Looking for a good way to stay humble? Let me make a suggestion: start learning a foreign language.
I’ve been studying German since 9th grade. Over the years I’ve had many amazing teachers, and because of their diligence and skill I am usually able to confidently communicate in the language. From time to time however, certain experiences remind me of how far I still have to go.
Several weeks ago I was in the student center at my dormitory in Marburg, ready to go about the task of consuming a delicious bowl of chocolate ice cream. I realized, however, that I lacked a utensil. I walked up to the counter and asked, in German, for a spoon.
Instead of handing me the requested item, the fellow gave me a slightly confused stare.
“We don’t have those here,” he finally replied in English.
This instantly triggered all my powers of intercultural deduction. Why was he saying they have no spoons here? As I saw it, there were only two possibilities:
1. They actually have no spoons here.
Was this a cultural thing that I had just missed until now? Do Germans not use spoons? Now that I think about it, you can eat bread, sausage, and potatoes without spoons, so maybe they really don’t need them.
2. I didn’t ask for a spoon and accidently said some other word.
No way. I’m 100% sure that the German word for spoon…starts with an “L.” Darn it. I definitely said some other word. But what?
“If you’re looking for a lion, you’re better off trying the zoo.”
In my defense, the words for “spoon” and “lion” are a lot closer in German than they are in English. Löffel (spoon) vs. Löwe (lion).
But the fact remained: I had just asked for a lion in an eating establishment. I sheepishly clarified my request, took the spoon, and returned to my seat.
This wasn’t the first time that I’ve made an embarrassing language mistake. It certainly won’t be the last. But maybe, just maybe, it will be the last time that I try to enjoy a bowl of ice cream and end up eating crow instead.
I’ll keep you updated.