In my nineteen long years on this earth, I have encountered few things as rewarding as successfully holding a conversation with a native of a different language, in their language. I have also experienced few things as humiliating as completely butchering their grammar and accent and subsequently getting mocked. Both have happened multiple times on this trip, and both have been equally eye opening.
The sound of live music grew louder as we walked deep into Downtown Leipzig, where a crowd of tshirt- clad Germans waved heart-shaped balloons and danced to “YMCA”. After eating dinner and surveying the scene, we grabbed the last “I Heart Leipzig” shirts and raced to the center of the crowd. A young girl sitting on her mom’s shoulders shook her balloon and it lit up wildly enough to match her smile. An old man behind us gestured to my camera: “Foto?”. It was easy enough to understand. I handed him my camera and smiled in thanks. After he snapped a few shots, he offered a toothy smile and began to speak: “Woher kommen sie?”
I froze, but my mind raced. Do I say America or Missouri? What preposition am I supposed to use? Should I just ask if he speaks English? I fortunately remembered that I learned how to answer this very question the second week of German class: “Ich komme aus America.” “Ah, I see! Sehr gut, so you speak English! What are you doing in Germany?” The man responded with accented, but nearly perfect English. Stay strong, I told myself. You are here to learn German, not to speak English with Germans. But what in the world is that damn preposition? This time, I couldn’t remember. “Ich studiere Journalismus…Universität Leipzig”, I stuttered out weakly. I expected a grimace or at the very least some laughter, but instead he looked simply delighted with my attempt. The old man threw his arms around me, and I finally felt welcome in the country that had isolated me with a language barrier.
There are ways to communicate without spoken language. It could be gesturing to a camera, granting a wide smile, or extending arms for an embrace. At times it could be easier to rely solely on these forms of communication, but I have found it most effective to release myself from the binds of embarrassment and just give the conversation my best shot. Sometimes it ends up with the heat rushing to my cheeks, and a strong urge to hide under my covers for a few hours. Other times, it ends with a changed perspective and a new friendship.