when germans speak english

Once upon a time when I was an English teacher I had a lot of German students intent on mastering small talk. So we would practice talking about nothing. “How’s the weather been lately?” I would ask them in a role play. They would respond, and ask me about my family. What they needed to practice wasn’t so much the English itself, but the art of pointless conversation. Which meaningless subjects were appropriate? Which subjects were taboo? And why the hell would anyone want to waste ten minutes talking about nothing in the first place? It’s a concept a lot of Germans just can’t wrap their heads around.

With the students most intent on practicing small talk, I would start each class with ten or fifteen minutes of chatting (most of my classes were one-on-one sessions). What they had done on the weekend, what I had done on the weekend, what we were both planning on doing the following weekend, how horrible the weather was, that sort of thing. Then we would work our way into a variety of other role plays: telephone calls, business meetings, financial reports, or whatever the student needed to practice for their at-work encounters with people of the English-speaking variety. The subject matter of those lessons tended to be bland, but some of the students’ mistakes were priceless.

A long, long time ago I collected some of my favorites, and then forgot to ever post them. So, wa-la, here they are, unveiled for you at long last. I’m not sharing these because I want to make fun of people who make mistakes when speaking a second language. But I have made enough side-splitting mistakes myself to know that the best thing you can hope to get out of a grammatical fumble is a good, long chuckle. And besides, when you’re an expat learning German, it’s nice to see that no matter who is learning what language, mistakes are made and life goes on.

the baby store

“My friend is getting a baby.”

“Is he adopting?” I would usually ask. This one was too common to even warrant a stifled chuckle. You see, in German you use the verb “to get” when talking about having babies, and so of course everybody just translates it directly. At least the first time. “Is he buying it at the store?”

“Uuuh, no.” Then I would remind them of the difference in verb usage, and they would slap their foreheads and never make the mistake again. But it was always a lovely reminder of how arbitrary language can be. Does saying “having a baby” really make any more sense than saying “getting a baby”? Well, to my English trained brain, yes. But when you really step back and think about it? No, not at all.

funny because it’s not true

“I am very interesting in reading.” For some reason a lot of German folks have trouble getting the difference between expressing their interests (“I am interested in…”) and loudly advertising their personal charms (“I am interesting”). No matter how many times I heard this I never stopped needing to repress a laugh. Often because the people who said it were anything but.

the cross dresser

Almost every beginning foreign language learner is stressed out at the thought of talking on the phone in his/her adopted language. Calling strangers in any language tends to make me nervous, and I still vividly remember the days when the thought of calling someone auf Deutsch to arrange a ride share made me break out in a cold sweat. (The upside: once you can handle that, you can pretty much handle anything.) So, understandably, a lot of my students wanted to practice the telephone calls they expected to have to make with their English-speaking colleagues, and our teaching books were full of prompts for just this sort of role play.

My prompt to the student: “You are on the phone. Describe yourself to someone you are going to meet at the airport so they can recognize you.”

The answer, from the conservative business man with the suit and the $5,000 watch: “I will be wearing a black dress.”

If only it were true. He might have even been able to pull it off. When I explained his mistake, he was embarrassed, but very happy to have gotten it out of the way in the classroom and not in front of his boss.

new age girl

One of the topics covered in every business-English textbook was “agreeing and disagreeing.” This usually involved a list of potentially controversial conversation topics. I would take one of the topics and make a statement like “war is wrong,” and then the student could practice politely agreeing or disagreeing with what I’d said. One of the topics I particularly enjoyed tackling was vegetarianism. And it also led to another amusing mistake.

Me: “Vegetarianism is a healthy lifestyle choice.”

Student: “I agree. Some of my friends are vegetables.”

Me: “I certainly hope not.” At which point the student looked at me quizzically, and I explained that a vegetarian was a person who didn’t eat meat, while a vegetable was a person who was in a coma and hooked up to machines in the hospital. It’s another one of those mistakes you only make once in your life, an unfortunate fact for the comic relief of English speakers everywhere.

and last but not least

From the überhetero macho business dude with the trophy wife, 2.5 kids, and the sports car obsession during a small talk session: “My boyfriend, and I went skiing this weekend.”

“Really? Well, knowing that you have a wife, I’d guess you might want to phrase that differently. You see, the term ‘boyfriend’ in English always refers to a romantic relationship. Did you mean boyfriend?”

“No no no no no no no no NO!” He looked mildly horrified at what he’d said. “Friend! Friend!””

One of my favorite things about the German language is that the words for “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” are the same words that you would use for “platonic friend” (and because German nouns are gendered, you get the information about the partner’s gender within the word itself). But it can easily lead to a misunderstanding, both for Germans translating their thoughts into English, and English speakers trying to tell a story about a platonic friend without confusing the point.

And there you have it, another post from the “Nikki cleans out her overflowing blog drafts folder” series.

