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Butchering a language.

I see a lot of people discussing trepidations about speaking the language they're learning to native speakers because they are not fluent. There's a fear of offending the person they are speaking to. Although I'm new to learning a foreign language, I do have some insight into this. When I was in the service I would travel to other countries and pick up small bits and pieces of their language in order to be able to express myself. I never had anyone offended by my lack of knowledge. Also, I work in a field that gives me the opportunity to be around people from different parts of the world. Some of their English is horrible but understandable. I don't know of anyone who's ever been offended by their broken English. The main factor is that they are able to express themselves. That's all that matters. Don't be afraid to speak to anyone. Most people will be amazed and appreciative that you understand any of their language at all.

September 17, 2018



I agree. I've also found that people are very happy when I try to communicate in their language -- and it's also true for me: When foreigners talk to me in German (I live in a city that hosts trade fairs quite frequently), even if I have to think hard to figure out what they mean, I'm enthused.

Even if some blunder happens, it can be fun. Someone who led a delegation of German youth to the UK, said in his farewell speech: "... and thank you so much for your hostility!"

Everyone smiled, everyone knew what he wanted to say, and afterwards, they explained the error to him, and they laughed together.

I think it's much easier to worry less, and to just be friendly.


Funny story, i love it!


Good reminder to us all - worry less and be friendly. Thanks Heike!


A German colleague once mentioned to me the problem of trisecting an angle, only he said "trisecting an angel". I said I didn't think that was quite what he wanted to say; he thought a moment and laughed, saying "Poor angel!".

[deactivated user]


    A somewhat similar story. A few years ago we hosted a German exchange student for a school year. One weekend day when he was here, the German student reported to my wife that our dog Stella and I were napping on the couch in my office and that we were both "snorkeling." "I didn't correct him," she told me gleefully.


    Oh! A snorkeling dog - such a beautiful idea. :-)

    [deactivated user]


      lol what did he say and what did he mean to say?


      the German for "angel" is "Engel", which sounds like "angle" - so it was an easy mistake to make; the whole conversation was in English.

      [deactivated user]

        that's so sweet!! people love it when they are being spoken to in their language


        I recently had a conversation with a Chinese waitress who lived for 10 years in my country of birth without ever formally learning the language of said country. Everything she knew she learned by reading books and watching TV; as a result she had a rather thick accent and her grammar was, as the French say, "pas terrible", meaning it was really really really bad (she didn't conjugate verbs, her article usage was all wrong, etc.). That said, she spoke so confidently and without hesitation that none of this was an obstacle to what ended up being a very nice conversation.

        My personal opinion is that as long as you're humble, and don't claim to speak correctly when you obviously don't, anyone who is offended by your mistakes isn't worth your time.


        I've never seen anyone offended by someones lack of the language and would be horribly surprised. Learning a new language is difficult and no one should ever be discouraged from using it because they might be embarrassed.


        you too much, you levels i s very high, omg


        A the bus stop on Friday, a friend asked if anyone had the time. There was a person I read as a young woman sitting across from us. They looked a bit like a deer in the headlights. But, they looked at their watch and made a few halting attempts to give the time in English with a beautiful and heavy accent. Later, they were conversing with an older person in Spanish. Their accents were very different, but both were fluent in Spanish. I was very impressed because, clearly speaking in English was something they had to summon the courage to do. And, while it took them a few tries, they did it! :D


        Such a pleasant post! I see this fear in a lot of people as well, and this post is a good reminder to them all, that a decent person will never judge someone because his second language isn't perfect.


        You are correct. German is actually my newest language that I'm learning the first being Spanish. I live in the New York City Metro area where there are a lot of native Latin American speakers from a variety of countries . When I was a new learner, I would often with trepidation try to use my Spanish to practice with them and I would always say please excuse my Spanish I'm learning in school so please feel free to correct me or help me and don't take offense if I say anything wrong. Often they would laugh and then they would help me but they were very grateful that I was trying my best to reach out to them in their language. I have yet to have an experience like this with my German, because there are not too many native German speakers in my area.


