Semi-Lost in Translation

Horace Wang
February 14, 2019

“Do you speak English?” I ask the man who greets me, in German, as I enter the Asian restaurant.

“No, only German,” he replies.

A bit later, when I’m done with my meal, the same man who greeted me when I entered the restaurant brings me the bill. 

“Ten euros and forty cents,” he says.

“Ten euros and…?” I ask, having not entirely heard what he said.

“Ten euros and forty cents,” he repeats — only this time, he says it in English.

I pay and leave the restaurant, but even long after I’ve left the restaurant, the single sentence that he spoke in English stays on my mind. It’s entirely possible that just he grew impatient with me and reverted to using to English, but part of me can’t help but wonder if he misinterpreted my confusion regarding the bill as me being unable to understand him.

On most days I’d easily forgot about such an incident, but there’s something about this encounter that sticks with me. Maybe it’s the fact that, in the past week, I’ve increasingly had to draw upon my German skills, whether it’s trying to get a gym membership whilst communicating the fact that I don’t have an European bank account. Or maybe it’s the fact that I should have just stuck to using German without asking my waiter if he was fluent in English; I’ve heard that Germans will appreciate you making an attempt to speak German with them, regardless of how broken your German is.

I start to reflect upon my German language skills and my usage of the language since arriving in Germany. One of the main reasons I chose to study abroad in Germany in the first place was to put my two and a half years worth of German to the test, to utilize my German skills outside of classroom conversations and homework assignments. I start to think about my German competency, about how I can pick up bits and pieces of other people’s conversations when eavesdropping in the street but struggle to understand each and every word, about how I’m neither a beginner nor a fluent speaker of German.

As a government major and as a German student, being in Germany and having the chance to study the European Union was more than enough incentive for me to choose the IES Abroad European Union program. However, one thing that I didn’t really consider in the process of deciding to study abroad was the language barrier. Even though my German is good enough for me to get by in most day-to-day situations, the occasional German word or phrase that I don’t understand still pops up every now and then. I still open many of my conversations with the locals by asking if they speak in English. Freiburg, despite being a somewhat English-friendly city, still remains a mostly unfamiliar environment to me. But it occurs to me as I continue walking down the street that, in a way, isn’t that what studying abroad is about? Making an unfamiliar environment familiar over time?

Horace Wang

<p>I was born and lived in Hong Kong my entire life before coming to the United States for college. My three favorite things in life are currently politics, comic books, and Kpop, although not necessarily in that order. I like to write, read, draw, and work out in my free time.</p>

2019 Spring
Home University:
Bowdoin College
Hong Kong
Environmental Studies
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