The dollar is very strong, so now's the time to go to Europe, and don't worry if your language skills don't match its strength.
Preparing to go to Germany not so long ago on a book tour, I took an on-line grammar test from a language school. Big mistake. I've never been good at grammar even in English, and I bombed, despite having studied some basic German. I told this to a friend who teaches German and he said, "Forgot it. Nobody's going to test you over there. The key thing is, can you communicate? If you make mistakes, so what? Don't let yourself be paralyzed by grammar. It'll stop you having fun."
It was terrific advice.
Despite the jet lag, I plunged in as soon as I got off the plane in Berlin and hailed a cab. I knew I was making mistakes, but the cab driver took me to the main train station anyway. We chatted about the weather and understood each other pretty well, though I found myself tongue-tied more than once. She helped me along, and whenever I couldn't follow, asking her "Wie Bitte?" (Excuse me?) was always effective, giving me time to process what we were talking about a little further. And time to relax.
At the train station, I managed to buy my ticket without fuss. But when I found a stand to buy a sandwich and some water, I asked for non-sparkling water incorrectly: "Haben Sie stille Mineralwasser?" All German nouns are either feminine, masculine, or neuter, and adjectives reflect that. I should have said "stilles Mineralwasser," since Wasser is neuter, not feminine.
But you know what? The clerk answered in German that of course they had it, what size did I want, and I bought the bottle with no problem. Only when I walked away did I realize my mistake. It was a good, practical lesson and proved my friend the German teacher was right.
This happened everywhere I went. Whether talking to waiters, cab drivers, ticket agents, new acquaintances, and even some old ones, I'm sure I made mistakes. But I never had trouble getting my point across.
And the more I spoke with people, the less self-conscious I got, the better my accent was, and the more I found myself using words and expressions I didn't know I knew. People appreciated my speaking to them in their own language: That much was clear from their expressions, their attitude, and the fact they sometimes came right out and said it.
A friend who's lived in Germany confessed that even now he still sometimes makes mistakes in his German. "But they love that anyone makes the effort," he says. "The important thing is to try."
Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 24 other books in many genres. You can check out his books on Amazon here.
(This blog has been slightly updated since its original posting)