One question you should never ask a German

Or how I committed a cultural faux-pas in my own country.

Over 10 years out of the country, I have focused a lot on other cultures. I always tried to ‘assimilate’ well enough but of course I was not prone to making mistakes or embarrassing myself a little because I was not from there and didn’t totally understand the culture.

I learned that this can also backfire in your own country.

The other day I was teaching an English conversation class. 

Hoping to tackle a somewhat light-hearted topic I chose to focus on ‘culture’ and how a native sees his/her country vs. an outsider.

Little did I know that asking some, seemingly simple questions, would stir up so many emotions.
The question that turned the whole conversation sour was:

What makes you proud to be from your country?


In my head, I thought people would mention the good response and results during the pandemic, the fact that the country is organized, the high standard of living etc.…

However, the answers were not the problem.

It was the question.


The word proud and ‘your country’ do not belong in one sentence for most Germans.                     


And I, the German (and clearly not so German in this situation) had not realized the controversy and uncomfortable feelings this would bring up.

What is the first historical event linked to Germany, and how do Germans feel about that? I don’t think I need to go into details here (WW2 is the hint).

And how are students in school taught to think about it? 

I honestly don’t remember the details of the content in our history class. However, I left high school with the underlying sentiment that I should feel very guilty about our history and that Germans shouldn’t praise their country (the only exception maybe being during the world cup). One might LIKE something in the country but never say that they would be ‘proud’. And apparently I wasn’t the only one who carries that thought with them. Most Germans I have met would react the same way.


I’m writing this for two reasons:

One, to show how you should not only be mindful about other cultures but also your own and

Two to point out that if you run into a German, you might want to steer away from this phrasing and topic in general. Somehow I often got asked about WW2 as soon as I said that I was from Germany while traveling. That, to me was very strange as that is nothing that is ever used as a conversation topic among people here. Anyway, I know that this can seem like a harmless question to ask what you’re proud of regarding your country, but here’s a little heads-up about cultural tactfulness
.

What it’s like to speak several languages – the good and the challenging

I love learning and speaking foreign languages. To me, it’s like air to breathe (I’m being overdramatic but in a way it is). And I love empowering people to learn different languages!

I thought I wanted to give a little insight into what it means (to me) to speak different languages. As amazing as it is, there’s a few challenges and some funny things happening (see the last point ;)).

Let’s start with the obvious 😉

You’ll be able to travel much more smoothly if you speak the language of the country you are in.

Speaking Spanish has helped me a lot while traveling South-America as I was able to have nice small talk with people who’d help me out when I needed information or when it came down to haggling for prices (because you should if you want a good price). In Japan, I was able to travel to regions with little tourism and always managed to find my way around as I was able to communicate everything in Japanese. In general, I think being able to talk to locals make the trip more valuable as you will be able to get information first hand and learn more about the local culture.

Speaking several languages will help you find friends more easily in other countries and feel accepted and integrated more easily

I do generally think that I get accepted and make local friends rather quickly when I speak their language. These days most people speak English, so it really isn’t that much of a problem when you talk to a person one-on-one, however, once you start hanging out in a group of locals, you feel much better when you can simply tune in with what they’re talking about

It also allows you to follow sports classes and other events/activities more easily, making you feel more connected and at home in the new country. You might also have it easier with local authorities when speaking their language (there can be some ‘racism’ against not speaking the local language in countries at times)

The downside?

As I am not 100% fluent in most languages, people don’t necessarily slow down for me and will end up chatting my ear off, using a lot of technical vocabulary and slang, with me only understanding half of what they’re saying. It is very difficult going back to ‘I know I can speak quite quickly to you and express what I want, but I actually don’t understand you with your slang and speed’. 

When you only know a few words, people often try harder to make themselves understood.

The same goes with regards to ‘working proficiency‘. There were countless amount of times I had people say ‘wow you can use all of these languages for work’. And I had to let them know, that having a working proficiency in a language is completely different from being able to have conversations. Many languages use a different tone in more ‘professional environments’, especially Japanese, which means you have to study and prepare yourself accordingly to that. I am very greatful for example that I had Business English at university for 4 semesters, which was completely different to a regular class.

And because of these reasons, we get to the next point:

Sometimes I feel a little more distant to what I am saying when I am speaking a different language.

After all, this is not my mother tongue and I am ‘practicing’ so in a way I can feel less of the weight of the words I am using. I often have the feeling that I am rather blunt when I speak a language that I haven’t ‘fine-tuned’ yet.

I also feel as if the bonds I form with people who I speak German or English to are somewhat closer than people I speak other languages to as there is more ‘emotional connection’ for me in my native/near-native tongues. Again it usually makes me motivated to study more but it can be a bit of a struggle in the beginning.

You might start talking in a mix of languages and become lazy to think about the real word in the language you’re speaking in.

I have that problem with German, my native language. I don’t speak it very much and speak and think in English 99% of the time. However, when I then speak German, I will often end up throwing in lots of English words, because I expect the other person to understand what I am talking about. As this is often the case, I never actually pause to think about the correct word, which can damage your language ability. I do think however , that, once you take the time to focus on just one language again, you can improve in that regard.

Fun fact: my thoughts also go crazy and appear in all random languages. Though I usually think in English, there are many random words, may they be in French, Japanese or any other languages that pop up in my thoughts as well. I do find it amusing but am also aware of the danger I described above.

The more languages you speak, the harder it is to keep all of them at the level you left off after studying

This one is becoming bigger and bigger for me as I keep adding new languages to my portfolio. I love studying new languages, yet that often comes at the cost of another language. I remember being in Japan, having gotten to a conversational level, when one time I wanted to speak a few sentences of Spanish – and Japanese came out. I was shocked because my Spanish had always been pretty good but I simply couldn’t make the switch at that point. Now that I am in South-America, the opposite is happening and I have trouble keeping up my Japanese.

To overcome this, I spend time daily studying several languages, not necessarily to get much better at them but to keep my current level. That can be pretty time-consuming and challenging, especially to find people to talk to in that language but for me, it is worth it!

Language study has taught me a lot of discipline

To get to where I am at today, I had to learn to create a strong language learning habit. I realized that daily repetition and practice was the key to making steady progress in language learning. I created plans and schedules on when and what to study and have become very disciplined through that. This has also helped me in other areas of life, making me diligent and organized.

One point that people sometimes seem to forget is that it is not only about ‘speaking’ a foreign language:

You can access more global information in its original language

Of course, you have the chance to talk to more people, but what I also find fascinating is that I can do research in several languages or watch movies or documentaries that I cannot find in my mother tongue. Sometimes words get lost in translation, so it is always amazing when I can read/hear information in its original language.

And a little interesting point you might never have thought about:

The digital world and social media environment will notice your multilingual skills eventually .

Your spam might suddenly come in 5 different languages. Facebook might advertise you to work as a Japanese chat-representative or remind you not to forget your ‘Spanish mother tongue’. I am finding it hilarious and sometimes slightly confusing when ads pop all relating to all and in all sorts of languages. At least one thing Facebook hasn’t figured out about me so far 😉

I hope I could give you some insights into the ‘language jungle’ in my brain and probably a lot of other polyglots. I guess we wouldn’t want to have it any other way 😉

I’d love to hear if you have any other thoughts on this, so please comment!