Nate Minor

Why knowing German is important to feeling at home in Austria

Don't know German? In touristy places in Vienna like this pedestrian mall, that doesn't matter. If you actually want to get to know someone on the other hand, doing it auf Deutsch is the way to go.Don’t know German? In touristy places in Vienna like this pedestrian mall, that doesn’t matter. If you actually want to get to know someone on the other hand, doing it auf Deutsch is the way to go.

Oh, the curse of looking like a native. Most people I talk to around Vienna — a waiter or a cashier at the grocery story, for example – usually glance at me and say something like “Grüß Gott. Kann ich Ihnen helfen?”

I can usually get by if the transaction is simple – a few semesters of college German taught me at least that much. It’s when the conversation veers into uncharted territory that I have to capitulate. “Ich spreche nur ein bisschen Deutsch. Sprechen Sie English?”

Most often, whomever I’m speaking with bashfully says their English is terrible – and then we go on to have a near-perfect conversation in English. While this helps me complete the task at hand, it does nothing to help me feel like a part of the city. And doing just that is an important part of why I’m here.

Additionally, there are plenty of people who don’t speak much English – especially when you get away from the shops and restaurants catering to American and European tourists to areas frequented by the locals. And as a journalist, those are the areas that interest me the most.

And though the following example isn’t from Vienna, I think it supports my point. I was in Prague last weekend with a Czech friend from the U.S. With his help, we spoke with an elderly couple in a park and I took this photograph. There’s no way I could’ve done that alone.

So even though I’ll be leaving Austria at the end of next month, I’ve enrolled in an evening German language course. Obviously, I’m not going to become a local in the short amount of time I have here. But at least I’ll be able to talk to them a little bit more.

This post also appears on my An American in Vienna blog for the Wiener Zeitung.

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One Response to Why knowing German is important to feeling at home in Austria

  1. Kate Minor says:

    I am all too familiar with this feeling. I experienced the same thing while I was in Europe. In Japan, it was even stranger because I didn’t know more than a few Japanese words when I moved there. Despite this, everyone apologized to me for not knowing English. It made me feel like a jerk…here I was living in their country and not knowing any Japanese. And yet they were apologizing to me. Very interesting cultural differences.

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