        Is there a branch of the Goethe Institute nearby? Also, perhaps you could host a German exchange student, or offer an Air B&B for German tourists. Finally, years ago there was a wonderful woman in San Francisco who would give free walking tours to kids staying at the youth hostel - perhaps you could try something similar.


        I'm also from the New York metro area and I agree, it's almost impossible to find German language partners.

        [deactivated user]

          from there too!!


          Thats a very beautiful post and thank you so much for posting it. Well I speak some English and some German and I am now learning Spanish and Italian on Duolingo. In the past, I lived as a student in two English speaking countries and- to be honest- I experienced a lot of different reactions. I remember many funny incidents but also sa few - not so funny- when I was misunderstood because of my mistakes in English. That was a bit heart-breaking because it was not my intention to sound rude. And I remember a few people being sarcastic with my knowledge in English and my accent. I also had some -very few- negative comments when I made my first attempts to speak in German and Spanish. But it is true that the great majority of the people were helpful, encouraging and really patient when I was struggling to form a sentence :). I was very shy to speak in English before living abroad but I had to get over it when I moved there. So now I know that the best way to improve is through my mistakes so I don't hesitate anymore to take that risk! And I am so grateful for having met so many lovely people from different countries and cultures. And that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. So here is one of the funny conversations I remember: me:So he told me that.... my friend: Oh, she is a woman! I thought your supervisor was a man... me: No he is a man... my friend: But you said she..!!!??? me: Oh no, I said he with my heavy accent :)))))


          There will always be rude people no matter where you go. There are people around the world that hate anything that is different then their own views. These people have no joy, no love. Don't let them steal yours. Life is to short to worry about nasty people. Find people who make you happy and enjoy their company. God Bless.


          I feel honored when people practice their English with me. I love the little mistakes, and discussing idioms especially. I always try to learn things from them as well, even if it's a language I know I'm not going to try to learn entirely.

          When traveling, I make sure I can at the very least say the following in the local language(s): "Hello," "goodbye," "please," "thank you," "excuse me," "I'm sorry," "Do you speak English?" and how to count to ten. I see it as a gesture to the people I am visiting, that their culture is important and interesting to me. Even if that's all I can say, the people have almost always appreciated that I am trying. Sometimes, I think I detect a little irritation, like, "Of course I speak English," but that is mostly from the younger generation, and mostly people are happy that I don't expect the world to cater to Americans. Maybe they even get a good-natured laugh at my poor pronunciation.

          I did, however, have a rough time in Paris. The only positive interaction I can recall was with the amazing staff at our little hotel on the outskirts of the city. Otherwise, it was very uncomfortable. It was extremely disheartening, but I hope to visit other parts of France at some point.


          In general, I appreciate your approach a lot. But as a museum worker with millions of international visitors every year, I would like to add my thoughts to your "do you speak English?" observation. This is indeed, at least for me and most colleagues, a quite annoying question. I know that there is a group of people, who see it the same way like you - they don't want to just expect the rest of the world to speak their language. But in my experience, that's a small group. The majority of people, asking that question (and that's not just Americans), do it out of - I have to call a spade a spade - ignorance about what's happening in the rest of the world. And these people can easily be identified by the rest of their behaviour, if you've been in tourism for some years. Yes, of course we do speak English (surely with mistakes, but still), it's the current Lingua Franca, and not just since a few years. Especially if you are moving around in touristic areas and cities. Of course in rural areas, the situation might be a different one.

          Yes, on the streets, this is a nice thing to do and most people will appreciate it. But please, don't do it in museums or other tourist hotspots, where staff is serving hundreds of international visitors every day.


          You do have a good point.


          When I was in college, the two exchange students from France were supposed to speak to a group for an event to raise funding for the college. One of the students had problems with English suffixes and said to the assembled group that he felt the scholarships offered by the group were worthless. The people in attendance were offended by the remark - until one of the French professors quickly got up, spoke with the student, and then explained to the crowd what the student actually intended to say was that the scholarships were worthwhile and not worthless.