Want to read more about my adventures teaching English?

dr. sweet and mr. appletree (tales of two of my most memorable students)

the bloody chain

putting the suit back in pursuit

conjugate a verb for jesus!

germany: where the customer is never right

0 Comments on “when germans speak english

  1. And let’s not forget the most common one: “You mustn’t do that” for “you don’t have to do that”.

    You’re right. The German language, genrally, has little time for social niceties. I guess that’s already informed by Sie and du.

    Here’s some linguistic geekery. Chit-chat is needed in English because it helps establish the register (i.e. level of formality). We don’t have T&V grammar to establish it automatically–that’s jargon for formal vs. informal grammar, taken from the French tu and vous.

    If you consume more than two beers with someone, can you dutzen them? Like, is that the rule?

  2. You know I’d have to disagree that the point of small talk is to establish the level of formality where our grammar does not. Besides the fact that the English language does allow for quite a lot of grammatical politeness (though in very different ways than in German), I find that chit chat tends to be about establishing an informal, friendly tone that has nothing to do with the actual level of relationship between the speakers—a ruse of sorts. It strikes me as being part of what Americans are known for in Germany: meaningless friendliness.

    Interestingly, it is this false friendliness that often screws Germans over when negotiating with Americans, I’ve heard. Americans will come across as overly friendly, in part through their chit chat and in part through the incredibly passive/indirect way they tend to express negative thoughts, and Germans often take it at face value and end up with a totally false picture of the negotiations. Fascinating stuff, really.

    Using the you form “du” with someone is technically only appropriate once it has been offered. As in, “Shall we start using ‘du’?” So a beer won’t necessarily be enough. But the line is certainly hazy, especially in day to day situations, like with clerks in stores or asking people directions on the street. I tend toward radical dutzen, as it’s called, and basically “du” almost everybody unless they merciless “Sie” me.

  3. Being a learner of German – I’d be curious if you flipped this post on it’s head and told us about any faux pas English speakers make when first learning German. Bekommen is one and Aktuell is another I know of. Then there’s the whole “Ich bin ein Berliner”

  4. Peter: You know, as I was putting this together I was wracking my brain for just such examples (seemed only fair!) but I couldn’t remember any good ones off the top of my head. Which really kills me because I know I’ve done a few word switcheroos lately that have had me and my friends in tears laughing. But I started learning German in the 8th grade, so I have to admit to having a few years between the days of my (I assume) most embarassing mistakes and writing this post. Damn my Swiss-cheese memory!

    Oh! But I did once, in an EHEM romantic situation, say “open the portal” instead of “unzip the zipper.” That one makes me crack up every time I think of it. Heh.

  5. Embarassing German learner moments?

    Reading a Krimi aloud in class. According to the book, the cop shouted at the burglar “Halt, oder ich schiesse!”

    You can guess my mistake.

  6. Our teacher told us last night one of her uni students wrote a short story on the members of his family…about his mother he wrote “Und meine Mama ist ein Putzmittel”

  7. Reminds me of my sister and I refueling at a gas station in Sweden. There was some problem with the fuel gauge, so she had a little argument with the clerk regarding at which pump “I tanked” (and what amount).

  8. My mother really couldn’t pronounce her Umlauts. When she moved to Germany with my German father in the early 1950s (War Bride Reversed program), she began to learn German using Berlitz records. Once confident enough, one Saturday she ambled on down to the Gefluegelhaendler (Fowl and Game used to be sold separately from other butchered meats back then) to purchase two fine chickens for Saturday evening’s gourmet extravaganza (always roast stuffed chicken with mashed potatoes, gravy and vegetables boiled to death).
    She told the foul Fowl Man what she wanted and he chucked, smiled broadly, and gestured for her to wait a moment as he ran out the shops’ front door. Moments later he returned with the green grocer woman from next door and, with what Mom interpreted to be a polite smile, asked her if she would repeat her order.
    She acquiesced and the green grocer woman let out a series of loud whoops while Mr. Fowl Guy began to turn beet red and slap his knee, all the while roaring with guffawing laughter.
    Mom was incensed and began to try to defend herself with her terrible German (which never improved right up to her dying day) and said, “I don’t understand what is so funny. In America, everyone eats chicken on Saturday night.”
    At this point, both sales people began literally rolling around on the floor, howling with laughter.
    My incensed mother, tears in her eyes, left the shop and hurried home.
    A few hours later, my father arrived home to find her sitting at the kitchen table, crying to herself.
    “What’s the matter, Bessie (although her name was Bethie and he never did master the “th” sound)?”
    She blurted out the entire saga, and he quietly asked her to repeat how she had ordered her chickens, which she did.
    He slept on the couch for a week after that because he had begun to laugh loudly too.
    Never one to master the nuances of German, she had proudly been ordering puppies (“Huendchen”) instead of chickens (“Huehnchen.”)

    Her inability to get her mouth around the Umlauts remained with her until the end. I can remember many a day when she would walk into the house and tell our German housekeeper that “Es ist heute so schwul draussen!” (It’s so gay outside today!). Apparently that one isn’t even that uncommon, but I sure loved to hear her say it…

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