Short story

Surviving, languageless

Almost a month in Germany now, and the best that I can do with German is ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and of course smiling prettily or looking as apologetically as possible. Not even a ‘sorry’ or ‘excuse me’, this is due to the fact that the aforementioned phrases were too much of a burden on my pretty limited and cognitively challenged linguistic capacity.
Bielefeld, the beautiful city that I’m currently residing, is as further away from the typical touristic metropolitan as you can imagine. And as my fellow student at the university stated, the department is international, but the rest of the university is not. This means one can casually lurk around the department, strike a conversation with any one and expect beautiful English flowing from their lips. Lectures are provided in English too and most professors speak and teach, argue and criticise fluently in German, English and sometimes French. On rare sunny days, however, one might feel daring enough to emerge from the English isle of the department to stroll down tom, godforbid, the cafe downstairs so that one can perhaps sip on an espresso; one is, without doubt, expected to ask for a nice cup of coffee in German. I mean ‘kaffe, bitte’ right? How difficult can it be?
Oh, but that’s the German textbook and glossy German travelling pamphlet told you. Reality, of course, is full of wonderous variations.
Here are some of the rules involved in the coffee buying process that I found out after loud yelling with stress on every single word from the bartender and eye-widening blank-faced expression from my part.
  1. The coffee costs 3.60 if you drink inside, but 2 will be given back when you finish and return your cup.
  2. You can pay with your student card by tapping it on the card reader but beware of insufficient fund. In that case, you can pay with cash.
  3. When you’re given back 2 euros upon returning your cup, it can be put in your card or in coins.
So, here is the interesting question.
How the hell did I comprehend all that without knowing a single German word?
As I gradually learnt, after disappointing and annoying the hell out of various shop keepers, and the nice lady at the bank (‘Please learn German’, she begged me after an hour of intense attempt to communicate with me in her 20-years-ago English), one can understand a lot from the context, the body language, and the expressions. Here is a short and sweet example:
At the checkout counter
Nice checkout girl: (something something related with number- one can know this because the nice lady just finished scanning the last item and now speak German in a short and autonomous way)
Me: (giving her a fiver – a tactic that I employed when engage in monetary transaction, I give them ‘big money’ to avoid confusion and further complication. The slight disadvantage of this tactic is that after a while, I carry a lot of coins in my wallet, but they can definitely go to the vending machine later)
Nice checkout girl: (something something with a raise at the end of the sentence- a question is implied)
Me: (please do note that this whole process happened in a few seconds at most) Shit, why is she asking me a question. I gave her the money, what the hell does she want from me? . Fuck, maybe there’s something wrong with me? Did I buy something illegal? Impossible, she wasn’t looking at the items. What can it be? The money? Why aren’t you accepting the money, goddamit! Oh, wait, I did hear something like ‘eins cent’. Ah! it’s the money! It’s 3,81 cent. She is asking if I have 1 cent!
Me: Ja (searching frantically) (Fuck, I don’t have 1 cent)
Me: (looking as apologetically as possible), nein….
Nice checkout girl: (something something- probably ‘Oh, don’t worry about it’ or ‘Fuck you Asian’)
Me: (change obtained) Danke
The above example illustrates how one can interpret a pretty complicated situation, languageless. Similarly, I have survived many other mortifying situations when the shopkeeper and I engaged in an elaborate game of pictionary (I once had to describe to a pharmacist that I wanted a bandaid by pointing at my arm, slashing it and putting an imaginary plaster on it).
Having mentioned all the fun and game of trying to survive in a place without knowing the language, not being able to communicate does come with certain downfalls. The most important one has a lot to do with the fact that you will be viewed as an idiot (it’s hard to avoid being viewed like an idiot when people have to constantly speak to, or rather at, you in a slow and loud voice). After all, the ability to articulate your thoughts, both spoken and written, has often been associated with intelligence. Yet, these situations have also taught me an important lesson, not knowing a language is embarrassing, annoying and sometimes humiliating, but it will not and should not stop you from communicating and expressing your (basic) needs. In fact, if you view it as a game of ‘hmm, what can I do with what I have in this situation’, the task of communication can become a fun challenge instead of a potential breeding ground of self doubt and self hatred.