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making friends in a second language
August 16, 2012 6:52 AM   Subscribe

Making friends in a second language: Can you explain to me why it doesn't matter?

I am an American living in Germany and although I'm getting relatively good at the language, I still make all sorts of mistakes. My sentences still get jumbled sometimes, I still have to resort to gesturing periodically, and every time I try to explain or describe something, all I can see are how many words I'm still missing in German. And when people talk to me too fast or use non-basic vocabulary, I still miss things sometimes. And yet, I've somehow managed to make good friends here: smart, articulate people who are frequently hilarious and incredibly kind. These friends are also German, and German is our main language of conversation.

At some very basic level though, I don't understand why they want to be friends with me, and why all of my mistakes in their language don't seem to bother them. I feel like it must be so much more work to communicate with me than with their fellow Germans. And we're living in a pretty big city, so it's not like my friends don't have other opportunities to talk to other native speakers: people who don't have to continually pause in the middle of their sentences to ask how you say "humbug" or "fork" or "solidarity" in German. Most of those other native speakers probably don't mangle articles or violently mispronounce words very often either.

So if you have people in your life--good friends, casual friends, significant others--who are not native speakers of your language, can you explain to me why it doesn't matter to you that they can't speak your language perfectly? The thing is, I have had friends myself who were immigrants and didn't speak English perfectly, and that never bothered me, but I can't seem to extrapolate from that to my own current experience. I think hearing other people's stories might help.
posted by colfax to Human Relations (52 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
I work with the sweetest, nicest, most genuine woman on the planet, and English is her 3rd language. She's been in the US for years and is really easy to understand but sometimes she misuses words or idioms or can't think of the right word and one of us helps her out. Why doesn't it matter to me? Because she's the sweetest, nicest, most geniune woman on the planet.
posted by jabes at 6:57 AM on August 16, 2012 [22 favorites]


Having international friends is fun!

I love to compare differences in upbringing, educational system, jobs, ways of doing things, even grocery stores.

A genuine interest in people and understanding different viewpoints is why I cherish my international friends.

I love to help them with their English skills, or with negotiating certain cultural or societal issues. Sure, I'd love to go to the DMV with with you! Let me show you Your DeKalb Farmers Market! I have a restaurant I like and I'm dying to know if it's authentic.

If you think of yourself as an anthropoligical oddity, I think you'll get where I'm coming from.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:57 AM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Because what you say is only part of what makes you valuable as a human being.
posted by empath at 6:58 AM on August 16, 2012 [31 favorites]


FAMOUS BROTHER's wife is from Thailand. Her English is a million times better than my Thai, but it's, you know, not always super easy to understand her.

But it's not about how she says things, it's about what she's trying to say. The sentiment carries over, and inevitably it's a kind one, a good one. And she's just generally a pretty funny person. So there's that.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 6:58 AM on August 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Well, for me, it's because the language barrier doesn't prevent me from seeing and appreciating the humor, kindness, and intelligence of the other person. I'm going to guess it's the same in your situation. And because (to be honest) sometimes the mangled phrases are charming and/or hilarious.
posted by idest at 6:58 AM on August 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think your language problems are probably much more frustrating for you than them.
posted by JayNolan at 6:59 AM on August 16, 2012 [14 favorites]


Besides, a lot of Germans think America is really cool! My Austrian (OK, not technically German, but a shared language and extremely similar culture) friends' kid just thinks America is the absolute best! When I first met them, he had an American flag and a giant poster of Ice Cube on his wall, and was very excited to hear my input on the authenticity or lack thereof of Vienna's newest American-style restaurant.
posted by infinitywaltz at 6:59 AM on August 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


They probably appreciate your qualities so much that the small cost of a sometimes less fluent communication doesn't matter to them. Also, my experience is that having friends from other cultures makes life richer and more interesting.
posted by Ms. Next at 7:01 AM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Speaking with someone who doesn't speak perfect English is fun! It is fascinating to hear the types of mistakes they make, and that makes you appreciate your own fluency all the more. You get to hear the hilarious malapropisms they make (in a laugh-with-them-not-at-them kind of way, of course), you get to hear them ask fascinating questions about usage and then debate them with your English-native friends, and you get to learn random words (and swears, even better!) in their language. I wish I had more friends who spoke English as a second language.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:06 AM on August 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


