Living in Austria with an Austrian husband leads to people often asking me: “So do you speak German at home?” And if I said no, they say: “You should, it’s the best way to learn.”
And they would be right. We should. And speaking the language to a native is the best way to learn. But it is also a double-edged sword, especially when it involves a loved-one.
Thomas and I initially started speaking German together 1 day a week which gradually grew to its current level: 5 days German, 2 days English. But let me tell you, that doesn’t mean we absolutely adhere to it all the time. Because miscommunication is a common occurrence, and this very quickly escalates to arguments – over nothing. So it’s important to know when to throw the towel in, because there are days and times when it is simply not possible.
When either of you has had a stressful day and is tired or grumpy
Stressful day at work? Frustrating traffic on the way home? Just arrived home after a few days of business travel? Do not attempt German. The learner will be unmotivated and in the wrong mood to ‘appreciate’ helpful corrections from the teacher. The other way round will see the learner hounding the teacher for corrections, while all the teacher really wants to do physically and mentally relax.
When either of you is sick
Being sick means being tired, physically and mentally, and quite often more impatient than usual. When one of us is sick (depending on the level, of course) we generally revert to English. It stops any random miscommunications that are caused simply by one person not being in the right frame of mind to listen or think properly.
When you need to discuss anything that is of any importance
Anything important that produce negative results if miscommunicated needs to be discussed in a language you can both understand. Basic things: What are we doing tonight? Which restaurant shall we choose? How was your day… are fine. Complicated things: should we buy this house? Are you mad at me? How do I download this program to my computer… can be a recipe for disaster.
When you’re fighting
As soon as the conversation even edges towards frustration, that’s the time to switch to English. My German is good enough to tell my husband that I am angry or even disappointed with him, but definitely not good enough to construct it in a way that doesn’t start WWIII. I would be reduced to nasty accusations: I am mad at you. I hate you. You are lazy. Rather than more constructive things: Could you try to remember to turn the light off when you leave the room? Or, I’d prefer if the toilet roll was placed the other way around.
When something requires detail, or sarcasm, or wit, or any tone at all
In German I can tell my husband that the sunset on the way home was beautiful. I can even say it was unbelievable. But that is all. I can’t say, for example: on my drive home the evening was especially still, the outline of the pines against the deep blue backdrop of the sky fading into orange and pink with a tiny crescent moon simply took my breath away.
I can say that I fell up the stairs at work and dropped everything. But I can’t convey the full hilarity of how I lurched and landed facedown, papers falling all around me as the company CEOs headed down to lunch. So for anything that requires detail in order to paint a fuller picture, I always switch to English.
And so, in conclusion
So with those things in mind, we try to stick to our plan of 5:2; but we’ve also learnt when to switch back to English. Perhaps the morning goes well before a slight miscommunication causes anger to flare… sometimes we make it back to English when the issue is resolved, other times it’s better just to leave it for another day. Because first of all is our relationship, the language comes after that.