Lost in translation

An abridged version of this piece was published in The Oxford Student on October 13th 2015.

Perhaps it was naive of me, but I didn’t come to Germany expecting a culture shock.

Schnitzel and S-Bahns aside, I’ve never felt that Germany was particularly foreign, which is maybe why I instantly liked it so much. We have much in common with our European friends: a national penchant for beer and football; languages from the same roots; weather that fluctuates between miserable rain and sunshine that makes even the worst seventies architecture look glorious. I’ve heard that mediterranean resort owners find the English tourists indistinguishable from the Germans, both equally sun-deprived and willing to go to any measure to bag the best sun-lounger. And to some extent, I haven’t been proved wrong. I feel quite at home in this constant autumnal drizzle, and I’ve had beers in pubs here that could almost be the King’s Arms. Sometimes, when I let myself stop identifying the words my colleagues say and instead listen to the hum of their voices, I realise just how similar in tone German is to English. Apart from the obvious ‘culture shock’ of swapping lazy Oxford mornings, JCR coffee breaks, pretty libraries, and sociable evenings to working 8.30-5.30, 5 days a week, I feel quite at home here.

My culture shock has been an unexpected one.

As I introduced myself to flatmates and colleagues in my first few weeks, I did a lot of explaining exactly what I’m doing here. I noticed a recurring reaction of surprise as I told them I was studying German at university, ranging from slightly bemused, to confused, to this-girl-must-be-completely-mad. “Why do you want to learn German,” asked the lady from the office downstairs, “when we all speak fluent English?”

I laughed off her question, muttering something about the literature being really interesting (true), and joking about wanting to live in a country with good cake (even more true). But silently I admitted slight defeat. She had a point. This is something I’ve often considered. I’m studying German because I like it. I like the way you can put lots of little words together to make a big word (compound nouns, if we’re being technical). I’ve been more captivated by German literature than anything else I’ve ever studied. I love the utter regularity of the cases and adjective endings, and the way that the methodical, organised nature of this language seems to form the very core of the German way of life: punctuality, rules and unfailing organisational systems. Oh, and there’s really good cake. But none of these things make up for the increasing feeling that my pursuit, while interesting, might just be a little futile.

Apart from the fact that Leipzig is really quite cool, I’m in Saxony rather than Berlin or München or the ever-popular Nordrhein-Westfalen area because the standard of English here is supposed to be a little inferior. I certainly didn’t want to be somewhere where people would answer me in English by default, and, most of the time, that doesn’t happen here. There’s a certain degree of respect and admiration for my adamant efforts to improve, regardless of how silly my decision may seem. Under the DDR, schools taught Russian instead of English. My older colleagues don’t speak much English at all, and when I speak to them I feel good, because we’re relying on me and my German to get by. They’re the ones who compliment me the most, and the ones who are the most patient when I’m struggling. (In fact, the other day, I asked my supervisor to proofread my email to a scary external client and she was so impressed by my use of idiom that she showed it to the rest of the department. I think that was going a little far.) But among the others, I’m increasingly aware that we could be having the exact same conversation in English, and they, with their high school English, might even manage a little better than me. I don’t get asked to translate things as often as I’d like, because I’m not the only one who can. I’ve heard my boss speak English to clients on the phone. When I was struggling to tell the other intern a good story in German, she suggested I switched into English, and understood everything I said, and kept talking to me in English afterwards. (“My English is not so good”, she said. “I have problems with the spelling.” I complimented her on her fluency and assured her that if I could swap my pretty decent written German and my stumbling spoken German around, I would). I was met with a look of complete confusion when I pointed out that a language degree makes one more employable. Proficiency is completely taken for granted here. I’ve met Erasmus students from all over Europe – from Denmark, Finland, from Spain, from Jordan – all here to improve their German, but only really able to do so because they already have English as a middle ground. Although I already knew, somewhere in the back of my mind, that English is a world language, it’s only since I’ve been here that I’ve realised exactly what that means.

