Entschuldigung, ich spreche Englisch, sorry!


It’s difficult to change the way you think. It’s even harder when you must change the way you say the things you’re thinking.

Languages have never been my strong point. The closest thing I know to another language is Cockney rhyming slang (thank you Mum and Dad, very helpful…).

I was lucky enough to go on a year abroad last year in Austria. The magnificent, architecturally stunning, culturally rich Vienna became my home for nine months and I didn’t think I could be happier once I’d landed and moved into my tiny little studio.

I absolutely could have been happier. Had I known how to say ‘Excuse me’, I would have been happier. Had I known how to say ‘Hello, I’m Grace’, I would have been happier. Had I been able to say ‘I’m so sorry, I only speak English’, I would have been happier. I felt like a baby, stranded in foreign land where I couldn’t read road signs and I kept buying sparkling water instead of still. I knew there had to be a change.

So, I did it. Finally. I enrolled on an intensive German course at the most basic level possible. The flight and the visa and the leaving my mum and sister seemed like the easiest things in the world now. This was a moment where I could make a change – where I had to make a change.

Over four weeks, a very tall man named Erik taught myself and around 30 other students how to count and say the alphabet and the different ‘you’s’. Four nights a week we congregated in a dark hall, the type that reminded me of where I used to go to Brownies and recited numbers three hours at a time. Erik began to learn our names and knew what things we would always get muddled up.

I felt like I was the absolute worst German speaker in the class – unfortunately this wasn’t just an insecurity, this was the truth. Everyone there was Belgian or Spanish or Korean, and they were already bilingual. I already live up to an embarrassing number of stereotypes, so the linguistic ignorance of a Brit had to be the one I combat. I felt so stupid – of course the English girl can’t remember the grammar, she has never needed to because her country is the ENEMY!

I was always met with,

‘Sorry my English isn’t good…’

which I learned means nothing because everyone speaks perfect English,

‘…but you don’t need to learn German! Everyone speaks English here anyway!’.

An undeniably tempting offer when one is standing outside a room full of people who seem like they were born and raised in Austria compared to me. After many, many lessons, I felt like I was getting the hang of it! Knowing how to say, ‘excuse me’ and ‘thank you so much’ and ‘where is the bathroom?’ made me immeasurably more comfortable – dare I say proud of myself? Yes, it was stammered and awkward but I was doing it! I truly wish I could put this feeling of achievement in a jar and keep it on my shelf.

I’m not quite sure if there is one lesson to learn from this experience of mine – something about how change should be embraced and nothing is as scary as you think it will be. In the hope I don’t sound too shallowly philosophical, I feel like there are many things to take from my journey from ‘annoying year abroad student who can’t speak a word of German and won’t shut up about it’ to ‘annoying year abroad student who can now speak a few words of German and won’t shut up about it’. Whether you take from this that you should redownload Duolingo, go to that social you have been too nervous to, or try your very best to be a well-behaved Brit on your holidays, I hope it’s something half as rewarding as my German lessons.

And of course, danke schön, Erik!


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