          There was a huge sigh of relief.

          I think making these types of mistakes actually help us to learn the language.


          Those are the sorts of mistakes that are nerve-wracking to make in the moment, but entertaining to tell one's friends about later. haha. I am glad the professor was there to help sort it out for everyone. :)


          and the guy NEVER made that mistake again haha


          I agree. I've also found that people are very happy when I try to speak in their native language.


          Or would appreciate that you are trying to understand.


          i have seen english speakers who were annoyed by my spelling mistakes and grammatical errors in english ( they knew i am not native to engish and never been to an english speaking country.)


          Getting such negative reactions must be disappointing. Quite possibly those people have never tried to learn a second language themselves. It might help if you let people know that you'd appreciate any feedback on your English so you can improve. Many people will not offer corrections without such permission.


          well one of them claimed to speak 4 languages fluently the other one apologized after i reminded him that english is not my first language. well i am not easily disapointed. i correct people who try to learn my language too all the time, not because i am annoyed, but because i think that we can only learn if we get correction. if no no one tells me what i did wrong, then how am i supposed to get it right at some point?


          That great. When I speak Spanish I am very grateful to people who, helpfully, point me in t the right linguistic direction. One time I was waiting for the el autobus and informed that I was actually waiting for la guagua. The difference being one was the Official Metro Transit bus while I was waiting for an inter-campus shuttle or jitney independent bus. Would never have known this subtle difference if not for a kind native speaker.


          I like your attitude. Keep it up.


          Their are people who are annoyed at anything. How truly miserable it must be to be them. You must be like Parrain's Duck: Just let that water roll right off your back.


          Yeah, people can be like that. I hope not everyone but as an english student studying spanish in school and learning german online i feel that i mix the two sometimes.


          I'm currently taking French I in school, however I'm learning German on duolingo. I just started like a week ago. One think that my French has told me is that when she first started speaking French to French people in France for the first time, she was a little nervous, but she said she got more used to it the more she did it. The more you practice speaking the language the better you'll get at it, and you can't be afraid to speak in a foreign language to other people.


          Fabulous! Why be restricted by what the school can teach. Good luck! Wish this had been around when I was at school.


          Viel Glück mit deinem Französischkurs, dein Lehrer scheint wunderbar, und dein Deutschstudium hier.

          Hier ist ein Lingot für Glück

          Best of luck with your French class, your teacher seems wonderful, and your German studies here.

          Here is a Lingot for luck


          For Long time I didn't want to make a fool out of me by speaking English. I learned this language long time ago in school. But we were so trained to speak correctly that no pupil was able to pronaunce a simple sentence for his own because he was afraid of the possibility to make a mistake. I remember, that we practiced the correct pronounce of the "t h" for weeks. The fear of making mistakes was so present that I never tried to use English, except it was unavoidable.

          Thank god the schoolsystem has changed (a Little bit). And my self-conficence has grown. And if I make a fool out of me - so what ?! I want to communicat with People all over the world, I want to understand Youtube-Videos which are not in my German. And to be honest - if I speak German with my Styrian Accent it is very hard to understand me - no matter if German is your mother tongue or anything else ;-)


          I noticed that when you are communicating with text people can get mad if you make mistakes but if you talk in a video or while chatting or in person and you make mistakes people are nice it lso depends on the culture.


          I have to agree with you. When I was working in Korea, or studying in Japan, or growing up in Germany, no matter what it was, (Army brat and vet), even if you can only say simple things like thank you, or hello, or '4 please,' people are very very appreciative for the most part. The only time I ran into some tiny problems was in Paris, but we all know the stereotype perhaps. So just go for it!

          I have only started Spanish through duolingo, and I am brand new to it, but i got to use some at a Mexican restaurant the other month and they understood me :) They didn't care either way but of course they didn't mock me or get offended.


