If you are lucky enough to spend time among real-life speakers of the language you are trying to learn, you might recognise this, the linguist’s equivalent of fight or flight.
Imagine the situation - or maybe you remember it? You are doing your best to follow a conversation, but as soon as the centre of attention turns away from YOU and your news, you find it increasingly difficult to follow the thread of what everyone at the busy dinner table is saying.
You lose concentration for a moment or two, and when you attempt to re-involve yourself, you realise that the thread of the conversation has been irretrievably tangled.
So you revert to the bluff, to save your own embarrassment and the effort of the others from having to start again from scratch; you learn how to pick up on the tone of voice and the facial expressions of whoever is speaking, and respond in a way that you consider appropriate.
As I write this, I am in Germany. Little filler words go a long way:
Ja / Nein / Wie schön / Wirklich? / Auf jeden Fall!
...and so does a nod, a concerned frown, an encouraging smile, a hearty belly laugh – you have to take your cues, obviously, from those around you!
Sometimes we get it wrong! A friend of a friend here speaks rapidly, in convoluted sentence construction, even by the standards of the well-educated German. Even after 20 years down south, he still has a strong northern accent and even a slight speech impediment! I find it quite difficult to understand him at the best of times, but he has a habit of making both light-hearted quips and serious pronouncements in the same tone of voice, always with the same dead-pan expression, and often without much run-up for context. I have been caught out a couple of times: giving my kindest possible “in sympathy” look in response to what turned out to be a corny word-play, and worse, giggling at what I thought was a warm-hearted joke about his mother-in-law, but was actually passing on some rather bad news.
If this sounds familiar - responding to conversational cues like a sociopath - don’t worry, you are in good company. However proficient you become in your language of choice, there will be times when your mind wanders from the conversation at the table, or indeed from the plot of the film/play you are watching. At such moments, if you are anything like me, you tend to make up your own story to fit the visual clues.
So, an important skill to master: the non-committal mumbled response, which could mean either “Wow, that’s amazing, well done!” or “I am so sorry to hear that!”
Andrew Wenger is currently in Germany, collecting new expressions to teach his classes, and magpie-ing any bits and pieces from supermarkets, cafés and friends’ coffee tables that might be useful for lessons. If you are interested in signing up for a German class this September, we currently have good availability in the advanced class; we are going to set up a brand-new class for beginners, and there is the possibility of making another intermediate level group. Please make contact here to find out more