The first phrase I taught myself to memorise in the eccentric land called Berlin was 'ich kann nicht so gut Deutsch sprechen.' Translating to 'I can't speak German very well,' this demonstrates the significant lack of understanding I had (and still have) for this strange city.
Not knowing what to do when an old Turkish lady babbles incoherently at me in a Späti (corner shop), I dumbly hold the door open for her, assuming that she was asking me to do so. This is one of those occasions that one of my only known phrase was my salvation, as she gives up muttering. She waves empty coca-cola cans in my face, then potters out of the shop. I am still deliberating as to what on earth she could have been asking for. And I definitely didn’t have any cans for her.
It seems that every day I have a strange interaction with a local, where the language barrier leaves me utterly perplexed. All my friends reassured me that everyone spoke English before I moved to Berlin, so I decided to float into a new country with the ability to just about order a beer. Tip 1 for future Berlin dwellers: learn the bloody language.
My placement may be in an English-speaking office, but as soon as I step into the real word I feel like a mute lemon (as if lemons weren't already mute enough). Ironically, I learned most of my German phrases queuing up for the clubs, for their notoriously strict door policy require me not to seem like one of the many 'girls on tour.' As helpful as it is learning "Where are you from? What are your hobbies?" within my one-hour-a-week German classes at work, I have found it much more useful to write a little cheat sheet of phrases in preparation for interacting with people in the service-industry.
So how do I cope?
Preparing conversations. For example: before going to the post office, I would write down what I planned to say to the person behind the counter and try to memorise it on the way there. I found this really helped to learn a few phrases at a time with minimal effort.
Talk like the locals. What I noticed is that, even though basic German is taught using the formal ‘Sie’ when addressing people, this is anything but common in Berlin. I’d recommend asking any German friends you meet along the way how they would say a certain phrase. The colloquial dialect will most definitely not be found on google translate, duolingo or through German learning books.
Integrate with the locals. Make sure to immerse yourself with the locals, just maybe not the ones that shout at you in shops. It certainly helps that I live with Germans, one of whom isn’t the most proficient English-speaker. I found that by surrounding myself with people speaking German helped to subliminally enhance my understanding of the language’s structure. I’ve even managed to join in now that I’m getting more comfortable hearing simple conversations.
Don’t fret, be patient and it’ll finally sink in… it may take a while.