butcher for what I want or call for an appointment or to watch "Tatort" without subtitles. He is also the maddening voice in my head when I feel like the language is impossible. He sat in English classes. He knows what B1 level is. He says "a parking lot" for a parking space. As much as our experiences are similar, I wish it would occur to him how utterly insane it is to have to know a language when just arriving somewhere. To have created and paid for all these documents in preparation and have someone demand they be translated. To haggle with delivery people who refuse to give you what is yours because you cannot communicate that. Sometimes it is humiliating because you expect people to meet you halfway and they outright refuse even in the most logically, understandable situations like registering your address or getting cash back at checkout. This is most disappointing factor for me, it is realizing everyone expects you to know it all but they themselves do not have to - even in places of power, even with formal education and despite all the odds against you (odds they know about and sometimes share equal footing in - see here). 

Alles Ist ... Okay

I could go on and on because I have been traumatized and I heal by purging it here. That lack of compassion really irritates me down to the bone and it has been so disheartening. I have been here almost five years and I still cannot get past that initial feeling of nobody cares and everyone expects a lot. It is heavy because it starts with language and lands everywhere else too. You will need someone on your side or in your corner when this is happening. No matter how earnest you are to fit in and get acclimated, this realization will knock you down. My biggest piece is advice, is to continue to get back up! Do what you can but do not grind yourself until your spirit is affected. Everyone cannot know everything unless you want to be a polyglot. And who really wants that? I would prefer x-ray vision! So keep your expectations low. Understand that Deutsch isn't a romantic language so watching telenovelas isn't going to make you conversational. If you are advised to learn and speak Deutsch, just try but always know that your effort to learn isn't going to be shared or matched by natives in regards to English or any other language for that matter. Soon you'll be barking "Wir Sind in Deutschland" like the people who said it to you ... but with sarcasm and a smile. 

Get up! Los Gehts!