My culture shock has been my realisation of England’s national ignorance about learning languages. My memory of the only compulsory years of language-learning at school is hazy but unimpressive. Aged eleven, we learned the names of animals and drew and labelled pictures of them. Aged twelve, we brought in our favourite clothes from home, put them on for a lesson and learnt the word for each item. Aged thirteen, we staged role plays in which we ordered food from fictional French menus. It seems that the compulsory language curriculum in England is little more than a list of nouns. Two years later, I could tell anyone and everyone exactly how I’d spent my holiday, and maybe even my plans for next year too, but on our French exchange our exasperated partners spent the week chatting away in English because we just weren’t good enough to make interesting conversation. We didn’t cover German cases (which, it turns out, are pretty fundamental) until AS-Level. Because we, as English speakers, won’t ever really need  to be able to speak another language, languages are taught like any other subject: a checklist of words to know and skills to have, which, for most, will culminate into a grade on a piece of paper, soon to be forgotten about. The grade itself might be important, but the subject doesn’t seem to be. And because of England’s national attitude to learning languages, I find myself feeling a little embarrassed. I wonder sometimes, on bad days, whether my stumbling German is more of a hindrance than a help, and on good days, my sense of achievement is nulled slightly by my awareness that, to them, speaking another language well is just not a big deal.

(I asked my flatmate why his English was so good. He just shrugged. “German TV is rubbish”.)

I don’t think I’ll ever be the “native level of fluency” promised in the Oxford prospectus. It took me years to lose the midlands twang from my English accent, so I think that trying to lose the English from my German is a dream away.’Native’ is as much to do with a change in mindset as it is to do with grammar and vocabulary. ‘Native’ is the way you approach a conversation; the way you structure a sentence; the way you use your hands when you talk. ‘Native’ would mean losing my English tendency to apologise gratuitously and my slight surprise when every single person I pass in the corridor says hello. But these are the things that makes it worthwhile. I want to be able to make small talk like a German; to be able to make the right sort of passing comments; to make jokes that are funny here. I want to experience what it’s like to be German, and that, I’ve decided, is why I’m here.


There has been, however, another culture shock, one of the more traditional sense. Let me tell the dramatic tale of Ella-goes-to-the-doctor.

My plan, until about a week ago, had been to avoid the inevitable bureaucracy of registering with a German doctor, and just rely on my immune system to keep me healthy for six months. Unfortunately, I had to reconsider when, to my horror, I realised a huge oversight on my part. About three years ago, as a teenager miserable because her face was constantly covered in angry, red acne, my doctor prescribed me with some magical pills that, within a month or so, turned me from someone who was cripplingly self conscious of her horrid face to someone who has fairly okay skin most of the time and sometimes even goes out without make-up. Although I’d like to think that, at twenty, my skin would have cleared up by itself by now, I still feel far too liberated by my non-spotty complexion to take that risk. Anyway, I forgot to check as I packed how many I had left, and it was only now that I was in Germany that I realised my error. I had to get some more.

I started by talking to my doctor in oxford and my college nurse, who were well-meaning but rather useless. “We can’t do anything unless you come into the surgery. I could schedule you an appointment this week”, said the nurse, apparently not understanding quite how difficult that might be for me. Ahem. I tried to find them online, but needed an English prescription. I even took the empty box into a German pharmacy hoping they might be able to sell them over the counter. No such luck. The inevitable bureaucracy beckoned.

After a quick google of “how to register with a German doctor”, I set off for the Universitätsklinikum, which I’d been promised would be open long hours, and would be full of helpful, young, friendly doctors. This was true. What the website didn’t tell me, however, was just how huge the place was. It spans a whole street, with eight different buildings. I hedged my bets and went into Haus 1, walked to the front desk and said I’d like to register. I envisaged myself filling in a form or two, making an appointment, and cycling straight home. Oh, how wrong I was. Haus 1 is merely a reception to the other seven Häuser, and I couldn’t just register for a service as broad as a ‘doctor’. I needed to specify the sort of doctor I wanted to see, and register with them separately. The secretary pointed me to a map with a directory, and I got back on my bike and made my way to Haus 6.

