Steven in Berlin

food, places and thoughts

Communication from a tourist's perspective

Communication from a tourist's perspective

February 24, 2017    

Let me start by telling a joke from the internet:

german joke

Yes, German is a much harder language than English, and yes, most young Germans speak really good English. So what’s the point of learning German as a foreign language? And what’s the point of trying to speak half-broken German with them, when you know English is a more effective alternative?

I’d like to answer this by quoting what Nelson Mandela said:

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

In Germany, I start a conversation with people in German whenever I can. In a city like Berlin where tourism is an important industry, I still firmly believe that people will appreciate my effort in learning their language. Looking back, pretty much all of my Canadian-born Chinese friends hate it when strangers start speaking Chinese to them, since they don’t like to be judged by their appearances and “he/she must be Chinese” can a pretty good guess. Similarly, every German must feel at least a bit of discomfort, when someone just speaks English to them directly without asking first. “Is it almost a stereotype of Germans that you can just assume I speak English?”, one might ask himself.

Good experiences

To echo what I wrote in the First Day post, the three textbooks do cover a lot of things I needed to say. On the taxi to Reichstag, I told the driver “Wir gehen gerne zum Reichstagsgebäude” (We’d like to go to the Reichstag building), and I loved the genuine smile the old lady gave me back with the confirmation “Reichstag!”. When we were ordering cakes at Einstein Cafe, I told the waiter “Ich hätte gerne einen Käsekuchen, und eine heiße Schokolade. Kann ich die Schokolade ohne Sahne haben?” (I’d like to have a cheesecake, and a hot chocolate. Can I have the hot chocolate without whip cream?). It’s not a short sentence and I had to prepare it in my mind before saying it out, but the waiter was impressed and replied back in German. When checking out, he announced our split bills in English, and specially to me in German. I was surprised that he served so many tables simultaneously, yet still remembered everyone’s language choices, even if I was obviously not native. It was so many simple things like these that motivates me to keep speaking German.

Funny experiences

Of course, funny things can happen when I’m not at all fluent. When I was ordering Döner, the owner asked me if I wanted to wrap it in tin foil so that I could take it to go. There is no way I understand “tin foil” in German, and I just had to say “bitte?” (pardon?) twice since I didn’t know what he was talking about. When he realized he wasn’t unclear, we had to switch to English, and it was really embarrassing. The couple behind me initially gave me an impressed look, and then couldn’t help laughing when I had to use English. I wouldn’t say being laughed is a bad thing, because that was an ice breaker for a good 10-minute chat while we were eating Döner together. They were from France and used to struggle with German as well, so they could very much relate to my experience.

Awkward experiences

I expected that for the most time people would just speak English to me back, but it was only a few cases. When the hotel wifi password expired, I asked the front desk “Können Sie mir ein neues Internetpasswort geben?” (Could you give me a new internet password?). This is a perfectly correct sentence to me and I don’t think my accent is that bad, but the lady mysteriously smirked and said “Of course, here you go!”. She could understand me, but for some reason still decided to reply in English. I wasn’t super happy but still replied “Danke” (thanks).

It was worse when I was getting a ticket in the German History Museum.

“Ich hätte gerne ein ermäßigtes Ticket für Student”
“Where are you from?”
“China”
(processes the ticket and gives me a brochure) “Here you go!”

The brochure was in Chinese.

How do you get close to being authentic as a tourist?

It’s not that I can’t read in English or Chinese. In both cases they were trying to give me the best tourist experience by minimizing the language barrier, and perhaps that’s how they were trained to be professional. However, I wasn’t the typical tourist since I also wanted to use my German skills to make the trip more “authentic”, so to speak. I wanted everything to be in German, from conversations to museum brochures. The Airbnb’s slogan really resonates well with me. “Don’t just go there. Live there”.

airbnb slogan

To me, keeping every experience in a German environment is crucial to authenticity. I wanted to try my best to pretend to be a “Berliner”. That’s why whenever I had to use English, I always ask “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” (Do you speak English?) in German before asking the English question, or “Haben Sie eine Speisekarte auf Englisch?” (Do you have an English menu?) even though I seemed to understand a lot of words. To me, it’s just not authentic if everything is presented to me in my comfort zone.

I follow a lot of food explorers on YouTube. One common thing is that they always speak the local language, no matter how not-so-good that is. The Food Ranger, a Canadian, has been living in China for quite long time, yet he still discovers really local and authentic food every single week, because he gets to places where only locals know, some of them are literally not on the map. How? He not only speaks Mandarin, but also the local dialect. People want to be friends with him and therefore he is able to try all the best things his city has to offer.

I love that in smaller cities such as Dresden and Dessau, much fewer people are English speakers. I got a LOT of practices there by not only addressing my own questions, but also my friends’ translation needs. The locals just don’t speak English at all, not even those in the service industry. It always gives me great satisfaction when I got what I want (answer or stuff) in German, and I would say those two days are the best days. I was truly put in a German-only environment. It was what I call authentic.