There are lots of awesome people in the world, and why would I want to lose out on knowing one just because sometimes they take a while to say what they really mean (people do this in their first language too) or forget a word (people do this in their first language too) or make hugely entertaining grammatical errors (people do this in their first language too). I don't even find it frustrating when other people have trouble in English, though I am frustrated when I cannot get the right words out in French.
posted by jeather at 7:07 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Because you don't need to hear 100% correct German to understand what someone means. And what someone means counts, not anything else.
posted by devnull at 7:13 AM on August 16, 2012


I live in Berlin and speak mediocre German. I have German friends with whom the main language is German, and other German friends with whom I speak English. In both cases one party is listening to another speak their native language imperfectly. I also had a German girlfriend for 3 years whose English was advanced but she made plenty of mistakes (some of which I started to unconsciously emulate to hilarious effect when back in the US.)

In other words, my personal experience says: chill, relax, its all good. Your question smacks of an anxiety that I think is unjustified.

In the US, people who don't speak English are either "foreigners" or immigrants living in their own little bubbles. This is totally different in Europe. Yes brown people are usually still seen as foreigners. But as for Western EU countries, these people are often barely foreigners - more like Texans in Maine or something - and there's lots and lots of exchange where everyone knows everyone else's language only imperfectly. Or, their only common language is a flawed English. I know plenty of people who build good friendships across such language gaps. I think many Europeans just see all this as an unavoidable fact of life, and certainly not a reason to miss out on a potential friendship.

Think of it as an opportunity to practice some tolerance and patience, to develop a habit of nipping misunderstandings in the bud, to improve your hand waving techniques, and to learn to speak a bit more clearly.
posted by tempythethird at 7:14 AM on August 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm not a native speaker of English, and I grew up in a community (in America) of people who are not native speakers of English. Most people I grew up around were either first- or second-generation or immigrants, and that includes friends, family and teachers. There was a point where I probably knew more people who spoke English as a second language than as a mother tongue.

Anyway, the point is, that in all these people, some people just never pick up the language to the degree of a native. My aunt has lived in San Francisco since 1977 and she's still got a pretty heavy accent and if you had a conversation with her you'd realize she's a very intelligent woman, but you'd also immediately peg her for an immigrant. And the latter doesn't really matter because of the former.
posted by griphus at 7:15 AM on August 16, 2012


It's the Borat effect, where we are willing to forgive even outrageous shortcomings in people from other countries who seem to be genuinely interested in exploring ours.

We like to root for the underdog. Tolerating the girl who's struggling with German is part of that. Even though my communications with non-native English speakers is slower, there's a strong part of me that really wants to help them. I even like the grammatical and pronunciation mistakes, it's charming.

We're flattered that you're taking an interest in our country/culture. It's refreshing to explain how my country works to foreigners, since it exposes me to viewpoints I never would have thought of. I knew American portion sizes were big, but it's a kick hearing from an Italian how crazy huge our pasta sauce jars are.
posted by Mercaptan at 7:19 AM on August 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


One more thing OP - I make basically no attempt to get German articles right, its just too much work for me. So every time I use an article there's like a 50% chance that its the wrong one. My German friends say they barely notice this because so many non-native German speakers are constantly screwing up the articles that they've stopped noticing it.
posted by tempythethird at 7:22 AM on August 16, 2012


I speak only passable conversational Irish Gaelic, and yet, a crowd of native Irish speakers recently decided that I should go to Ireland in November to an Irish language festival to represent my country (Canada) as a traditional singer in the Irish language. Conversational skills are just one of a host of reasons people see value in others.
posted by LN at 7:25 AM on August 16, 2012


Imperfect use of a second language still ranks as an achievement above the baseline of no ability to communicate in that language. I would pretty much always see it as a positive and make an effort to accommodate them rather than focusing on the mistakes that person was making (unless maybe they'd asked me to spot them for such errors).
posted by crocomancer at 7:26 AM on August 16, 2012


What people crave are connections and language is a means for getting to that...but they're not the only ones.

Subtle things like the way you treat people, the desire you have to get better at communicating, the non-verbal cues you use and other methods are key to connecting with people.

