Liv Hambrett

Germany + Australia + Culture + Motherhood + Home

Life in Kiel, Travel + Life Abroad, Travel: Germany

Language Battle

Most of the time here, I can crack out my German in shops and cafes and restaurants with aplomb, or in social settings, engage in a monolingual conversation that makes me feel both smug (look at me go) and embarrassed (did I just murder a case?) at the same time, a sensation peculiar to learning and speaking a foreign language … or is that just me. But there are other occasions were something else happens and it’s usually in a bar and usually with bright young things who grew up with American pop culture squawking loudly in one ear and an English teacher in the other, from around the age of six. On these occasions, the conversation becomes bilingual, but in reverse. Allow me to elaborate.

The other night, I met an English speaking colleague at a wine bar for a Friday night drink. When the time came to order, I became locked in a common stand off wherein I, the English speaker, spoke German and the German speaking waiter spoke English. Neither of us backed down. He wanted to practice his English and I wanted to practice my German, so the both of us defiantly assaulted the other’s ears with our thickly accented second languages.

‘Hallo, ich hatte gerne ein Sauvignon Blanc.’

‘No problem. Would you like something to eat?’

‘Nein danke, aber vielleicht später.’

‘Sure! I’ll just get your wine.’


And so on, so forth. Neither of us giving up, no one backing down. Me secretly thinking, ‘come on mate, throw me a bone. I am in the zone, I am about to sup the magic Language Enabler, after which I will be even more in the zone. Give me German.’ And him quite clearly thinking, ‘bäm, a native speaker with whom to practice English!’ And then me, thinking further, ‘I need this, don’t deny me.’ He will, over the course of the evening, pay exceptional attention to our table and we will continue our bilingual interaction until the final, slurred, ‘danke, tschüüüüüüüs.’

It happens a lot. I embark upon a German conversation with a German colleague, only to have it come back in English. (Indeed the lengthiest, most rewarding conversations I have in German are often with my English speaking colleagues, in which we tramp all over the grammar but delight in responding to the same language.) Or I have a sip of wine, find myself next to a German keen to work on their English and (due to the wine sip) confidently slip into my German only to be met with a wall of English. And so we crash on, me mixing up my articles and cases, them using the Present Perfect almost exclusively and doing wild things with countable and uncountable nouns. Neither of us willing to acquiesce, both determined to inch forward in our linguistic progress.

And at the close of conversation – battle – both of us stagger away, bruised and bloodied, our ears ringing from the destruction of two glorious languages that the two of us just partook in, but our linguistic match fitness just that little bit boosted. We tape our muscles with grammar exercises and Two and a Half Men (mine dubbed, theirs’ original version) and wait for the next round.


  1. Jo Hambrett

    7 May, 2013 at 7:53 am

    good on you Liv for cracking on – I am such a French coward that when they reply in English I surrender with embarassing and cringe worthy haste, total capitulation…….truly pathetic.
    You have acted with heroic valour and have well earned your stripes ( bruises).!

  2. Bonnie Rose (@the_bonnierose)

    7 May, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Oh I know this too well. Oh and I love the Us with umlauts because they always remind me of smilie faces. I am so proud of you for not backing down, I will eventually face defeat and just speak english. I need to get better that next time I’m in a non English speaking country. I just get so flustered from lack of confidence.

    Bonnie Rose | A Compass Rose

    1. Liv

      9 May, 2013 at 9:56 am

      Oh I know, Bonnie, I know. The first 12 months of being in Germany, I was constantly flustered and had zero confidence. I had come to the country with two words of German and instantly got jobs that depended solely on my English, which left little time to learn. And everyone kept saying to me JUST SPEAK, as if I could open my mouth and have the words magically pour out. Over time and with less JUST SPEAK pressure and more hours in my day to learn, it got better. Funnily enough it was going home and coming back that bumped up my confidence, and I don’t really know why. But I absolutely get the flustered lack of confidence, it’s horrible.

  3. Mariella (@bridgekeeptrav)

    7 May, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    Haaa, I so know what you’re talking about!! It’s me in Poland. This is how it goes when I order coffee at a self service place:

    Me: Czesc! Ja poprosze Kawe Latte.
    Waiter: Sure. Would you like sugar with that?
    Me: Nie, dziekuje. A ile bedzie?
    Waiter: That will be 5, 50 Zl (speak: five fifty)
    Me (annoyed): To znaczy 5,50 Zl (speak: piec piecdziesiat)???

    I always get to the point where I will just repeat what they said in English back on Polish so they understand that I get what they’re saying, damn it! I do try also to speak German with non native speakers if they wish to do so. But then I guess I have enough and plenty occasions to practice my English and don’t need to take each and every opportunity for that.

    1. Liv

      9 May, 2013 at 9:45 am

      Both parties just have this need, this determination to practice – no one will be bowed!

  4. Irie Ninja

    8 May, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    Oh God this is hilarious and practically a replay of my conversations, everyday since I’ve been here in Austria!

    1. Liv

      9 May, 2013 at 9:39 am

      Got to keep on pushing through, defiantly getting every single article wrong!

  5. creativeexfoliation

    9 May, 2013 at 5:03 am

    “sup the magic Language Enabler …” Baaaaahahahaha this made my night. 🙂

    1. Liv

      9 May, 2013 at 9:38 am

      Hahaha it isssss, so magical!

