How to practice your German — Du musst mehr sprechen!
Anytime a new student comes to me for German lessons, and they have already learned some German, I hear the same story – “Whenever I try to speak German (here in German speaking Switzerland), be it in a grocery store, a restaurant, or simply on the street, people answer back in English.” This is especially true for people with English accents, but also for many with other accents as well. It is a problem that exists throughout the German speaking countries, but particularly in Switzerland and Germany’s larger cities. I don’t want to get too much into the reasons why, as there are many, but rather offer some coping skills to make sure that you get to speak German.
Reasons for responses in English:
- People are trying to be helpful – it’s generally well intended: Der Weg zur Hölle ist mit guten Vorsätzen gepflastert. (The road to hell is paved with good intentions.)
- German speakers grow up believing that they have a difficult grammar and therefore think others also find it difficult – again it’s a helping reaction: Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache. (The German language is difficult.)
- German speakers love to practice their English – by speaking English with you they get around taking English lessons: Übung macht den Meister. (Practice makes perfect.)
Of course there are probably other reasons, but let’s look at what you can do so that you can continue speaking and improving your German.
How to speak more and better German
- Never apologize for your skills. You’re trying to speak a 2nd, 3rd maybe even a 4th or 5th language and you are attempting to speak their language. Communication is a two way street and the listener should do their best to be attentive and try to understand.
- Think before you speak. Yes, I know of course you do, but practice what you want to say in your head. Repeat it: “Ich hätte gern einen Kaffee, bitte.”
- Visualize the conversation. The German speaking world functions a lot like the English speaking one. If you ask for a coffee: “Ich hätte gern einen Kaffee, bitte.” You might get asked if you want a “einen Grossen oder Kleinen” and/or “mit Milch / mit warmer Milch / mit Zucker?”. They might also ask if you’d like “noch etwas dazu?” Visualize the conversation and be prepared to answer. You’ll have more confidence and know what you want to and should say.
- If they speak too fast, tell them: “Ich lerne Deutsch. Können Sie bitte etwas langsamer sprechen, danke.” Notice here that there is no apology.
- If they respond in English, you have two choices and only these two if you seriously want to improve. Either you keep speaking German and let them go on in English (a little passive aggressive), or you tell them: “Also, ich will Deutsch lernen, bitte haben Sie etwas Geduld und sprechen Sie Deutsch. So werde ich schneller lernen. Danke.”
Another story and proof that if you stick with it, your German and communication will improve. One of my students, let’s call her Naomi, was recently at one of Zurich’s premiere tourist destinations. Going there often with her son, she thought that a year pass (Jahreskarte, die) would be a smart investment. She followed the steps above:
- Naomi went up to the window and said: “Guten Tag. Ich hätte gern eine Jahreskarte für meine Familie, bitte.”
- The person at the window then responded in a whirlwind of Swiss-German, speaking so fast that Naomi could not understand everything she just said.
- In response, my student then said, “Es tut mir lied, das habe ich nicht alles verstanden. Können Sie mir das bitte widererklären, aber etwas langsamer?” To which the person at the window responded in English: “You know what, you’re just like all the other people that come here and speak German, but you don’t understand it. Go over there to the other window if you want the Jahreskarte, I can’t do it here.”
- Naomi was of course rather upset at how she was spoken to and took her child and left the establishment. This shows that even in German der Kunde ist König (The customer is always right.) and das Geld macht’s (Money talks). You can always speak with money and if you find you’re not being treated fairly after attempting to communicate with someone, sometimes it’s better to leave that person behind and take your business elsewhere.
- Now if you think that this turned Naomi off of speaking German, you’re wrong, and though her week started off poorly, she spoke German with a shopkeeper on the Tuesday, having a very long conversation on hospitals and the shopkeeper occasionally giving her some new terminology. She then spoke with a man in the park as she took her son for a walk, and he also helped her with her pronunciation. Her good encounters have helped her boost her self-esteem when speaking German immensely and the bad encounters have given her the resolve to not tolerate poor treatment. Naomi told me it’s coming along and the practice helps. Classes are beneficial and give her structure, but using the language in everyday conversation is what cements what she’s learning in her head.
A note for shopkeepers and business owners:
Shopkeepers and business owners everywhere pay attention: Your customer chooses the language of communication. They will be more grateful and come to your shop more often if they feel welcome and know that you and your employees take time for them. You show the most respect to your customers (Kunden), patrons (Stammkunden), and guests (Gäste) when you help them learn something new and give them the feeling of accomplishment. You can really make someone’s day, or week even.
A few last tips:
- Learn as much vocabulary as possible — label things, repeat words, write them in a journal, and if you can, learn the genders with nouns.
- Remember the verb goes in the second place.
- Don’t stress about adjective endings
- Look people in the eyes when your speaking — this helps establish yourself as the speaker
- Watch people’s mouths when they speak, to improve your pronunciation (try to mimic it)
- Your German improves with one or two glasses of wine or beer: Im Wein liegt die Wahrheit. (In vino veritas.)
- Last tip, if all else fails get this t-shirt from the Hipstery?