Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

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April 2000

Loss for Words

Communication breakdown for a Brit in Munich

My husband steven, and i have, due to his professional aspirations, lived the bulk of our married life in Munich — just short of five years. You would expect me to speak German fluently by now, to converse on any level with anyone, but, and my face is red as I write this, I cannot.

The first summer I arrived from Bath, England, I was enthusiastic to tackle the language. I attended lessons every day at a small Sprachenschule. The Polish boy who sat opposite me had recently relocated to the Bavarian capital to be an au pair. Out of a shared desperation to learn the native tongue, we quickly became friends. He spoke only a very small amount of English, and I didn’t speak a word of Polish, so we communicated exclusively in German with a generous use of hand signals and some sketchy diagrams. By the time I left Munich, just over a year later, I had picked up a bit of the language — thanks to Darius and our often confusing yet hilarious lunchtime conversations.

When Steven and I returned two years later, after a short time of living back in England, I sampled a couple of language schools, but found that they were either too hard or too easy. I started a new job in an English-speaking environment and my interest soon faded. I know what you’re thinking, “She’s making excuses, she didn’t try,” and I agree. However, for the slightly unmotivated, living in cosmopolitan Munich does not necessarily indicate an urgent need to learn the language. Just about everyone you meet here can speak at least some English. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve said “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” and someone has said no. In shops, sales people switch to English before you’ve even finished uttering “Entschuldigung” because they are either keen to impress you with their creative vocabulary or they’d like to finish serving you before nightfall.

My hardships are apparent in my everyday life. If I could, even elementarily, communicate with my fellow Münchner, such tasks as waiting for a train wouldn’t be so grueling. I often avoid eye contact with that one other person on the platform in an effort to discourage conversation. I once met — and I use the term “met” loosely — a lovely old German lady who sat next to me at the U-Bahn station and proceeded to tell me what I presume was her life story. I watched her face carefully to know when to respond with either “ja” if she looked happy, or “nein” if she did not. I laughed only when she did. Then her train came along, she waved goodbye happily from the window and I too waved, smiling until she disappeared, not having the least idea of what we had just spoken about. She, on the other hand, had just had a lovely chat.

One more expensive result of my inadequate German was when I accidentally ordered DM 300 worth of wine over the phone. The telephone wine sales woman began, slowly at first, by asking “Trinken Sie Wein?” “Ja,” I said confidently. She then launched into a sales pitch at 100 mph. At some point in the middle of her routine she asked me my name and full address, followed by more unknown words, until suddenly she was gone, the phrase “1-2 Wochen” left ringing in my ear. Steven appeared in the hallway where I sat, receiver still in hand and a puzzled look on my face, and asked what had happened. “I think I just ordered some boxes of wine.” “But,” I added sheepishly, “we like wine, don’t we?” This particular story has a happy ending. The wine is lovely, and I order it with such regularity that I’m now on a first name basis with the saleswoman.

Steven has his difficulties, too. By way of an innocent pronunciation mistake, or so he says, he was recently rendered red-faced when he asked a waitress at the office cafeteria for a cuddle (Knudel). He actually wanted a Knödel, a lovely dumpling to accompany his Zwiebelrostbraten (pork roast baked with onions) and red cabbage.

So, here I am, living very happily in Munich, joining in all the customs and festivities, and feeling privileged to live in such a beautiful city. Still, I regret that I merely muddle along with only enough vocabulary to say “Thank you,” “I’m just looking,” “Can I pay by credit card here,” “I’ll have the Maultaschen and a Helles” and, finally, “Excuse me, another Helles, please.” It’s thousands of miles away from fluency, but one day I will find that magical course that will make it easier for me to cover topics other than “My name is Denise. I come from England. I’m sorry, I can’t converse with you at any length in German, but I do have the telephone number of a shop where you can get delightful wine.”

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