“Language bomb” is a term that I’ve begun to apply to the situation in which you are confronted by someone speaking to you earnestly in what is (to you) utter gibberish, and your mind reels as you try to comprehend or plan a response. Example: the other day, I was in the supermarket buying cat food. I hefted one of the big bags off the shelf, and the lady buying cat food beside me made a friendly-sounding little remark with a smile on her face — I imagined it was something like “heavy, huh?” or “your cat must have a healthy appetite!” So I said “ja” with a smile in return. And before I could walk away, she gestured at the bag and proceeded to launch us headfirst into a Swiss German conversation. At which point I had to cop to the fact that I had never understood her, since “mein Deutsch ist nicht gut.” How embarrassing…
And then I’ve also been guilty of language-bombing others. Stelian and I went to the bank the other day, to pay the deposit to our rental company, and set up a standing order so that the rent is debited from our account next month (cheques are not used here: it’s refreshing). When we stepped into the bank, an employee approached us, and we received a full-on language bomb. When she was finished speaking (having merely said, no doubt, “Hello, and welcome. How may we assist you today?” though it seemed to go on forever) I bashfully brought out the “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” And as soon as she indicated that she did, I sighed with relief and began explaining at a mile a minute what it was that we’d come in for. At which point, she became overwhelmed and asked me to repeat, which I did, careful to speak more slowly.
It’s therefore worth bearing in mind that if someone says they speak English, this doesn’t mean they speak it the way I do, just as I hope to soon “speak” German, but I will likely never parse it as easily as native speakers do. Language is a gift, but it can seem an affront if it is not presented with due care and respect.
I’m off to my first German class at Disney this afternoon — there is a teacher who comes in twice a week to help the employees learn the language, and spouses are welcome to attend the classes, too. Exciting!