Communication FTW! A week of English volunteering in the Black Forest

schone aussicht black forest munich bavaria

I never worried too much about potentially running into language barriers before we set out.Β  Maybe I should have, but as it turns out, I didn’t really need to. English is truly universal, like it or not.

While I tried to memorise a few key words from my handy phrasebook in the Triposo app for each new country we entered, 99% of the time it was more of a nice-to-have rather than a need. Anyone in a frontline role serving customers in the countries we visited usually understood a LITTLE bit of English, and with gestures, we could usually bridge the gap if there was one. And of course, anytime you get a group of travellers that hails from different countries, they’ll all communicate in English. It’s a beautiful thing.

But when you DO run up against someone who speaks absolutely no English? It’s frustrating. Words are my currency, both at work and in, well, LIFE. So this past week, which I spent volunteering at an immersive conversational English language programme in Germany, was incredibly interesting. The students there had all decided that for whatever reason, they wanted to improve their fluency in order to get ahead in today’s world. Meeting these Germans for the first time, when they stuttered and paused and generally struggled to find the right words to express themselves, vs the end of the week when sentences flowed much more freely and they started to correct themselves mid-sentence as needed, was supremely rewarding. Language barriers, we slayed you good.Β 

The Anglos on the course mainly consisted of retirees or teachers (which makes sense really, since they’re currently enjoying their summer holidays), though I thought there might be more young travellers like ourselves (and apparently the Spanish courses often skew younger). Most of them had taken part in the programme before, so I was a little apprehensive about how we might fare as newbies. Almost everything I know I gained through simply reading a heckuva lot. I don’t know the rules of grammar inside out. I don’t know what a proposition or a participle is. I work on instinct, honed by years of reading and writing. As it turned out, though, I didn’t need to know the WHYs, though it helped when I did.

It’s always funny when you throw a bunch of strangers together in close quarters, especially for something as intensive as this one-week course. After a few days, you get more comfortable around each other, but tensions also bubble to the surface, certain groups form, and personality clashes become evident. I hate to say it, but a lot of the Americans on the course (who made up the majority of the ‘Anglos’, or English-speaking volunteer teachers) were pretty stereotypically American. The kind who give the US a bad name. Some were lovely for the most part (as long as you avoided saying ANYTHING vaguely critical about the US) while others were of the brash, ‘do you have tea? is it fresh? oh, you don’t have iced tea? well, can I get a pot of tea and a glass of ice cubes so I can make my own iced tea rather than just GET SOMETHING THAT YOU ACTUALLY SERVE?‘ variety.

What really got our goat was how arrogant they could be. For example, one told T that she found him difficult to understand because he “says things wrong”. Certain words and expressions vary in different parts of the world, right? That’s different, not wrong. Americans say purse, those in the UK and down under say handbag. Vacation versus holiday. Gas vs petrol. The list goes on and on. And if we must quibble, then let’s not forget that American English stems from, er, British English. The programme is meant to attract openminded types, but I think we were a tad lacking in diversity within the American contingent in this case.

That aside, it was one of the best experiences of our trip – and maybe even of my life. I’m already scheming to return to Europe to try out the Spanish version of the programme, and maybe visit some of the people we met this week.

22 thoughts on “Communication FTW! A week of English volunteering in the Black Forest

  • Reply Funny about Money July 22, 2013 at 12:59

    Actually, American English retains archaisms that have evolved out of British English.

    • Reply Cassie July 22, 2013 at 15:53

      And so the argument begins….

    • Reply eemusings July 23, 2013 at 19:29

      I think we’re talking past each other here! Point being, the English have been speaking English just a wee while longer than the Americans have.

      As a British guy put it at another hostel on our trip, as he and an American girl jokingly clashed over how to pronounce ‘garage’:

      “Don’t tell the Englishman how to speak English!”

  • Reply Stephanie July 22, 2013 at 16:00

    I’m happy to say depending on which part of the US you’re visiting on your trip, you’ll run into a much less annoying variety of American. Speaking of which, if you tell me if/when/what your plans are for the area around Los Angeles, I can point you to a few awesome places to visit.

    I am actually quite surprised that the “students” were all able to learn so much in a single week! That sounds very promising.

