Friday, September 9, 2016

I was like...STOP IT!!

I overheard a conversation at dinner the other day, mainly because I cannot block out American English like I can block out German. That probably has something to do with one's native language versus a second language. Even though I can understand German, I still need to concentrate and pay attention, so it's easy not to eavesdrop. When I hear American English, especially over here where it's not entirely common, it's unfortunately harder to ignore.

I do believe the speaker is a college student who is here for an intensive German immersion experience, although the only German I heard her use was "Hallo" and "Tschüß." Every time she stepped away, the people she was talking with spoke German to each other. When the American returned, the conversation switched back to English. I have no doubt she's very nice, and what follows is not a personal attack on her. Hearing her reminded me of conversations I have not been able to block out on airplanes, in restaurants, and in school in Wisconsin.

This is what part of the conversation would have sounded like in German (I'm making up the actual content of what was said; the point is how she spoke):

"Ich war wie, 'Du bist, wie, in meiner Klasse und weißt, wie, nicht mehr als mich [sic], weißt du?' Und sie war wie, 'oh, es tut mir leid. Ich wollte nur helfen,' und ich war wie, 'verbessere mich nicht mehr, ok?'  Das war, wie, SO nervig! Und die Lehrerin war wie, 'Was ist los?' und ich war wie, 'Nichts, alles klar.'"

The American-English original:
"I was like, 'You're like in the same class as me, and like, you don't know more than me, you know?' And she was like, "Oh, sorry. I was just trying to help,' and I was like, 'Just don't correct me anymore, ok?' That was like, SO annoying! And the teacher was like, 'What's wrong?' and I was like, 'Nothing, it's all good.'"

I realize the whole "I was like" (meaning "I said" or "I thought") thing is just a habit, and if I'm being honest I'm sure I use it too when I am with native English speakers (hopefully only occasionally). But Americans (I don't know if Brits do this, too) need to be aware of this little quirk and not use it with people who are translating into their own language.

The German translation of that little speech sounds absolutely stupid (as do most other grammatical mistakes native English speakers make if you translate them into German - case in point, "Mich und mein Freund fahren nach New York" - Me and my friend..." - and "Ich bin diese Woche schon 2 Kilometer lief" - "I have already ran 2 km this week"), but the English original does too, especially to an outsider who is sitting close enough that it's impossible not to overhear.

The thing that bothers me most when native speakers of English speak like this in a foreign country or to foreigners in America is that it is teaching or spreading crappy English. I do not want exchange students spending six months in America to return to their home country inserting "like" three times into every statement. "I stayed in like a really nice house with like a super nice family and was like the best time of my life!"

Oh, and in case you were wondering, it is creeping into students' writing assignments. They use it on Twitter and probably in text messages (SMSs) as well, so it should come as no surprise that I saw this in high school essays. I typically drew a dark circle around the word (though in happy purple, not red) and wrote "Seriously?!?" in the margin - because "WTF" wasn't appropriate - with an arrow pointing to the word. It started happening more and more frequently, so I fled the country.

Someone needs to figure out how to surgically remove that word from the English language. Or develop a pill that stops its use.

"Knock. It. OFF!!!"


  1. If you'd like to, like, see a video, of Germans saying what they like, think about Americans saying "like," then you can, like, visit this link and look at the time marker 10:05. I was watching it tonight and it fit right in with your post!

    I debate the issue of English Umgangssprache all the time with my tandem partner. She wishes to sound native and has found Youtube teachers who demonstrate elision. She is incorporating that into her speech; I suggest that she doesn't use some of it. For example, I don't recommend saying "gonna." Yes, even our incredibly educated current president says it. Sometimes I find myself saying it and I mentally slap myself with a ruler when I do. I tell her that as a foreign speaker, it's better for her to sound slightly more formal and correct than it is to have a foreign accent yet use incorrect English.

    1. Thanks for the link! I watched a bit and will watch the rest tomorrow - that's a topic that has interested me for years - how others see Americans. Interestingly, the two guys who mentioned Americans' overuse of "like" used it themselves (though not as often)!

      I agree with you about using Umgangssprache! Years ago I observed an ESL class, and a student said "Accountant" pronouncing both Ts. The teacher actually made her repeat over and over again "Accoun'nt", swallowing the first T. I was horrified. But I have also had friends tease me for the way I pronounce my husband's name - I pronounce the T in Martin and soften the R, because that's the way he and his mother pronounce it.

      We could have quite some discussions about English, you and I. :-)

  2. We should have further discussions, for sure! I have no formal training in teaching English as a foreign language. At some point I'd like to conduct more study in this area since I only know about teaching grammar and literature. It would be interesting to learn what the pedagogical best practice is in this area. I always suggest using proper grammar and pronunciation but do teach idioms and some commonly used slang, as long as it's not grammatically incorrect. What is the opinion on this topic for teaching German as a foreign language?

    1. I'm not sure what popular opinion is, but I have always tried to teach proper standard pronunciation. I _say_ "nix" rather than "nichts", but I would never correct someone who says "nichts". I sometimes tell my students about Swabian words or usage (many Swabians use "Fuß" for "Bein", for instance), but I wouldn't advise them to adopt those expressions. I have often mentioned common mistakes language learners should avoid, and I tell them that they will _hear_ these mistakes but must not think they are correct. Another Swabian example: most say "größer/schneller WIE" instead of "größer/schneller ALS. That is a grammar point that shows up on the tests, and they MUST learn the proper usage despite what they will hear when listening to native speakers.

    2. I get a bit mixed up with pronouncing "ch" as more of a "sh." In the Pfalz, it's always "sh" -- "ish" instead of "ich," and "echt" sounds as if there's an "s" in it too. Even my very educated friend, who's trained people as narrators, takes on more of the "sh" sound, though she's from a different state. I've been listening to Berlitz CDs to practice pronunciation and listening, and they even have a bit more of the "sh" sound too.

      I find myself gravitating toward more of a "sh" sound because no one here really bats an eye over it, and it's almost impossible for me to get "ch" out properly anyway. It's maddening but try as I might, I just can't get my mouth to totally cooperate.

  3. Where I came from they put "like" at the end of sentences, e.g. "Are you coming, like?", "Was he there as well, like?" or "It's canny caad th'day like" (It's quite cold today). That's dialect, of course, but many people in the area wouldn't even realise it's not standard English or be able to switch when speaking to foreigners!