Tim Foolery

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Language and Travel – The Necessities

I love language and language study.  As I mentioned before, I studied Spanish in High School, German in College and now French as an adult.  I’m far from fluent in any of them, but I’m not completely lost when I’m immersed in these languages.

Today’s language struggle comes back from my college days.  We were taking five weeks traveling through the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  I started to get really sick in Amsterdam.  It started as a cold and progressed to a very rough sinus infection.  By the time we decided to go see a doctor in Berlin the illness was very far along – I struggled to breathe, my gums were swollen and from time to time, pus would leak from my tear ducts.  It was awful and I was a mess.

We were staying in East Berlin – this was 1999, only 10 years after the fall of the wall and while the City wasn’t separated any more, they were still quite different areas.  It was around 20h00 and I needed to see a doctor.  My professor and I found a clinic that was open late, we find our way and eventually see the doctor.  She was a solidly built East German woman with a very loud and gruff voice…who spoke zero English.  Surprisingly, she spoke very little Russian too – my professor was fluent in Russian, but that was of no help.

As I sit on the examination table, she asks (in German) what is wrong.  I was able to understand that without a problem.  Then, I immediately think back to my most recent German class.  Towards the end of the semester we could choose between studying the Zoo chapter or the Hospital chapter.  I chose der Zoo and not das Krankenhaus.  Dammit.  Why on earth would I need to yell at a crocodile? “Du Krokodil – Du springen und beißen” was the only real phrase that I remember from that chapter.

So, I’m in the hospital trying to get a point across to the doctor and our interactions go something like this:

Doktor: Wie geht es dir? (How are you? / What’s wrong?)

Me: Uh…Meine Augen sind kaput und meine Nase ist voll (Uh, my eyes are broken and my nose is full.”

Doktor: “Deine Augen sind gebrochen und deine Nase ist voll? HAHAHAHA”

She then proceeded to ask what color various things were and she quickly prescribed some antibiotics – large East German horse pills that I could barely get down.  The next day and after two doses I felt almost perfect.

Whenever I’m sick, or I go to the doctor, I always think of this lovely East German doctor who helped a lost, sick American kid when his nose was full and eyes were broken.  I will admit, I haven’t done much more in my other language studies when it comes to the hospital, but I am confident enough in my language that I can work around the most basic medical ailments.

That was the beauty of my German professor’s style – he did a great job of teaching to “talk around” vocabulary we didn’t know. We knew it would be inelegant, but our point would likely be made.

Have you had any foreign language struggles like this?  I’d love to hear about your struggles and how you overcame the issues.

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