I like to imagine that there is a team of tiny translators in my head.
My tiny translators are sometimes very efficient when someone speaks to me in German and I immediately understand what is said and am able to respond.
But there are definitely times when I think that my tiny translators are not paying attention. A message comes in and there is suddenly a code red alarm. I know this because I can feel the heat rising in my face as I desperately try to work out what has just been said to me and then work out an appropriate response. I want to say something, anything, instead of just staring with a blank look on my face. It is not a subtle physical response. Subtlety is apparently not my forte – apart from the blushing, sweating, hand wringing and eye glazing, there is usually a bit of stuttering and occasional foot tapping.
Most of the time people do not realise I am a foreigner. In fact they will often speak to me instead of my husband (which he thinks is funny). And then I open my mouth. Ohhhhh I can hear them think. She is English. It may surprise you to know that a lot of Europeans have trouble distinguishing between American, Australian, and English accents. It may also surprise you to know that apparently speaking in English is pretty cool here.
Cool or not, it is a humbling experience to not be fluent in a language. There are a limited number of topics I can speak about. I cannot read most of the mail that arrives at our house. And there is so much about language that is context based and I just don’t have the context.
So the next time you meet a foreigner or see one at the supermarket struggling with the language, be a little kinder. Don’t assume they don’t want to speak English. Assume that, like me, they really do but they are tired and they just can’t think of the words. When people are patient with you it makes a world of difference to how you feel about your day. Most people here have been exceptionally kind and very patient.