I once dated a Colombian immigrant whose grasp on the English language was about as strong as mine is in Spanish and I essentially know how to order a beer. We dated for about two months (until I moved) and what struck me about our connection in that time was how much I cared about her and how much I could learn from her without discussing things. We would do things like paint together, read together, cook together and the care and tenderness she approached with me was amazing.

There is a particularly poignant moment where she burst out crying and was unable to articulate why she was crying, but I realized that it wasn't about me and what it was about was irrelevant. That feeling of being cared about, of human touch and of knowing that whatever it is will pass, is something you don't need words to articulate. You can wrap your arms around someone and tell them that things are going to be okay. I still don't know why she was crying, although I know it was her family and that nobody had died.

I don't keep in touch with her (it was years ago, and you know, technical communication was not our forte) but I feel blessed to have known her. Connections can happen in so many different ways and concepts, language is often not the strongest method for communicating it.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 7:27 AM on August 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Cut yourself some slack. The fact that your conversation is interesting enough that you need to know how to say "humbug" or "solidarity" in German is probably worth more than you're giving it credit for. I have a lot of conversations with a lot of native English speakers in which anything beyond a 3rd grade vocabulary would be overkill. If somebody wants to talk with me about something that actually gets my mind moving, I don't care how bad their accent is, or whether they know the word that goes with a particular complex concept - the concept itself is the reason for the conversation. Your brain is friends with their brains, and the language is not a real barrier.
posted by aimedwander at 7:27 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I love having friends from all over. They are always full of interesting perspectives!

I have a friend from China who came to Texas by way of Canada. His command of the language is actually quite good, but he occasionally stops to ask about a word or phrase, and his accent can sometimes be a little hard to understand. And sometimes he sees/hears something and misremembers it with a simpler vocabulary. Once, he wanted to suggest we grab brunch at a restaurant called "Tiny Boxwoods" - but kept saying "Little Square Trees." How is that not ADORABLE?!

But we love all the same things! We have so much fun together. If there is something that I'd like to do, there is a 110% chance that a) he wants to do it too and b) has already heard about it and is sending me a text at the moment suggesting we get together to see/do/experience it! How sad would it be for me if I let a really minor language barrier get between such a fun friendship!?

I find speaking another language can, at times, be exhausting. I can't just put my mouth on autopilot and GO. (Hence my existential dread every Wednesday night when I should be walking out the door to go to the French Language Meetup here in town.) However, I recognize that others appreciate my efforts and ability to communicate with them in their language if we haven't another common language. Case in point: a friend's Belgian husband learned Dutch instead of English, making French our only language in common. While I'm mortified at the condition of my French, he is OVERJOYED that someone can speak to him so that he doesn't feel completely left out of all the adult conversations taking place. (Simultaneously, I feel overjoyed when my boyfriend's family speaks English rather than Serbian so that I can understand them, since my vocabulary is approximately 8 words. 6 of them are impolite. I would never dare to criticize their language skills since they are doing me a favor by speaking in MY language. Of course, I also wouldn't dare to criticize their language skills since they all speak - at the very bare minimum - three languages, and I know they're all intelligent worldly people.)

I NEVER feel exhausted when speaking with a non-native English speaker. Those conversations actually push me to the other end of the scale. I feel energized. I feel helpful. I feel like I've helped solve a puzzle when we finally communicate. You probably feel significantly more weary than these people do.

Finally, many of us grow up with the looming dread that we might just be That Ugly American. We blithely ignore other people butchering our language - while simultaneously cultivating this idea that we have to go elsewhere in the world and Be Perfect, or else we'll somehow be contributing to this idea that all Americans are uneducated provincial boors. While I think it is something we should be mindful of, it sounds like you're letting this specter haunt you a little too much.
posted by jph at 7:31 AM on August 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Why are you friends with them when you don't immediately understand everything *they* say? Oh yeah, it's because you said they're smart, kind, and hilarious. They probably feel the same about you.
posted by jessca84 at 7:34 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I kind of think, also, that we're on our best behavior when we don't know the language very well. Like, when I was desperately trying to speak Italian a few years back, it was pretty unlikely that I was going to get into a long, drawn out religious or political conversation where I insult the sensitivities of my new Italian acquaintances.

