The Rambling American: Language Etiquette for Dummies

Bilingual situations are awkward and, sometimes, even insulting. No longer! Locke McKenzie introduces “The Rambling American’s Language Etiquette Guide for Native Speakers.”

Entschuldigung. Wissen Sie wie wir die nächste Bahnhaltestelle finden können? (Excuse me, do you know how we can find the next train stop?)”

Lost on the winding back roads of Hamburg, a friend and I pull over to ask an amicable-looking man for directions.

“Yez. You must go to zee right and zen zee left and zen you must go like ziss,” he said, gesturing straight ahead with his hand.

My question was likely tinged with the hint of an accent and a grammatical mistake, but why did this man answer me in English? Did I look incapable of understanding German directions, or did he just want to show off his English? There’s a good chance that he thought he was being polite, but ultimately I felt insulted.

I spent the past four years working on my German. Learning to do so competently was a part of my assimilation process, and I pride myself on my ability to speak well. For this man to switch into English first implied that he thought my German was shit, and second, pinned me as an outsider.

And I still didn’t know where the train station was.

Negotiating bilingual interactions is a difficult exercise in etiquette. At best, the rules involved are subjective, unspoken ones, where—as illustrated above—a false step is often times disrespectful.

So what are we supposed to do?

The high minded individuals at The New York Times and The Boston Globe have already tried to make some sense of similar situations with limited success.

The major problems I had with both of these articles was their focus. They confined their discussions to the discomfort felt by natives when they hear non-natives speaking in an unfamiliar tongue.

Are they talking about me? Is something in my hair?

In reality, giving immigrants lessons in language etiquette is probably the subject we need to address least. “Should I speak English on this elevator with my friend, or should I speak German so everyone else doesn’t feel uncomfortable?” Immigrants face this situation every day and are already aware of the consequences.

The people who truly need advice in bilingual situations are the native speakers. Unlike many immigrants, follies on a native’s part generally stem from ignorance. In order to prevent this in the future I’ve written a language etiquette guide.

(This guide is, of course, only of use to you if you can speak another language. If not, you really don’t have a choice but to speak your mother tongue. In that case, you should probably buck the fuck up and learn another language.)

The Rambling American’s Language Etiquette Guide for Native Speakers

These are the basics of an initial interaction. If you follow these guidelines you should make it through a night’s conversation without insulting anyone (unless you are an asshole). To reflect my experience in Germany, I will use the word “English” as a symbol for all foreign languages and “German” to symbolize one’s native language.

  1. If you want to learn English, move to England.
    Or any English-speaking country of your choice.
  2. Most non-native speakers are less impressed by your ability to speak their language than you think.
    Yes, we know that you’ve been training your English all the way through college. You may be inclined to show off your language abilities when you meet a foreigner on the street, but beware: While your countrymen may find your language skills impressive, speaking a second language (sometimes even a third or fourth) is a necessary part of an immigrant’s everyday life. Not only do many of them have a highly developed second language, but they can hear exactly how bad your English is. If you want to impress them, help them with their German. (See rule #1 for questions.)
  3. Many people want to assimilate; you should help them
    Perhaps I’m going out on a limb with this one, but in my heart I think it’s true. No matter how little an immigrant may want to assimilate (some really want to, some simply don’t care), it’s exhausting to constantly feel like an outsider.

    That being said, if they address you in your native language, you should respond in it. While you may think it helpful to respond in the language you know they understand, it isn’t. It undercuts their desire to assimilate and their ability to speak intelligible German. Unless someone specifically announces his/her linguistic failings and asks if you speak English, refrain from doing so. (See rule #1 for questions.)

  4. Ask for permission.
    If you find yourself in a longer conversation with a non-native and you can’t control your desire to speak with them in their mother tongue, you need to at least ask them if it’s okay. Considering they live in your country and need to develop their language much more than you do, they should have the right to say, “if we could keep speaking German, that would be better.” (See rule #1 for questions.)

  5. Look at the makeup of a group.
    How many English speakers are in the group versus German speakers? If there are four English speakers and you are the only German speaker, it would probably be appropriate for you all to speak English together.

Please note that this list is in no way comprehensive and there are always occasions when a rule should be bent or broken. When in doubt, however, please see rule #1.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.