Haus 6 is, broadly, the department for women and children: the magic-skin-pills I needed were technically contraceptive pills, and that seemed to be the best fit. This building was a lot busier: parents with bandaged toddlers, expectant mothers, awkward looking teenage girls. I joined the queue, waited my turn, and eventually told the secretary I wanted to register. It still wasn’t as easy as that. “Why do you need an appointment?” she asked. I, being used to English discretion and hush, replied simply that I’d like to see a doctor. She chuckled. “What for?” I was acutely aware that there were people all around me, and, despite my firm belief that asking for contraception – or anything else, for that matter – was not something to be ashamed of, there was something uncomfortable about discussing doctors appointments in front of strangers. And besides, I had no idea how to say ‘contraception’ in German. So I hesitated a bit. “You can say it in English”, she said, but the blank expression when I did told me that ‘contraception’ was not a word she knew. She then asked me to point at the body part. I giggled and shook my head, because that was easier said than done, and I was reverting into my awkward teenage self. People were starting to become interested as we got increasingly more frustrated with each other. “Sex”, I blurted out eventually, loudly, safe in the knowledge that it was a pretty international word. And with that one word, like a scene from a movie, everyone around me fell into instant, blatant silence. All eyes on me. Germany may be liberal and progressive, and may be known for its bluntness, but I seemed, somehow, to have crossed one boundary too many. As I shuffled towards the door half an hour later, prescription in hand, those still waiting watched me knowingly. There are no secrets here. There is also, apparently, more learning of etiquette to be done.

(‘Contraceptives’, it turns out, are ‘Anti-Baby Pille’. I’ve never heard anything so brilliant in all my life.)

I leave you with a few of the funnier results of pushing past linguistic/cultural boundaries over the last few weeks, roughly transcribed and translated for your amusement.


I asked the lady in the office downstairs whether I could possibly borrow some scissors. She looked at me in utter bewilderment before exploding into incontrollable laughter. I had no idea what I’d done, and wandered off awkwardly while she calmed down. A little look on WordReference explained everything. I’d actually asked to borrow a sheep.


Colleague: So, Ella, where abouts in England are you from?

Me: Oh, near Birmingham. (Always say near Birmingham. Never Wolverhampton. Nobody’s heard of Wolverhampton. Nobody will ever need or want to go to Wolverhampton.)

Colleague: Oh, Birmingham! I know Birmingham. I went there when I was little. It’s in Scotland isn’t it?

Me: Scotland? No, nowhere near! It’s in the middle. *points out on invisible map on palm*

Colleague: I’m sure it’s in Scotland. I remember driving through the hills there. Very pretty. With a castle?

Me: (*thinks* a castle? Dudley castle? Surely not) It’s definitely not in Scotland! *draws map on napkin*

Colleague: with look of distrust, as though this English trickster is having a laugh. Hmmm. Where is in Scotland?

Me: ummmm, well, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen…

Colleague: Ah! Edinburgh. I meant Edinburgh. Edinburgh and Birmingham just sound exactly the same, don’t they?

Other colleagues nod and murmur in fervent agreement, while I smile awkwardly, hoping I don’t look as confused as I feel


Colleague: approaches me in the office with the look of someone about to ask a very serious question, and I feel my heart start beating wildly, anticipating my imminent dismissal. Or something.

I’m sorry Ella, but I just had to ask. Is it true that in England you really put milk in your tea?




Add yours →

  1. This is brilliant. (I LOVE “anti-baby pille”! Does what it says on the tin…)


  2. “I love the utter regularity of the cases and adjective endings”- who even are you?!


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