When I was was a newbie foreigner in Germany, there were many daily situations where I survived it by just pretending that I understood, instead of looking baffled and waiting open-mouthed for someone to explain all the time. Pretending can become easy. A person just needs a lot of practice until he get the hang of it.
My first days in Berlin were difficult. It is claimed that Berlin is an international and cosmopolitan city wherein most people speak English. In my experience, majority of them understand English but they are not willing to speak the language. When you still insist on speaking with them in a foreign language, they would have this special look and may become close-mouthed or distant.
Naturally, you will have to study German formally to be able to integrate as soon as possible. However, for the meantime, here are some tips that may be useful for you:
Always say your greetings.
The Germans are strict on greetings. When you enter a room full of Germans, or you are going to pay in the cashier, they usually say “Hallo”, “Guten Morgen”, and “Guten Tag”, depending on what time of the day it is- When you want to say goodbye, you could say “Tschüss”, “Auf Wiedersehen”, “Schönes Wochenende”, “Ich wünsche Ihnen einen schönen Tag”, etc. When you learn these greetings, you are on the right track even if those are the only German words you can speak. The Germans are already happy that you are speaking these words as a form of showing your courtesy.
If you are walking in the street and want to make contact, it is not easy. Germans are generally distant and reserved and overfriendliness can be perceived as being artificial. However, they have certain weaknesses that can be taken advantaged of: dogs and gardens, and talking about the weather.
If they have a dog, don’t forget to ask the name of the dog or to praise it (Just assess the friendliness of the dog. We don’t want you being bitten by an anti-social pet). Another alternative to gain friends is to say how nice their garden is. This will definitely endear you to them fast instead of making your neighborly spring rolls.
If they wanted to talk longer, you can start speaking about the weather. You can outdo each other by talking about how warm it is or how cold it is, just for the sake of saying something gloomy. The Germans like to talk about the weather like it’s a recalcitrant child. They have a specific weather in mind for the season, and if it’s not happening, then it is bad.
Learn the important daily phrases.
These words or phrases can really come in handy during conversations or chance meetings. For example: “Ich verstehe” (I understand), “Genau” (Exactly), “Alles klar” (All is clear to me), or “Schön” (nice). You can never go wrong with these phrases especially during parties.
Familiarize yourself with some words in certain situations
You can ask a German or just consult your language book on this. When buying tickets in the bus, you say “Ein mal, bitte,” like an expert. The bus driver would just automatically give you one ticket and you can pay for it. This is easy, right? I have heard a lot of horror stories about foreigners just wanting to buy their ticket and would have big problems with drivers who wants you to speak German just because they don’t have the time and patience to understand a baffled tourist.
Nod as if you understand
In parties, generally, they will not speak English just because you are a foreigner. No, they will not make adjustments for you. It is difficult sometimes when you are sitting there with your mouth full of German Streussel and trying to pretend to understand. So when you are tired being by yourself, just sit together with them and nod during important parts. After a few times of listening to them, you will suddenly realize that you understand some parts of what they are talking about. In a few months, you would surprise yourself when listening and understanding German doesn’t give you a headache anymore. Comprehension is starting to become automatic.
Do you remember in beauty contests, when a contestant doesn’t understand the question, the safest way is to smile and say I thank you. You can learn from these beauties all the time!
If you don’t understand the question, just give a smile. You never go wrong with a smile. When worse comes to worse, hand gestures may come in handy instead of speaking German sentences that unfortunately has gender in every noun.
If all doesn’t work anymore and you are in an emergency situation, you can always ask charmingly “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” .
It takes time to learn German. After a year of learning it in Volkhochschule and being corrected by my husband and a few Bäckerie Fraus, I am improving on my German language everyday.
There are times that I still have to pretend that I understand it especially when my father-in-law resorts to speaking these really high-fallutin German sentences. But more oftentimes, I can come out and buy something in the supermarket or even strike some conversation with my neighbors about the weather, dogs and babies; of course in a gloomy sort of way just like how the Germans like to do it.