One of the greatest moments of my German-as-a-second-language life was the day I closed my bank account in Tübingen. I walked to the counter and told the bank employee what I wanted to do, just a simple withdrawal and closure. She asked me to wait a moment and sent the manager to me. Concerned about customer service, he wanted to know why I had chosen to close my account with his bank. My answer was simple: I was leaving to go home to the US in about a week and no longer had need for the account. The manager looked at me in surprise and said, “Oh! I didn’t know you were American. I thought you were German.” Score one for me!
Although I had a pretty decent command of the language, my vocabulary and grammar were by no means perfect. My strength was in the accent. I have a particular aptitude, I believe, to sound like a German–or at least I did at the time. (I can cop a pretty mean Brit, too.) The amazing thing is that when you get the accent right, people assume the grammar. They no longer listen for mistakes.
Here’s another example. On a later trip to Germany for a friend’s wedding, I stopped by my company’s local operation there to introduce myself. On a tour of the office, I met a group in the shipping area (I think) and simply said “hallo” when introduced. Nothing more. Immediately, one of them told me that my German was fantastic. Huh? I had said ONE word! It sounded good, though. Apparently I had given it just the right intonation.
One particular German friend never notices my evermore frequent mistakes. After almost 25 years, she tells me that she astounded that my German is still perfect. I, of course, can’t concentrate on what she is saying because I’m mentally kicking myself for the four errors I’ve made in the last sentence alone.
The point is, if you make the effort to sound like a local, you’ll get a lot more credit than if you simply get the words right. I think this has application far beyond foreign language, but maybe that’s another post.