Once, when I had run out of things that I could reliably talk about, I started reading out some ridiculous phrases & questions from my Rick Steve's Italian phrasebook -- the guys at the bar thought that was hilarious and practiced in reverse with my book. It was a grand time.

There's basic rooting for the underdog, as someone said above, and there's cachet to having a foreign friend and there's basic human interest that spans all sorts of divides. Really, the status quo of American xenophobia is much weirder than welcoming a friend who doesn't speak your language too well.
posted by amanda at 7:37 AM on August 16, 2012


You've said that your friends are "smart, articulate people who are frequently hilarious and incredibly kind." They're the kind of people who seek out different perspectives and don't need to hear perfect sentences in order to understand you. They appreciate you because you're also smart and kind and maybe hilarious, too, and you're probably more articulate than you think.

I had immigrant friends in the US whose imperfect English didn't bother me because they were interesting and lively and open to new experiences. Now I'm an immigrant in a Spanish-speaking country. If I pay attention, I'm aware that I'm almost incapable of saying two grammatically correct sentences in a row. Happily, I don't have to pay close attention, because my friends almost always understand me anyway, and my errors immediately fade from memory, with the meaning remaining instead. They remember what I said, not how I said it.

And congratulations for assimilating instead of isolating yourself in an English-speaking bubble!
posted by ceiba at 7:38 AM on August 16, 2012


I'm an American currently living in Santiago, Chile, and man, do I feel your pain. My Spanish has improved a ton but I still make mistakes every day and misunderstand people a lot, and it can turn what should be really simple, like buying something at the supermarket, into a source of embarrassment or anxiety. At first it really bothered me, but I eventually got so used to it that I just accepted it as inevitable. I really identify with a lot of the reasons given here for why it doesn't matter that your friend might not be a native speaker, especially the idea that rapid and fluent conversation is not the only way to form a deep connection with someone. I think it can actually be a relief to some of my friends here to have someone who they don't have to jabber away with all of the time. Conversely, my more talkative friends here like that they can talk away and monopolize the conversation to a degree...so, it's really a win-win. Moreover, who doesn't like to feel helpful and needed? I'm sure your friends like that they have something valuable to teach you. Also, any mistakes you make or awkward situations you get yourself into might be embarrassing for you, but are probably funny for the person listening, so you've just brightened their day by making them smile! That's what I tell myself, anyway...

As I think about my own experiences with non-native English speakers (of which I have many, having taught to ENL populations for three years in the US and being an English teacher to Chilean students here), another reason for why it is awesome to have international friends comes to mind. I think one of the most important skills that a person could develop, especially one who plans on travelling internationally, is the ability to interact well with a person who does not speak their native language. I am genuinely really grateful to my friends who do not speak English fluently, but with whom I converse in English anyway, because hanging around them has taught me how to be a better listener, how to keep conversation going, and how to speak to them in a way that is easily understandable but not condescending. Too many people that I meet here have obviously never spoken to a foreigner before, so they do not know how to do so and can be (unintentionally) very rude. I love that I have had so much experience with non-native English speakers because now I know how to make them feel welcome and included despite any embarrassment they might be feeling about their language ability...which in turn helps them to learn, because they feel much more comfortable speaking around you. So you're helping your German friends learn valuable skills too.
posted by luciernaga at 7:44 AM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


and why all of my mistakes in their language don't seem to bother them. I feel like it must be so much more work to communicate with me than with their fellow Germans.

Because as an American/Canadian immigrant you are an "A" immigrant in Germany. If you were from Turkey or Serbia - i.e., a "B" immigrant - you would find far less tolerance for your bad German.

