Noun Roulette: The High Stakes Game of Speaking a Foreign Language when it Counts

“Hallo! Hair Live! Kann ich Ihnen helfen?”

That sentence strikes fear into my heart. It’s rattled off at breakneck speed and the words fly like bullets. And all she’s saying is “Hello, Hair Live. Can I help you?”  I reply with an elegant and fluent, “Uh…..”

But I recover and haltingly say, “Ich möchte einen Termin für ein Trimm zu machen.” (I would like to make an appointment for a trim.)

“Yah,” she replies. “Hast du einen Schnitt, Farbe, washen, stil benötigen?”

Again I break out with an impressive, “Uh….” as I go through my limited Rolodex of German.

So the lady on the phone does what every person does when they are speaking to someone who doesn’t understand their language.  She talks louder.  “SCHNITT? FARBE? WASHEN?”  When I still can’t respond she finally breaks down into a little English and yells so loud I have to take the phone away from my ear.  “CUT?? COLOR?? WASH??”

Ah. Of course.

I have been working hard to learn German.  Listening to Pimseleur, playing Mindsnacks vocabulary games, trying out phrases with Google Translate, and listening to conversations on the tram and on radio programs. But even with all of that I feel unprepared for actual conversations. Especially when they count.

I do know quite a bit of German and I am confident in a few situations.  And I study phrases that I think I will need before I go out, especially when I am planning on having an interaction with someone Swiss.  I am proud to note that I have memorized all the phrases I need in the chocolate store.  But when I go to the Post Office, the Hairdresser, and the Dentist I feel nauseous the day before. When I walk in the door I’m nervous and in the middle I am sweaty and faint.  When I finally walk out the door I feel like I could collapse, but also like a Big Damn Hero. (As illustrated by this this clip from Firefly.)

But that doesn’t take away the sheer terror of not being understood.  I did manage to get a good haircut even though I was terrified to say anything. But that was because she was using a razor on my hair and I didn’t want to distract her.

My biggest test came when I took the 5 year old to the dentist, or Zahnartz.  I need to tell you that H’s teeth are horrid. He has spots with enamel erosion because his enamel is weak. It’s an anomaly that has nothing to do with how much sugar he has had or how often he brushes his teeth and there is nothing we can do about it, but it’s incredibly stressful for me to take him to the dentist and hear how bad his teeth are. It doesn’t bother him at all.  A few days ago he smacked himself in the gum with his fork at dinner and the site looked like it might be getting infected. I had to call the dentist. I just couldn’t afford to hope it would go away so I braced myself for making yet another appointment in German.

But I couldn’t do it.  I asked (in German) if anyone there could speak English. Thankfully the head of the office could and she was the one on the phone with me. We got an appointment made with no problem. I practiced my phrases the day of the appointment and got H to the dentist. The dentist I was assigned did not speak English. I did understand about 70% of what she was saying, but in the end she asked for a dentist that spoke English to tell me how horrible H’s teeth are and we need to better job. (Always a parenting moment that I savor.)  As a result we have an additional appointment to try a new protection technique.

I am somewhat relieved that there is something that can be done for H’s teeth, but I am also stressed that I am going to have to memorize entirely new phrases for x-ray technicians, dental hygienists, and the dentist herself. Of course, there is always the possibility that I will have an English-speaking dentist, which -oddly- makes me feel like a failure.

And there it is.  I feel like a Big Damn Hero when I can flounder through (and assault the Swiss ears with) a conversation using minimal English and a Big Damn Failure when I have to use mostly English.  What can I say? I hold myself to high standards.  But at least I can get a decent haircut and buy copious amounts of chocolate!


2 responses to “Noun Roulette: The High Stakes Game of Speaking a Foreign Language when it Counts”

  1. What would I do without your beautiful writing that is so entertaining –so enjoy you posts – think of u often

    Sent from my iPad



    1. Thanks, Kay. I have been enjoying your pictures. I hope to see you the next time I come back to Iowa.


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