Epic Language Fail

A SUBWAY restaurant in Dawson, Texas.

Image via Wikipedia

Today I tried to do one of the most difficult tasks that an newly arrived expat must undertake – ordering lunch. Seriously, it is insanely difficult to order lunch in a foreign language. Not only do you have to say what you want but then you are asked questions about it. If I manage to order my lunch successfully, I feel like I have won a gold medal at the Olympics and tend to celebrate as such.

Today, I stupidly went to Subway by myself for lunch.  Usually I go with one of my German colleagues who can translate if I fail to understand a question.  But today they are all scattered across the globe (literally – one is in Australia, one is in Zurich and the third is somewhere in Hamburg at a business meeting) so I braved it myself.  I knew what sandwich I wanted and on what bread, with what salad and what sauce and how to say all of this in German.  However, I was totally unprepared for the fast paced questions thrown out at me.  I failed on the first one.  Obviously I failed in such a spectacularly bad fashion that I was asked if I spoke English and the rest of the order was done in Denglish (my favourite language).

I then did another spectacular fail when I went to pay for the sandwich cause apparently even just paying requires the Subway staff to ask a million and one questions beyond the standard ‘Is that all?’ This lead to a conversation in English about where I was from (yes my fail was that bad).

Some good points came out of this epic fail though – I no longer get upset or flustered when I can’t understand what I’m being asked or I screw up what I’m trying to say.  This is a huge step forward for me and it seems that I am getting more comfortable speaking and screwing up in German. Also, I have pinpointed where my German skills are weak – listening and understanding.  I can, for my level, speak and write in German quite well.  But I really struggle to understand when people speak to me at normal speed using everyday language.

So does anyone have any awesome tips on how to improve your listening & understanding skills beyond listening to podcasts and just getting out there and giving it your best shot? Any handy hints of things that worked for you? Also, please share your epic language fails.  I feel the need to compare war wounds.

About Meg

A thirty something queer Aussie geek girl who now lives in Germany.
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11 Responses to Epic Language Fail

  1. Kim says:

    When you mentioned this on Twitter I nearly gasped because Subway is such a string of questions and interactions and options. Some days it’s too much for me even in English. Good for you on keeping your cool!

    • Riayn says:

      I really wanted a sandwich and had grown bored of the ones at my local bakery therefore, I braved Subway. However, in hindsight, it wasn’t a well thought out choice.

  2. Liron says:

    When I was taking German classes in Israel, I would make a point of being exposed to materials in German which were far beyond my level of understanding – such as songs with particularly pun-filled or complex lyrics (“Wir sind Helden”, some of Farin Urlaub’s stuff) as well as newspapers and magazines which were higher-brow. Instead of concentrating on words I didn’t know, I tried to understand the overall message according to the context alongside words I did know. This really helped me get the “gist” of the message later on.

    Nowadays, I rarely find myself at a point where I don’t understand what someone is trying to say. I normally understand everything being thrown at me in normal-fast talking speeds (I’m a quick talker myself), but on the odd occasion where something becomes a little more complicated, I practice the “concentrate on the context” method. After years, it’s worked well for me.

  3. Before I moved to Germany I watched a lot of movies in German with the subtitles on (that is, the German subtitles on a German language movie). Really helped me to improve my listening as I could read what was being said.

  4. Mandi says:

    Wow, that’s still pretty awesome that you’ve discovered your weakpoints. It’s funny though, that when I was a beginner, my strengths and weaknesses were just the opposite of yours! My listening comprehension was pretty high, but my ability to verbally respond was a continuous frustration. I have no idea if one is better than the other, but you’ll definitely benefit from your willingness to speak and make mistakes!

  5. fraudietz says:

    I’m with Ms. Gorilla on that: German subtitles + German language for film watching, or else English language films you’re familiar with that have been dubbed into German so you know the plot and can sort of sync what’s being said with the knowledge you already have about what’s going on. In fact any tv that’s been dubbed into German I find much easier to understand because it tends to be spoken much more slowly than actual German.

    I agree though that it’s utterly horrible thinking you are entering a really straightforward scenario and feeling kind of prepared for it and then discovering that you’re, well, not. I think what’s really important is not to try and understand every last word of what’s being said and then ending up feeling frustrated and overwhelmed when you can’t: if I realise I’m losing my grip on what’s going on (linguistically speaking) I just try to pick words out of what’s coming at me and make sense of things through that. As long as I don’t totally panic, I’ve found that in that way, and also through taking context into consideration, I can just about work out what’s going on. Sort of. I can only promise it gets easier!!

    As far as language fails are concerned, oh, I have a bottomless pit teeming with them :) One of my favourites (in hindsight) I think was telling my in-laws I’d been inside a 45˚ sausage (I was trying for desert but mispronounced Wüste) but I have plenty, plenty more where that came from ;)

  6. One of the books in the class that I’m taking is solely around listening and hearing. There is a CD that comes with a workbook and we have to listen to someone speaking and then are asked to either write out the paragraph as they speak it (dictation, I guess) or listen and then answer questions about what was said. The speaking starts out fairly slowly but is speeding up as I go through the book. This was made by the company that I’m taking the course through but perhaps there is something similar you can pick up at the bookstore? This, in addition to listening to music and watching movies with subtitles may help.

    I have to admit, though, that even though I’ve been doing this it’s not been enough as, like you, listening and being able to comprehend fast enough to formulate a response is definitely one of my weaker points in learning German. We’ll get there eventualloy!

  7. Jen says:

    I hear you about Subway! It’s so hard in German. I went there again today for lunch and I order the exact same thing every time with the exact toppings, etc., and I think the guy kind of knows me by now. Snort.

  8. Sarah1976 says:

    Dude, Subway is so hard at first. There are just so many effing questions and if you’re trying to order when there are a bunch of people there and deal with fast, pattering German (or worse, dialect, z.B. Oberpfälzisch), it can crash and burn pretty spectacularly.

    I struggled mightily with my listening comprehension at first. It will come, eventually. At least they were nice to you about it!

  9. No tips just bowing to your awesomeness.

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