Before I started taking German here, the only useful phrase I knew was “Sprechen Sie Englisch,” which means “Do you speak English?” in its formal form.
Of course, one could argue that it’s a useless phrase as anyone who’d answer yes to “Sprechen Sie Englisch” would understand “Do you speak English?” anyway, so it wouldn’t make a difference, but I like to make myself feel better by feeling like I tried, at least, to not be That American.
The thing I’ve noticed though, is that every time I someone “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” and they do, in fact, speak English, they don’t just say yes. They always say “A little bit,” or “Yes, only a tiny bit.” That’s a perfectly reasonable answer, but here’s the kicker: they always speak perfectly good English. And yet if you ask them if they speak English, it’s always “only a little.”
I don’t know if Austrians are a modest people, or if they really underestimate how well they speak English, or if that’s what they’re supposed to say. I can almost imagine, in Austrian schools, children being told exactly how to respond to such a question.
“Klaus, if an American comes up to you and says ‘Sprecken zee Engleesh,’ what do you say?”
“I say ‘A little bit,’ Lehrer!”
“Perfect! Have a Mozartkugel.”
Though I suppose if someone came up to me and asked if I spoke Spanish, or Chinese, I would respond the same way. I suppose answering that you only speak a little bit of the language excuses you from having to say anything more than a few basic things, and getting away with it. I guess it also saves you from extended conversations you don’t want to be part of.
“Sprechen sie Englisch?”
“Yes, a little.”
“Where’s the nearest McDonald’s?”
“It’s over there to your right.”
“Great! Say, what’s your take on foreign policy?”
“Sorry, I told you I only spoke a little English. Auf Wiedersehen!”