  • Reply Jess July 22, 2013 at 16:22

    This sounds AWESOME. I love Germany and this sounds like a really fun way to spend a week! I’m an American but I’m also a New Yorker and pretty happy to be critical of this country. πŸ™‚ I’d love to go as a volunteer English speaker but also as someone who is always trying to improve my Spanish. Do you have more info?

    • Reply eemusings July 23, 2013 at 19:30

      Sure! Look out for another post.

  • Reply Budget and the Beach July 23, 2013 at 03:00

    I find it difficult to read when people from the US are labeled as arrogant and rude. It makes me sad because I hate that we somehow are giving off that impression. It’s like saying everyone in the US is like hard core people from NY. When I go there I find it quite shocking how fast paced it is…and sometimes rude compared to LA. And LA has their stereotypes too, but not all of us are rich, drive nee cars and have plastic surgery. And not everyone from the south is racist and not open-minded. This makes me feel bad about how we are apparently representing out country.

  • Reply cantaloupe July 23, 2013 at 05:39

    I don’t see why it’s a problem to get hot tea and ice to make what someone wants? It’s that resourcefulness and desire to get what we want that makes many Americans so successful. Perhaps it was done in an obnoxious way, but I’ve seen it done modestly and admirably. Americans speak up for what we want, rather than sheepishly taking what’s given and I don’t think that’s bad at all.

    The arrogance is fully annoying though, haha. Which I know seems to fall in line with the previous paragraph, but it’s mostly annoying when the person is wrong about their arrogance. And I agree with you fully that there are a million ways to say something in English and no way is necessarily “wrong.” I have so many Arabisms in my speech now that my friends laugh at. But if they corrected me or told me I was wrong… friendship terminated.

    • Reply eemusings July 23, 2013 at 19:35

      Oh, I definitely agree. I think resourcefulness and the willingness to stand up for yourself is a great thing. But yes, in this case it was done in an arrogant/obnoxious way, and reflected that person’s attitude all week (not helped by the fact this person was also rather loud and condescending).

  • Reply oilandgarlic July 23, 2013 at 06:26

    I think one of the reasons that Americans often seem so rude is that we, in general, talk louder in a group setting. I also think Americans think there’s nothing rude about being direct or wanting things the way it is back home (though for me the main purposed of travel is to learn, see and taste new things and meet new people). sadly, I have seen ugly Americans on my travels all too often.

    • Reply eemusings July 23, 2013 at 19:43

      Yes, Americans are definitely loud (even in one to ones, most of the time). That in itself obviously isn’t a bad thing! I find the American accent the easiest of all to understand as a rule (though surprisingly the Germans didn’t think that way). But if combined with an insular and self-centred attitude, it can be hugely annoying to others.

      I definitely don’t want to sound like I’m bashing on Americans; most of you guys are, and you’re pretty awesome. We just encountered a bad bunch, and I was astonished by the extremity of it all. It was a mix of vastly different cultures AND personal/individual rudeness IMO. It’s funny, because just a couple of weeks ago we were on a train from Amsterdam to Hannover, and overheard two Canadian girls holding forth to a Dutch group of kids about how narrowminded most Americans are, which kinda bugged me – but then, of course, we just happened to encounter a few of that exact variety, only a million times worse than we could ever have imagined. It was so ridiculous we had to laugh, really, and it gave all the rest of us something to bond over.

  • Reply Digital Nomads July 23, 2013 at 06:37

    I’m struggling with French now πŸ™‚

    Interesting points, it surprise me that people who travel and meet different cultures with different mindsets and way of thinking still don’t accept change easily or adapting to change.

    I like how straight you were with your critique, good one.

  • Reply Linda July 23, 2013 at 07:33

    My first reaction to this post was to be embarrassed and apologetic for my fellow Americans. Then I read cantaloupe’s comment and I thought s/he may be on to something.

    Here in the U.S., people often get rewarded/admired/praised for being resourceful, for questioning the status quo, and for generally focusing on getting what that person wants. Choice and individual expression are highly valued. While our American culture was built on Western European standards, we are still different.

    It seems that some Western European cultures are more collective or consensus-based than Americans, and that may be the root of some of the misunderstandings. How does NZ culture compare to the European and Asian cultures you’ve encountered on your trip?