This is true across Europe. I am an American immigrant to Sweden - now almost 20 years I have been living here. My Swedish almost perfect - good enough that it is hard to tell where I come from - but there are enough words I cannot properly pronounce that it gives me away as a foreigner. I notice when I speak Swedish on the phone I often get some attitude when I am having difficultly with a word or expression I don't know - especially from government agencies. Whenever this happens, I switch to English which gives me away as an American and instantly the attitude is more friendly and welcoming. It is like throwing a switch from "bloody foreigner who can't speak proper Swedish" to "Oh were do you come from?, I've been to America, etc."
posted by three blind mice at 7:45 AM on August 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Remember too that Europeans are used to having to deal with people speaking different languages and think nothing of it. Americans are pretty insular where that is concerned as the country is pretty homogenous language wise (heck me speaking English with an Australian accent has confused more than one of my new relatives), in Europe though all you have to do is drive a short while in any direction in Europe and you're in a new country, heck they can speak three or four languages in one country. I am willing to bet they don't think twice about how you speak, that's just who you are, like your height or the colour of your hair.
posted by wwax at 7:53 AM on August 16, 2012


I live in Toronto, and we are a city of immigrants so I have lots of friends whose native language is not English. Personally, I like it because:

- I feel helpful when I can help with their English.
- I'm a bit of a linguistics nerd, so their English mistakes help me spot the quirkiness of English and I enjoy that.
- Similarly, their questions about Toronto/Canada make me realise things about our culture that I wouldn't have noticed otherwise.

But they're my friends because I like them personally, not because of their language skills. There are tons of native speakers who I don't hang out with for reasons other than their fluency.
posted by heatherann at 7:58 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Because-

* the commonalities and interests bind you more than how you talk about them
* your friends can see beyond the trivial faster and more often than you realise (good people these men and women!)
* they appreciate who you are more than how concerned they are with how well you get your thoughts across in German
* they respect who you are rather than base their judgments on how you look when you fumble with words in a foreign language
* they really, truly enjoy your company


Ever watched kids from different countries who don't speak yet or don't speak the other's language? They can play for HOURS on end with just gestures to get by with. And the reason might be very simple- they are just having fun hanging out with each other. Fortunately, simple things in life don't always need a complex explanation.
posted by xm at 7:59 AM on August 16, 2012


I think your language problems are probably much more frustrating for you than them.

This can be experimentally verified. A friend and I have been swapping language practice, alternating ten minutes in her native language, ten minutes in mine. When the alarm rings to switch back to my language, my brain's gut reaction is always one of relief.

It's also worth noting that when she's speaking my language and can't find the right word, I experience the situation as a pleasant puzzle, in which a daily medium that I take for granted becomes illuminated and interesting.
posted by feral_goldfish at 8:01 AM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Because accents are usually one of the following:

adorable
humorous
DEAD SEXY
posted by skrozidile at 8:03 AM on August 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


three blind mice said, "as an American/Canadian immigrant you are an "A" immigrant in Germany. If you were from Turkey or Serbia - i.e., a "B" immigrant - you would find far less tolerance for your bad German."

I respectfully disagree. By this ranking, I would definitely be considered a "B" or even a "C" immigrant to Germany (why does typing that sentence make me feel crummy?). My German is not that great and I have received a great deal of encouragement, kindness and attempts at conversation from Germans of all ages and backgrounds.

Anywho, I totally feel your pain OP, I have been in the exact same situation. Something that made a big difference: a German friend asked me to please correct her every time she made a mistake in English to help her improve. One day we're chatting, she says something then pauses and asks, "oh, was that correct, the way I said it?". I had to mentally rewind and to realise that yes, what she said was not grammatically correct. "Then why didn't you correct me?" she asks. And I realised that I hadn't even noticed. It wasn't the way she spoke I was listening to, it was the content of her words.

Discussing it with German friends, I realised that many of them had the same impression of my German. After a couple of chats with me they just stopped noticing the mistakes. Understanding how involuntarily and thoughtlessly I skip over my friends' grammar blips has helped me to accept my own errors.
posted by guessthis at 8:09 AM on August 16, 2012


I'm a mainly English speaking German native speaker with many friends with other native languages than those two; our main language is English. I don't mind that they speak either fluently because as long as I understand what they are saying, it doesn't cause any problems in conversation. Sometimes the grammar is a bit funny, sometimes we realize that our native languages have words for something that the English language lacks of and know what the other means without using the word, but it doesn't make a conversation unbearable to a point where I'd rather make friends with native speakers. That never occured to me, though I do react pretty violently to native speakers' funny use of spelling and grammar. The difference is: They just don't care - non-native speakers simply don't know better (yet), but they are learning and care about using the new language correctly.
posted by MinusCelsius at 8:11 AM on August 16, 2012


My goddaughters' father is from Ukraine, and he can be one of the most hilarious raconteurs I've ever met when he's in an outgoing mood. This was true even when he first came to the US, and his English was fairly shaky.

