Broken English

We’ve been here less than a week (one week ago, we were on the plane and on our way here) and I’m already noticing a difference in my ability to communicate.  Obviously, I’m in a country where I don’t speak the native language, so I’m stifled in my ability to communicate in German.  That’ll be true until my vocabulary extends beyond the half-dozen words I know (which are almost all for kinds of food).  But I’m shocked to find that it’s effected my ability to talk to people in English, too.  My English is broken.  I’m sure it’s not irreparable, but I’m definitely having trouble using it.

After a too-long day of apartment shopping and trying (unsuccessfully again) to get phones, we stopped at McDonald’s for dinner.  (Starbucks and then McDonald’s on consecutive days — what an exotic Austrian adventure I am having!)  After debating for a moment over the menu, we stepped up to order.  After Dan started to order, in English (because it’s McDonald’s — you just can’t help it) it became apparent that our cashier was a fluent (maybe even native) speaker of English.  But even though I realized that, I couldn’t help but communicating to her in the same minimal vocabulary and sentence structure that I would have used if I was speaking to a native German speaker.  I was even aware that it was happening, and couldn’t overcome it.  I was reduced to simple, one word answers, with nothing extraneous.  I tried to fix it, mid-conversation, but I couldn’t.  It was a really strange sensation.

This was really one of the first times that I’ve encountered someone who was clearly able to speak English fluently.  We’ve run into a few people in shops, on the street, or while apartment hunting who could communicate very well in English, but they still have trouble with anything but the most straightforward language.  We have gotten into the habit of using simple, short sentences, with almost no humor or extraneous adjectives.  I already feel like I’m imposing when I have to resort to speaking English rather than German, so when I use it, I certainly want to be as easy to understand as possible.  But when faced with a skilled English speaker, I couldn’t turn that manner of speaking off.

Of course, this doesn’t extend to Dan and my kids.  Or my mom over Skype, or I imagine anyone else I know from home.  It doesn’t extend to my ability to write, either.  But it’s like I have a new category for language in my head that I didn’t know about:  Austrian English.  It’s a habit.  It’s surprising to me how profoundly I’ve been effected by just a week of expressing myself (or rather, not) so consciously.

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