          PS to say I see now above a lot of stories about Paris too lol


          I visited Mexico twice. Both times, I was in Mexico City for a conference. The first time I knew no Spanish at all, and felt pretty lost. Before I went for the second time, I took a couple of Spanish classes and the difference was amazing. My Spanish was still pretty basic, but people were so nice and helpful when I was lost and needed help and used my Spanish. Even the police was very friendly and helpful. They even dug out a bit of English they had learned in school! We actually had fun trying to communicate. It made a HUGE difference to my experience in Mexico.

          Now that I have my Golden Owl in Spanish, I will review the whole Spanish course again before I go back to Mexico (or visit another Spanish speaking country/area). Can't wait to see what my third experience will be like.


          British people are generally a) very polite and afraid of offence in general and b) very used to hearing English spoken with many different accents and mistakes. So you certainly won't cause any troubles in the United Kingdom in most places. Non-English speakers are usually very pleased you've taken the time to learn a few words, although the only time this isn't true is in 'official situations' at desks and tourist areas, where staff trying to sell you tickets or hustle you through restaurants would rather you save their time and just speak English for practical reasons.

          Sad to say though I had some bigoted English man mumble his disapproval that me and a friend were speaking Esperanto to each other in a cafe a while back. There is a minority of people here who have a real insecurity about anything 'foreign'.


          This also reminded me of what my Korean professor said, the main point of speaking is to convey ideas or information. If people understand what you are saying, even if your grammar is not perfect, that is the most important thing .


          Learning Latin American Spanish makes me worried about visiting Spain! Ah well, it keeps the brain young


          I'm in the same situation. Traveled the world as a defense contractor and in the Navy, and now the crews that I have working for me are often ESL and speak broken English. We have a little fun with that now and then but I've never felt offended that they speak poor English. I look at it as they are doing better than anyone else who isn't even attempting it! And yes, I've had trepidation trying to speak Spanish or German or Japanese or French but I usually find that if I'm at least trying to use the words and phrases I do know we can communicate at least. I've never understood why so many Americans I know (I am American as well) are so put off by someone not speaking English here so long as they are at least trying. In Japan, almost everyone spoke English to me unless I went to a rural area and everyone was eager to practice their English for the most part. That would rarely be the case if it was the other way around for a Japanese tourist coming to America.


          Thank you for your service.


          I went to my family's country and me and my siblings were trying to speak in zulu but we gave up but they seemed happy that we'd tried.


          Most people throughout the world will indeed be appreciative and patient and take it as a compliment that you have gone to any effort to learn their language, however imperfectly. Then there's the French...


          Woaahh thank you !! Was it a joke ? ... I would also be very appreciative and patient if someone try to speak my language . If you had a bad experience in France , sorry for you, but don't make a generalization please.


          Yes, it was a joke, and many jokes are based on generalisations.
          Generalisations also often have their roots in reality, and France really does seem to have more than its fair share of people who, far from being appreciative, are positively offended if you attempt to speak French to them and don't do it particularly well—something I have never encountered in any other country (in fact, that's not entirely true—I also met a very rude Frenchman working in a wine bar in Germany, who would only speak German to me once he discovered my French wasn't perfect, despite the fact that my German was far, far worse and we'd have understood each other far more easily in French).

          Of course, I am not suggesting that all French people are like this; only that those who are seem to make their presence felt a lot more than is the case with any other language, for some reason.


          Same boat with bad German but better French. I do agree with the French (/parisians) being less than warmly receptive to language learners. But, for this they also know how difficult their language is to foreigners (for pronunciation in particular) so they are all the more impressed when you pick it up....then there are the Germans who won't be impressed no matter what you do.


          I don't want to generalize all french people in Quebec but from my personal experiences a lot of the french here are the same way. First of all, they don't really like Anglos and don't even bother trying to speak french to them if you can't speak it fluently. I've tried speaking french to them and it always ends up with them seeming to take offense and becoming hostile over nothing. All of my encounters have always ended up with them being rude. It's especially hard now that I live here and I'm trying to learn the language. It only makes it harder when they are unwilling to help or even communicate with you.