When I met a bunch of his childhood friends, I mentioned this and they were all "Really?" Apparently he's only funny in English. So maybe you're more entertaining in German than you are in English!

I know I have a very different personality in French, just because I have a different vocabulary and speaking style--I'm much more Serious Business because my French mind is full of Racine and Hugo, whereas the Shakespeare and Dickens in my English mind is crowded out by "Uh-oh, Spaghetti-Os" and "I fart in your general direction!"
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:24 AM on August 16, 2012 [7 favorites]


It might be, also, that communication is only in part what you say, but also the way that you say it and the quality of your actions: tone, facial expressions, content of your character (i.e., it says indirectly whether you care about people). I would argue that those are the things that touch us more on the level of relationships. If those things are in tact, it's easy to forgive things that emerge as secondary features, but might not be perfect. One way to see this is by noticing that when you have good relationships with people that are based on trust (which is only in part based on words), it's easy to be in the same room as them and not say anything, yet still enjoy the quality of the relationship.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:25 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Like, I suspect, you I am a fascinating, hilarious, cosmopolitan conversationalist in English. In German I'm so busy trying just to be comprehensible (and comprehending the reply) that I'm rarely anything other than just a pleasant guy who is sometimes amusing. Turns out people do appreciate that. I sometimes want to tell them, "no, really, in English I can be fucking hilarious" but I'll get there, eventually. And (as my wife reminds me) they are Germans; merely being appreciated is damn close to being a sworn friend for life.
posted by From Bklyn at 8:39 AM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


If its anecdote time, I've just gotten to the point where I know enough Spanish that I can have conversations with locals that don't involve ordering food and asking for directions.. The other night I spent a few hours talking to three ladies in a bar, only one of whom spoke English with any proficiency, and another who spoke halting English, and it was really challenging and interesting for all of us trying to share stories so that each other could understand them, and puzzling out what each other was saying, especially since we were all fairly drunk at the time. I learned a lot of Spanish(especially slang and dirty words) in just a few hours that you would never pick up in a class, and I think they enjoyed practicing English and talking about their country.

I think maybe not everyone is like this, but there are people who get a great amount of joy from 'teaching' for lack of a better word, and someone learning a language is like a child in school, and almost everyone you meet has something the can teach you. When I was staying with a local family and learning Spanish, I mostly ended up talking with the kids because they never get tired of having conversations like "what color is this?", but once you get to a basic level of proficiency, you can have those kinds of conversations with adults about pretty much anything they have even a basic level of knowledge about.

Maybe part of it is that because most language learners can understand much better than they can speak, it's made me appreciate the value of listening to people in social interactions. Because it takes me so long to untangle what people are saying, and piece together my response, I spend a lot of conversations, especially when I'm the only non native speaker just paying close attention to their faces, nodding and listening, when often in regular conversation, I'm just waiting to talk and not paying attention at all. When I get back to the states, I'm going to try really hard to listen more and talk less, in fact.
posted by empath at 8:54 AM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


1) Being appreciated is a good thing, no real purpose to questioning it, I think. Just enjoy.

2) Anecdatum 1: Many of my exes weren't native English speakers. Accents are charming. One in particular had absolutely perfect English, no accent whatsoever (he grew up in VA from a single-digit age), but still had occasional vocabulary lapses- usually with a phrase he knew but had only read, and thus either pronounced funny or misused slightly. The (rare) mistakes made me appreciate even more his fluency (in 3 languages, as it turns out). Plus they were hilarious and gave us both something to laugh about.

3)Anecdatum 2: My work community is rather international. It's quite frequent that the number of native English speakers is <10%. But people's brilliance isn't tied to their language skill, so I talk to people from all sorts of linguistic backgrounds, and I've gotten better at understanding what a nonnative speaker is trying to say. I'd expect your German friends might have more experience conversing with nonnative speakers (due to being in Europe and not in the relatively homogenous US), and thus might find it less painful.
posted by nat at 9:57 AM on August 16, 2012


I have no anecdotes to offer, but I wanted to add that you're lucky your German friends are willing to speak German to you. Here in Holland, even though I'm functionally fluent (and used to be near-native back in the 1990s), people hear my American accent and immediately switch to English. Which is of no help with me trying to regain my near-native.