    • Reply eemusings July 23, 2013 at 19:38

      The culture clashes were definitely interesting. The British/Europeans (and us Kiwis) are quieter and more easy going. And within this group, we were definitely more considerate and openminded. It’s funny, because the Americans were quite well travelled…

      I’ve always learned that Western cultures are individualistic while Eastern, esp Asian cultures, are more collective. I don’t really know enough to say whether Western Europeans are more collective than Americans, though perhaps you could infer that from things like the very existence of the Euro currency or the strong social welfare systems…?

  • Reply Anya July 23, 2013 at 11:38

    Wow! How embarrassing. I always feel the need to apologize for my fellow US-ites. I disagree with some of the comments made. The whole point of going abroad is to experience cultures different from your own. If you want the comforts of home, don’t leave the US – plain and simple. I took a high school trip to Italy ages ago and the one thing I remember is the complaints from my classmates about how they missed Chili’s or free refills. Get over it.

    • Reply Linda July 23, 2013 at 11:57

      Hey, Anya, I agree that the point of traveling outside your home country is to experience different cultures.Some people travel to visit landmarks or shop or take lots of photos. Some people may not be prepared for the culture shock of being immersed in a place where there is a completely different language spoken/written, as well as totally different foods, portion sizes, and expectations for behavior.

      Not everyone has sharp enough perception to realize that what they just said or did was perceived as insulting, rude, or mean. Especially if they are doing/saying something that is completely inside their experience at home.

      As an example, what would you think of someone who just rode in a cab with you in your home city and then didn’t give the cab driver a tip when paying the bill? That happened to me with a colleague who had moved here from South Africa and been living in my city for nearly two years. He had never realized that he should pay the driver a tip until I brought it to his attention. He wasn’t being intentionally rude, just not clued in to U.S. tipping practices for cabs. In South Africa, apparently, cab drivers don’t expect an extra 20% on their fares like we pay here in Chicago.

      I would hope that any American who is visiting another country would have done some research and be prepared for cultural differences. But even the best of us could occasionally have an off day or be completely floored by something very unexpected. And, I am truly wondering if some of the cultural differences are deeply embedded in our social conventions and structures.

  • Reply Lindsey @ Cents & Sensibility July 23, 2013 at 16:01

    It sounds like it was fun to help the students learn English! It just sucks that there was such an attitude from some of your co-volunteers. πŸ™ Americans can be so lovely but that stereotype doesn’t come out of nowhere unfortunately.

  • Reply Brian July 24, 2013 at 18:10

    Oh Americans…

    I can’t believe someone would say that to T and not feel incredibly uncomfortable with themselves…I guess that’s what set’s us Canadians apart πŸ˜€

    The program sounds really awesome, how did you happen across finding out about it?

  • Reply Rich Uncle EL July 26, 2013 at 03:11

    It all comes down to having patience and being understanding of other cultures. Citizens of certain countries fare better than others in grasping this. I hate to generalize, but people from America and France have been known to have very little patience.

  • Reply Kay November 23, 2014 at 04:52

    A lot of it is simply different cultures and a lot of Europeans and others know nothing of American culture and accuse it of being rude when it’s just different. ( Asking for tea or ice or whatever is not considered rude or trying to arrange what you want is not considered rude in American culture. ) Also, to the comment that “they’re lovely as long as you don’t vaguely criticize their country), well people of any country get annoyed if someone criticizes their countries. That’s rude.

    As an American, I’ve had PLENTY of foreign nationals here in the US who complain because the US does things differently then their country back and on occasion, insult Americans. That’s rude and galling, especially when you are living here and working. Europeans also have a reputation in the US for being arrogant and naΓ―ve and some live up to it too.

    • Reply eemusings November 23, 2014 at 10:19

      I would disagree with that. There are many people out there who are happy to discuss the shortcomings of their countries critically (NZ – huge housing clusterf-, poverty esp child poverty, to name a few of the biggies). Obviously if you come in all guns blazing, you’re going to get a negative reaction, but that’s not generally how people approach things and not how things were approached in this instance. You sound like an even handed person and I’m sure you can imagine there are ways to discuss issues of politics and society in a rational and non-rude manner. I’ve got lots of American friends who acknowledge the issues in the US and are happy to discuss them – polar opposite of these guys.

      And I’m sure you would agree that when it comes to galling, telling other native English speaker they speak English ‘wrong’ because they use some different terms or speak in a different accent, the height of galling.

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