  6. silke

    9 May, 2013 at 10:40 am

    I don’t know about other countries, but here it’s actually the polite thing to do. Just go ahead and say “trying to practice my German, now oblige!” and they probably will ; )

    1. Liv

      9 May, 2013 at 11:07 am

      I know that it is polite here, when you see an English speaker flailing about, to help them out by speaking English and that is lovely. But in my cases it is generally more that they want to practice English (and tell me as much!) and I want to practice German and neither of us want to waste the opportunity presented!

  7. ebe

    9 May, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    I love this totally passive battle. Fight on!

    1. Liv

      9 May, 2013 at 2:38 pm

      Woo! Both of us, The Germs and indeed myself, know precisely the battle we’re partaking in.

  8. Martina Möller

    9 May, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    Yessss…I’M one of theeeese germans 🙂 …but MY comments I’ll do personally —- just for now: I really love what you share here, LIV!!!

    And the reason why I share THIS with you here is hopefully obvious for you, honey, ENJOY IT!

    1. Liv

      9 May, 2013 at 2:37 pm

      Hahaha aber Martina, ich glaube du sprichst Englisch ohne dass du es weißt! Manchmal Deutsch, manchmal Franzözisch, manchmal Englisch, es ist alles egal und alles das Gleiche!

      1. Martina Möller

        9 May, 2013 at 2:41 pm

        GENAU Liv…Merci…et voilà that’s what I call ‘to be in the zoooone’…isn’t she great??? 🙂 😀

  9. gmtnunez

    9 May, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    Oh goodness. This happened all the time in Chile last semester. I would go out with other gringos and Chileans would hear us stumble on our Spanish just once and switch into English. This also happened a lot on buses late at night- when you really don’t want to identify your foreignness and strike up conversations with strangers.

    1. gmtnunez

      9 May, 2013 at 2:59 pm

      P.S. You have a lovely Instagram! And I’m returning to Chile very soon and will be reviewing your posts about going back to Germany after a break in Sydney. I’m anxious to see what la vuelta (the return) will be like as compared to my first time around. Cheers!

      1. Liv

        10 May, 2013 at 7:45 am

        I hope they help and will be interested to see you how find the return!

        1. gmtnunez

          21 May, 2013 at 5:16 pm

          I had to come back and comment on this post. Funnier than those who want to practice their English with you are those who don’t actively converse with you in English, but are people who know you speak English and attempt to subtly throw in English here and there. This happened at a family gathering this weekend- every once in a while members of my extended host family would say something in English…and I just kind of awkwardly ignored it…

          1. Liv

            24 May, 2013 at 12:27 pm

            Oh yes, the old sly English words peppered throughout conversation to keep you on your toes, remind you of their bilingualism!

  10. Language links - May 2013 More Vietnamese | More Vietnamese

    30 May, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    […] fun: Language Battle That moment when both speakers want to practice their target language. […]

  11. Andreas

    25 June, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    Thats really funny 😀
    But we are directly, so tell him to speak german and he will do 🙂

    1. Liv

      27 June, 2013 at 9:48 am

      I just keep talking now haha, press on with my German!

  12. Jay

    25 July, 2013 at 9:15 am

    Loved this post, Liv!

    There’s nothing more frustrating than finally gathering courage to try and speak a language in public to be returned with English! Good for you for keeping on when it’s so much easier to revert!

  13. Miriane

    29 November, 2013 at 11:22 pm

    There is something more frustrating than strangers speaking English with you when you speak German with them: your own (German) husband doing the same! 🙁

  14. An Innocent Abroad

    15 February, 2014 at 12:53 am

    I cannot stop laughing!! This. Is. So. True! I try to pick at least one Sprachsöpfer a day, and then I just go after them without mercy, banging them over the head with mispronounced ö’s, ü’s, and ä’s, clearly ignoring all rules of gender, verb placement, and adjective declension, and hurling words at them that sound similar to other words that are the right words but alas are completely other words that are nonsensical in context, and continuing to end question-statements in “ja?” rather than “oder?” It is a battle, and except for waiters, one of us usually gives up at some point. Of course, when they really want to win out, they just switch into their hometown dialect, at which time I have no recourse but to surrender and say, “I’m sorry, what?”

  15. Alejandro Porras Zamora

    19 February, 2014 at 7:59 pm

    Wow. I just loved your post. That in particular happens to me every time I try to: speak in english and/or german. It’s hard to get rid of fear, if the words used are the correct ones and also important, if everything you’ve just said had sense.
    During a final german test, meine teacher has told us to try and say in german something about a different topic. Well, that moment came up to me at final test. She said: Bitte. Was hast du in Ferien gemacht?… And for that moment every single word I had learned on 2 years… Gone. Just remained one on my powerful memory.

    I said: Aaaaamm… Aaaammm… Kartoffel…

    Believe me. That moment was priceless. Even the look of the teacher

  16. forester15

    21 October, 2016 at 8:46 am

    Wow! Amazing ….I am enjoying reading your blogs and this particular one sent me in peels of laughter. Hv sent the link to many of my German training colleagues.
    Your posts have certainly confirmed all that I have heard about Germans and Germany 🙂
    While you teach English in Germany I teach German in India. Und Ja, suche immer wieder Gelegenheiten indem Ich mit jemandem auf Deutsch sprechen kann.

    Viel Vergnügen weiter mit Bloggen!!

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