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Speaking German: Mistakes were made

I speak pretty good German. Fluent but not native. People always assume it’s because my parents were German or at least my grandparents. But that’s not it. They’re not. Speaking German is my one talent. I can’t play an instrument or create great art but I can order pommes (french fries) like a native (rot-weiss*, for those keeping score). And I do so. Often.

But speaking German well has its disadvantages. When I was single and would meet people in bars, I had the impression they couldn’t figure out why a grown German man wouldn’t always know the right articles and sometimes needed an extra beat or two to find a simple word. They relaxed once I told them I was American but until then it seemed like they were trying to decide if I was a psychopath with homicidal tendencies. They kept their distance.

“That’s true,” a girlfriend told me once. “It’s a good thing I was really attracted to you because I couldn’t figure out why you were so strange in the beginning.” We met in a techno club. That might have been part of it.

Speaking German is hard.
Photo thanks Rente42.

There were other problems. At my first job in Berlin I would often get coffees for the whole office at Kaffee Einstein on Friedrischstrasse. I started to get the feeling the baristas got a kick out of my visits, but not in a good way. They always giggled after I placed my order. I finally had enough and stomped back to the office and announced with a flourish that I would no longer be getting coffee there.

“They just laugh at me,” I announced.

“What did you order?” my co-worker wondered.

“Zwei Cappucino, ein Americano und ‘ne Latte.“

I realized my mistake even before my co-workers collapsed on the floor in laughter. Three times a week I’d been asking the baristas at Kaffee Einstein for an erection (Die Latte – slang, erection; der Latte (Machiatto) – coffee). It all lay in the conjugation of the article.

There’s also a great German saying about some things in life being tough: Mühsam ernährt sich das Eichhörnchen. It means, it takes effort for the squirrel to feed itself. You’re right. It does sound better in German.

Speaking German well

For years I said: Langsam nähert sich das Eichhörnchen (the squirrel is slowly approaching). Since I understood the message of the German saying, I thought the saying was referring to an animal show where the squirrel was carefully approaching a nut, as though the nut were living pray. Now that I think about it, my saying is way cooler.

“You know,” my wife said after 10 years of marriage, “You say that saying wrong.” She then filled me in on my mistake.

“Why didn’t you tell me that 10 years ago?” It became clear to me that now half of Berlin thinks I’m some kind of idiot savant American who’s great with languages but has trouble with colloquialisms.

“I just thought it was cute,” she said.

The good-speaker pitfall has hit my friends too. My buddy Marc once marched into a pharmacy in hopes of finding a new kind of painkiller for his migraines. After about 20 minutes of discussion with the pharmacist she suggested something he’d never heard of before. But he couldn’t admit his ignorance because he was single and she was cute and had a good sense of humor.

After talking about this mysterious medication for 10 minutes he went home and opened a German-English dictionary. That was the day he learned the German word for suppository.

Unfortunately he’d already swallowed two.


  1. Ken Ken

    Ah but now your English suffers as does mine. (I could almost write the same post about French instead of German.) I think you meant “prey” instead of “pray.” What’s really sad is that I actually didn’t get it at first. I couldn’t jump from “pray” to “prey” as easily as someone who only speaks English. I spent 30 to 90 extra seconds trying to make “pray” work in the sentence and figure out what you meant. L’ecureuil se nourri difficilement.

    • Drew Portnoy Drew Portnoy

      Oh man. I even looked at it and thought something was weird but couldn’t figure it out. Thanks!

  2. romy romy

    I like your saying much better than the original. It is funny to imagine a psycho squirrel that’s approaching slowly to attack you (and not the nut…) And i understand your wife completely…I did the same with my daughter, when she still used funny words in her early years. It was too cute to correct….

    • Drew Portnoy Drew Portnoy


  3. Fran Fran

    Hehe, nice post! Nothing quite like just getting out there and giving it a go and yes…sometimes we get it wrong. Good if we can laugh at ourselves. ^^ In addition to learning by just getting out there and practicing, I find the right school is also key, I really recommend the school I’m at now, by the way, it’s called Speakeasy Sprachzeug (they’re at if you wanna check them out). But otherwise just keep trying, failing, laughing and learning! 🙂

  4. Oliver Oliver

    Your way of saying said saying was actually not entirely wrong.
    I learned it as „mühsam nährt sich das Eichhörnchen“, without the „e“. It is an outdated form of ernähren that is not really used anymore, but probsbly was when the saying was born. Your average german won’t pronounce „nähern“ and „nähren“ any different, because their tongue is too lazy.

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