I’m Sorry, I don’t Understand

Anyone who has lived in a foreign country or has attempted the local language on holiday in foreign climes will know, however long you have learnt the language for you will inevitably come across the ‘language barrier’. I hit it the other day, after coming fairly close on numerous previous occasions in the past 3 months here in Germany, but this time I hit it in spectacular fashion. The fact I was on the phone did not entirely help the situation. It is one thing speaking a foreign language with someone face to face, but it really is another ball game when you are speaking over the phone.

On this occasion, a Monday morning, I had to call the Hamburg bike rental hotline as the fancy rental machine was broken and I needed to rent a bike to get to work. In German, I tried to explain how I could not rent a bike as the machine was broken (which it is on a regular basis). I then had to give my date of birth for identification. This was disaster number one. After giving my date of birth the man said, ‘are you Franscisco’. Um, no. Let’s try again. We were still not getting any closer. Now let’s try the date of birth in English. Nope, still nothing. How about your name, Fraulein (I don’t think I am quite at Frau age yet)? A-N-N-A. Ok, so not awfully helpful when half of the female population is called Anna. So, my surname – this was the fun part. My surname, unfortunately, is a) unusual, b) not at all German sounding, and c) includes two a’s and an r. A and r in English do not sound the same. In German, however, ah (a) and err (r) can sound quite similar, especially on the phone. We tried in English, German, but didn’t get anywhere. ‘I’m sorry, you don’t appear to be on the system’ was what the German concluded, after 8 minutes on the phone. ‘Are you sure you’re registered here?’ ‘Well, yes,’I said, ‘I use your bikes every day.’ So, I didn’t get the bike and was late to work. A good start to the week!

This incident got me thinking about the language barrier and language learning in general. How many times have you hear those 3 little words? No, not I love you (always nice to hear!), but I don’t understand when you have tried in your best, say, French to order a baguette in a Boulangerie. When you are then met with either a blank look from behind the counter, or even worse, an ‘I don’t understand’ (In French, or English) it really doesn’t do anything for the confidence. Regardless of what you are ordering or asking for, it is always a demoralizing experience to have your efforts rebuked. It is even more depressing if your efforts are laughed at, or the person just answers you in your native language (English, in my case), as then you just think, well, why did I bother. No matter how long you have been learning a language – whether a beginner or advanced (in my case, 10 years on and off), your bubble is always burst when this happens. But what can we do about this? The only thing to do, really, is persevere. There is a saying in English – ‘if at first you don’t succeed, then try and try and try again’ – so that is what I am doing with the German, all be it at the risk of having a very long phone bill!

Let us know if you have had similar experience when you have tried speaking foreign languages and how you try and overcome the language barrier.

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6 thoughts on “I’m Sorry, I don’t Understand”

  1. Absolutely delightful article!

    I’ve just started learning german (1.2), and rightnow Im feeling depressed since eventually I can’t get a bloody a idea of what the teacher is saying… 🙁

  2. Sometimes fate smiles and make your way easier. The fortune of have an interlocutor friendly with the interest in help the foreigner is a blessing for people who need a little of patience to be understood. But it depend of idiosyncracy of the country which are you dealing….. Yes I know, it is not excuse for blatantly wrong to pronounce a language, but on the other hand is true that exist situations which small errors must be forgiven.

  3. Native German speakers seem particularly prone to this frustrating (in my eyes) or helpful (in theirs) trait of responding to someone in English. In my experience in many cases it seems to boil down to their eagerness to practice their English.

  4. In Russian, one issue for me is the myakii zhnak or soft sign, which is a letter of the alphabet that makes the letter coming before it soft. The soft sign itself in isolation has no sound at all. Because we don’t have the equivalent in English perhaps, it’s impossible for me to master the pronunciation of it, and I can’t hear the difference when people explain what it sounds like. But sometimes people don’t understand me because I don’t pronounce it.

    For example the word for bean is: fasol’ (with ‘ representing the soft sign). To Russians fasol is a completely different word. I have literally had to leave stores beanless because I couldn’t make them understand me.

  5. Next time if you have to spell something in German, you can try it this way: A wie Affe, B wie Bianca etc. It could be easier to make yourself understood.

  6. don’t worry about the spellingproblem – i’m a native german speaker, but my name is very unusual as well and i always have to pronounce it the way hikari recommended.

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