So you're obviously doing something right.
posted by digitalprimate at 10:01 AM on August 16, 2012


Along the lines of what SpacemanStix said, I'd bet that your demeanor is such that it's very obvious that you are trying to speak/understand their language and culture and, very importantly, you keep your sense of humor about being imperfect at the language.

Putting yourself out there in a foreign country and not taking yourself too seriously are nice qualities. That's what I'd guess you exude.
posted by Pax at 10:03 AM on August 16, 2012


I'm probably just repeating a bunch of stuff, but:

- I always gravitated toward the international kids in h.s., and one of the fun things for me in our local orchestra is the internationals that drift in and out. I live in central Alabama in a city with an inexplicably large international community, mainly because of a) a Korean car mfg. plant and b) a international officer training component of the Air University of the USAF. Some people just dig it. Why ask why?
- if you're loathing yourself for not being good at German, well, how else are you going to learn? I had a college professor, an old man at the time (1980s) who said that as an Army officer put through a crash course in German and sent to Germany to interview German officers in the post WWII era, he and his fellow officers got ALMOST as good as their wives, who just wound up living in Germany and talking conversationally with their German counterparts. IOW, you're doing the one thing that will make you get better.
- strangely, speaking with a non-native speaker helps sharpen your wits. You learn about idioms that you've always taken for granted, and you learn what's basic and what's not in your own language. That's what your German friends are getting out of the deal. And maybe they just like you.
posted by randomkeystrike at 10:07 AM on August 16, 2012


Your German-language difficulties don't matter to your German friends because a) your friends are warm, wonderful people with a great sense of humor, and b) they appreciate your making the effort to converse in German, and c) you probably inadvertantly say some extremely funny non-sequitar now and then.

Year ago, a coworker's mother was spending the summer here; Mom spoke Farsi, Turkish and French; I speak English and a small bit of German. As you can imagine, this would make difficulties whenever Mom would call work. So, I made up a list of basic phrases and asked Daughter to give me phonetic equivilents in Farsi. This usually worked well, but one day, I tried to say that I'd get Daughter to call her as soon as she returned to the office; Mom started laughing at me.... odd. I tried to add something about Daughter was on her break; Mom was now laughing hysterically.... VERY odd. I tried to say 'I don't speak Farsi', after which Mom must've been literally rolling on the floor, so I tossed in a 'salaam', gently hung up, and tried explaining the whole thing when Daughter returned. Apparently I actually said stuff more like 'Daughter is buying hair spray in the parking lot', and the 'I don't speak Farsi' line was kinda obvious! The point is, even with NO language in common, Mom really appreciated the simple effort, no matter how badly I did it.
posted by easily confused at 10:07 AM on August 16, 2012


One of my friends had a theory that it was always easier to flirt in a language you don't know. It's partly because of lowered expectations. If you only know a handful of words in German, nobody expects you to speak poetry.

But I think it goes deeper than that. There's always a split between what we mean and what we can communicate effectively. I can say "I like this street" but mean "This place makes me nostalgic for my childhood." The latter is much harder to convey, of course.

If you said "I like this street" in English, people would just assume you were admiring the architecture and continue the discussion.

If you said the same phrase in German, it takes on a different shape. There could be some deeper emotion that you don't know how to communicate, and "I like this street" is the closest you can get.

This dynamic cuts through a lot of the awkwardness when you first meet someone. There's also something very human about trying to communicate an emotion that you don't have the words for, so we are hardwired to empathize with the other person. I suspect this also why people like cats.
posted by yaymukund at 10:16 AM on August 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Here's another thought: maybe you're actually more interesting in German.
In my native language, I talk a lot more than is necessary. I spout nonsense and platitudes at the drop of a hat. I mutter small talk, comment on everything I see... probably annoy the crap out of some people. In another language, though, I have to think so much harder. I can't just say something, I have to process the thought, decide if it's worth the effort, figure out how to say it, and do so before the moment has passed. I end up listening more (not only to words/translation, but thinking harder about content), and being less jabbery and impulsive. At the same time, I do say things that I know are somewhat off-the-wall as part of the winding route toward getting my root idea across. I could totally see how this would be entertaining from an outside perspective.
posted by aimedwander at 11:08 AM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's also fun to talk with someone for whom a lot of banal sayings are brand new, and who hasn't heard all the old worn out jokes which got tired for native speakers decades past.