          Well I am from Louisiana and we are a french culture, with a lot of German, Native American, Italian, and Creole influence. Even our french incorporates a lot of these languages into it. It's fun to watch someone who speaks Parisian french try to communicate with someone who speaks Cajun french. But no matter. We love everyone! Laissez le bon temps rouler is not just a saying in Louisiana, it's a way of life.


          I mean no disrespect and I know that not all French are like that (I have French friends) but in big cities they're like that and even my French friends know it.

          From my experience, if I try to talk French on the streets and I start mumbling, they show a big degree of intolerance unlike the Germans, Dutch, Norwegians, and else. But to be fair, the farther I went from Paris, the nicer the people are.

          Again, I mean no disrespect. Just talking about my personal experience.


          I had a mostly bad experience in Paris as well :( It's funny, to me, because in the US you'll generally find much more welcoming people in the cities, and less interest in culture as you move to more rural areas. It seems to be the opposite in France. It's fine, I don't need to be welcome everywhere. I look forward to exploring other parts of France!


          Thanks for explaining your point of view . Actually we have the same opinion here too , whether it's a cliche or not we tend to say that people are more agreable elsewhere than Paris . The country is big and most of the tourists stay in the capital where the inhabitants ...are maybe too used of them and don't have time for them . The country is big , and there are so many things too see : cities, ocean, countryside, mountains.. and yes there are nice people too ! ;)

          Sorry for my reaction, I didn"t expect that kind of insinuation on a DL forum . I think I'm a little bit sensitive about this subject . Have a nice evening (or else) :)


          I don't speak any French and have never been to Paris, but, I really appreciated reading your thoughts on why some people in Paris (and various major tourist destinations around the world) might not want to spend time talking. Sometimes, tourists can feel entitled to local's time and energy. If it weren't an extremely popular tourist destination, then maybe people wouldn't feel asked to donate time and energy so frequently and it would feel like a delight rather than a frequent interruption in one's day who themselves are not on vacation, but rather just trying to go about getting things done and having time to themselves to manage. One's tolerance for interruption sometimes has an end if it is day in and day out, I would imagine.

          A former girlfriend of mine went to Paris and also remarked on a low temperature in terms of reception. She was amicable about it though and enjoyed her trip. I think the most stressful part for her was being away when I'd ended up severely in hospital. Though, It was bad enough I forgot she (and most people I knew) existed for a few days. So, at least that gave her more time not to worry. xD) And then of all things, a volcano erupted and delayed her flight home. I think some less than accommodating locals ended up being a rather small issue in comparison. lol


          and the Russians...


          Hello, nice writing... oder schön schreiben. My native language is Serbian.


          You can always find some overly critical people who don't appreciate anyone making mistakes in their language . Maybe they are really strict on grammar or maybe the person needs more life experience. On the whole though they are few and far between. I do have to say that I disagree with the comment below that in the US you'll "generally find much more welcoming people in the cities." I think this generalization is often stated. It can sometimes be true but is also often overstated. I have lived in a lot of small towns in America that are quite friendly!


          I would say that most large cities in the US can be cold. Not always, but people move at too fast of a pace for me. It seems like people don't have time for one another in large cities.

          [deactivated user]

            Most of My family on my father's side is from germany. I think it's amazing when they can speak in their home countries language without being confused or misinterpreted. Ich spreche Deutsch, und Sie liebe es!


            So are you cutting up languages?


            Hi I8AC4, "to butcher" something is an English idiom. It means to make a huge mistake and mess something up completely. So the title refers to making a big mistake and mess trying to use a language. :)


            I love it!! Great question! Because of people from different cultures communicating together we can learn new things from one another. I love this site. Usagiboy7 explained it perfectly.


            Cool side to the store and thank you for you service

            [deactivated user]


              Yes, you are all right. I have this problem.

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