Saturday, 3 December 2011

Oi, foreigner, learn English before you talk to me

Okay, the title is a bit over the top, I know. I love teasing you :-)

I just came back from the Polish shop and not for the first time. I think for the past six months or so I've been in there fairly regularly. They often have products similar to Germans stuff, i.e. a particular sausage you can't buy anywhere else than in a Polish shop, probably not even in the German Deli -- not that I go there often.
When I asked the girl behind the counter to cut the slices thinly, she looked at me with puppy eyes, then nodded and I knew she had no idea what 'thin' means. I repeated it and she ignored me. No idea if she thought I'm talking to myself, most probably didn't she understand what I was saying. In any way, I found it rather rude.
When we went on to the next sausage I had to use my hands to explain what 'thin' means. She understood raw (or so I think) perfectly fine, when I asked about something else.
I keep seeing that phenomenon a lot and I wonder why people don't care about the language of the country they live in. Even if you don't plan to stay forever, why don't you take the opportunity to learn a new language? English comes in handy everywhere. I don't expect people to be speak near native, but to be able to hold a conversation or at least have a basic vocabulary. Yes, it's a Polish shop and maybe they don't like English people (I doubt she knows I'm German, or worse, she knows and can't stand Germans), but I'm always friendly, say hello, please, thank you and even try ask for for some products in Polish.

It was always beyond me how someone could pass on such a great opportunity to learn, to broaden their horizon. Language is the ultimate basis of communication. I'm constantly amazed that I, being German, can mingle with people from all over the world, learn from them, laugh with them, teach them, etc. and that all because we have one thing in common: we are able to speak English.

Cultural differences aside, when women aren't allowed out of the house or speak to others (yes, sadly it's still happening in the year 2011), I will not understand that people can't see what they're missing out by not stepping out of their comfort zone and at least try.


  1. You made me remember that the writer Isaac Asimov once referred to English, somewhat jingoistically, as "Earth Standard."

    Why people don't learn the language of the country they live in is often a complex question. For some is lack of opportunity or motivation. For others it is that their learning a new language is beyond their capabilities. This is especially true for older people. For others it is that they are too poor to pay for classes. I think that instead of being annoyed you should just encourage people to learn the language and maybe even perhaps help them find say a place that offers free classes.

    My wife ran a "language group" for Asian stay-at-home moms in our apartment complex and it was a fun experience for her. Once you break the language barrier you find that people are very similar everywhere. They have the same dreams and fears and often cry and smile for the same reasons.


  2. On the other hand, you could take this opportunity to learn a bit of Polish. . .

  3. Hi, Phanto

    ~for some it's lack of opportunity or motivation
    ~too poor to pay for classes

    But then you say I should encourage people to learn.

    Why should I encourage people who aren't motivated? Older people: okay.

    I'm mostly referring to those who go and live abroad for a while or for longer and just can't be bothered to learn.

    Lack of opportunity: everyone can learn if they want to, all it needs is curiousity. You are already in a different country, there are language tandems and other possibilites.

    And yes, people are the same everywhere; never said anything different. :-)

  4. ckaiserca

    You see, that's the point: If I lived in Poland, I'd learn the language. I'm not. I live in England and learned the language, still do.
    I know a few words in Polish, though. ;-) And no, it's not swear words, I object to teaching foreigners swear words.

  5. Hello, Stella. I find that omission in her vocabulary quite interesting. The adjective "thin" is normally used to describe people in everyday speech, although perhaps not very often, as it isn't polite to make remarks about someone's physique. Perhaps, one might say that a friend or relative who had lost weight was looking thin. So maybe we shouldn't be surprised that the girl had never heard the word before. I would love to know whether she knew what "fat" meant.

  6. Gorilla

    She might know the word fat as meat, butter and all that has 'fat' in it.
    There was another instant with another girl, I asked if the cheese was mild and she looked at me in cofusion. When I said 'not strong' she knew immediately what I was talking about. Very odd. It's simpliest basic English.

    Anyway, I'm not singling out the Polish here, there are plenty who speak English, probably better than I do. I mean it in general. I can't understand why people don't try to learn the language of the country they moved to. It's a beautiful thing to learn.

  7. You wrote: "Why should I encourage people who aren't motivated?"

    Well, being in a foreign country where you can't speak the local language can be very scary and disheartening. This is specially true if you are there because you have no other options and also if you are not particularly well educated.

    I'm just saying that an encouraging and understanding smile is better than a disapproving frown. With gestures show them the difference between thin and thick while saying the words, no need to be critical. It's better to help than to criticize.

  8. Phanto I think you need to read my post again.

    You are reading too mucn into it. I merely stated an observation and my concerns about it.

    If I see someone's interested in learning, I'm all up for helping ;-)

    I'm a foreigner myself, you see?

  9. Hey, I'm a foreigner too Stella. I used to have a greeting in the answering machine in both English and Spanish. Then one day I came back home to find a message where someone, after using a racial slur, claimed that they would kill me and my family if I did not go back to "the country I'm from." It was probably a prank, but our greeting in the answering machine nowadays is only in English.

    It try to ignore these and other things but they sort of sit in the back of my mind. I know that being a foreigner can be a very traumatic experience for some people and I'm just a little sensitive about it.

    Sorry if I read too much into your post.

    Take care.


  10. Oh gee, that's awful. And that's not a prank, that's just plain nasty. I understand your being sensitive now.

    And yes, being a foreigner can be a bit scary. Especially in the beginning when you have difficulties to follow a conversation in a pub with loud music and people chatting away. There's only one solution: jump right in. ;-)

  11. I hate Germans who live in England and after learning to string together a couple of sentences in English looks down on EASTERN EUROPEANS. I happen to be married with an English girl and went to University so my English is quite good, I cannot say it for Germans and French living in England. They sound very foreign even after five years living in UK. However, when you start to talk to them in fast English and they know you are from Eastern Europe they make that strange look at you like you are the one who is an idiot and cannot speak English where I know for a fact my English is ten times better then theirs. It is about the time the ugly fascist Germans and lazy French understood that you are just as foreign in England as somebody from Poland or Lithuania or whatever and you definitely not better . Besides, when you go to the Polish shop then may be you should use your common sense and understand that they might not speak English (especially spoken by German). it is called Polish shop for a reason, if you don't like it you can fuck off to German or French shop or even better back to Germany which is doing very well (robbed for centuries their neighbors)for you have no reason to be in UK.