E.g., explaining the expression "why but the cow when you can get the milk for free?" to my Colombian colleague.
posted by endless_forms at 11:10 AM on August 16, 2012


So if you have people in your life--good friends, casual friends, significant others--who are not native speakers of your language, can you explain to me why it doesn't matter to you that they can't speak your language perfectly?

I can only speak from the Canadian anglophone experience: in Toronto, at least, it's considered extremely rude and borderline racist to not tolerate ESL people making mistakes in their English. The anglophone is expected to have patience and to make an effort to understand the ESL person who is (clearly) making a greater effort by speaking English to start with. Being impatient would be boorish.
posted by jb at 11:22 AM on August 16, 2012


I don't mind if others can't speak English perfectly, as long as I can understand enough to have some meaningful conversation. I love languages and words so I genuinely enjoy explaining to people what complex or new words or phrases mean. It means I look anew at my own language, and I find it interesting when they tell me what the equivalent phrase is in their language. I don't find listening to non-native English speakers that much more effort, even when their level is quite low (though many who I know are astonishingly good).

Speaking with foreigners means I have to cut past the socially-accepted rituals and shortcuts - things like social class and occupation are not really relevant, and I can't assume anything, so instead I focus on what the person is saying, who they are as an individual. I think the conversations are less predictable and so I'm willing to make more of an effort to engage.

Also, having studied a foreign language or two myself I can certainly sympathise as I'm aware how hard it is to get to a really really native-like level.

I think if you are making German friends whilst speaking German - enjoy it and don't spoil it by overanalysing it! Some things in life are just good, and that's that.
posted by EatMyHat at 12:54 PM on August 16, 2012


They spend time with you because they like you and like spending time with you. I know plenty of people who speak English very well who I would cross the street to avoid. Why? Because I find them unpleasant and don't like spending time with them.
posted by Daddy-O at 1:55 PM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


When someone is communicating in a language they are not fluent in, they must choose their words carefully and be thoughtful about the things they choose to say. This level of thoughtfulness and clarity is, regardless of language, a delight when it comes to having conversations.

For instance, I just had lunch with a coworker from Brazil who has a pretty solid grasp of English, but is deliberate and careful with his speech. The things he says may take longer to get out sometimes, but they're a lot more interesting than the vapid stuff some of my other (native English-speaking) coworkers say, and I know who I'd rather have lunch with.

Also, accents can be really charming, as can the occasional misplaced word. What you perceive as a downside, then, really amounts to the upsides of having non-native-speaking friends! Enjoy your friends, since you've obviously earned them.
posted by davejay at 2:27 PM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, why do YOU like hanging out with THEM? That's a bunch of work for YOU, right? You could totally just seek out a bunch of American expats and have an effortless social life, right? And yet you think they're worth it.

Well, so, there you go. They feel that way about you too.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:07 PM on August 16, 2012


Personally, I love talking to people who can speak English just well enough to be understood most of the time. It's incredibly interesting to listen to your own language as grasped by somebody who is translating it from another language on the fly.
posted by tehloki at 9:33 PM on August 16, 2012


Thank you all so so much for your answers! I really appreciate you all taking the time, and I would like to mark every single one as a "best answer" because they were all so helpful and kind.
posted by colfax at 7:20 AM on August 17, 2012


Well just to add another anecdote, in grad school I dated an Italian guy whose English wasn't great, but he was so much fun to hang out with! He brought a completely new background and perspective to the table, which made him interesting to talk to, and his intelligence and sense of humor totally carried over despite the language barrier. I also found it easier to let my guard down and be myself with him, because the language difference kind of forced us to keep it real with one another... He had this wide-eyed perspective, navigating a foreign culture, that was very charming and it was fun to see things through his eyes. Everything felt like an adventure. To this day I think of him as the one that got away...
posted by désoeuvrée at 8:14 AM on August 18, 2012


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