Speaking in English will only get you so far abroad
Considering the globalization of pretty much everything these days, one would think only knowing English in Germany would be just fine.
It’s quite easy for young American students who study and travel abroad, particularly in big European cities, to fall into the trap of what I like to call English-centrism.
What is that, you ask?
Here’s an example: A roommate and I decided to travel to Munich for a few days in December while the Christkindlesmarkt were in full bloom. We had been studying abroad in England, which meant that learning a new language had not been necessary. Very rarely did we need to ask for much assistance.
Neither one of us spoke a lick of German, but since the end of our time abroad and subsequent culture shock were right around the corner, we figured it would be a last hurrah of sorts. Besides, surely big city folks speak English in Germany, right?
The fact that we were staying in a hostel full of other tourists didn’t help our naïve English-centric natures much. Every sign in the hostel in Germany was translated into English. The German man at the check-in desk even commented on my debit card printed with my school logo, smiling and saying “North Carolina…Michael Jordan!”
Lost without translation
Our first full day in Germany we planned to visit what had once been a concentration camp in Dachau. The sun’s rays glinted off the barely sullied snow as we wandered and ate brezeln, taking our time before seeking out a train station.
But before we could enter the steps leading to the platform, a policeman stood blocking the way, waving his arms and shouting harshly in German.
“What’s he saying?” I asked my friend, although of course she did not know. Confused, we returned to the woman who had just sold us our tickets.
When we asked her where we could catch our train, she pointed to the place from where we had just come — the place where the angry policeman was standing.
“But there’s an officer telling us we can’t go down there,” I insisted.
The woman shrugged, either unconcerned or uncomprehending.
We returned to the scene of the angry policeman, easing close to him as if approaching a fearful animal that might flee at any moment. “Excuse me,” I said (Or maybe it was my friend…perhaps I give myself too much credit). “We don’t speak German. Can you tell us what’s going on?”
The policeman stopped shouting long enough to look at us and say, “There’s a fire on the platform! Everyone needs to evacuate NOW!”
Dumbfounded, we fled, wondering why no one else in the train station seemed bothered by this.
Using context clues to understand the situation…
We managed to get on the right train at another station. Things were going okay until the train sat a bit longer than necessary a few stops before Dachau. The voice overhead urgently repeated something in German five times, a big indicator that something was not quite right.
No English translation followed.
…But not getting anywhere
We decided to follow everyone else’s lead and get off. Not ten seconds after our feet touched the platform was the train pulling away, going in the opposite direction of our destination.
Relieved we’d avoided that mistake, we assumed another train would be coming to take us the rest of the way. Perhaps the previous train only went as far as that particular stop or was having technical issues.
We must have “translated” the situation a dozen different ways to justify the confusion.
“Do you speak English?”
But our translations were so, so wrong. Another train never came. Instead, an automated voice kept repeating something in what was — yup, you guessed it — German.
After shivering in the cold for nearly twenty minutes, we searched for somebody, anybody who spoke English in Germany. A kind soul informed us that an individual had thrown himself onto the tracks a few stops ahead. We would have to leave the station and take another form of transportation to Dachau.
Appreciating the value of multilingual individuals
My friend and I kept asking questions in English whenever we got stuck during the rest of our time in Germany, speaking to cab drivers and locals and tourists and jovial policemen. We took chances when time allowed but spoke up when it proved to be the swiftest (and safest) option.
Explaining we were American and didn’t know any German at all was a humbling experience, one that became even more humbling once we reached the Dachau concentration camp.
When I recall how easy my own study abroad process was, I can only imagine how international students studying in the US must feel. Studying in an English-speaking country meant that I didn’t have to translate any of my academic records or struggle to understand what a train conductor was saying (although British accents can sound pretty foreign, too).
In our case, it wasn’t the ubiquitous nature of the English language alone that brought us to where we wanted to be. It was the kindness of those bilingual strangers in Germany who were willing and able to interpret into English for us.