The hardest word

We Canadians can’t get through a day, never mind a conversation, without using the word sorry. But as Elton John famously wrote, saying it in my new language is proving to be hard.

I’ve recently learned the German word most often used to vaguely apologize around here: Entschuldigung. Yep. It’s a mouthful.

My tongue, so used to gargling out French, can’t seem to decide how to pronounce this new language. So even though German is closer in many ways to my English mother tongue, I struggle to get a word out without reverting to French phonoemes. My ‘u’ is too ew instead of oo. My ‘ach’ sounds like French some days, English others. And I absolutely can’t decide whether ‘e’ should be ee or ay.

The other problem is public places. For years my world consisted of a clearly delimited bilingual space: French was public and English was private. So it’s a reflex to speak French to people on the street or in shops. My brain struggles to resist French now while attempting to pluck out the few words of German vocabulary appropriate for the situation.

For some reason people talk to me a lot. On the street, in shops. Perhaps I just have one of those approachable faces, or I look like a local, proving yet again how appearances can be deceiving.

“Kein Deutsch,” I say to the fellow who has stopped me with a seemingly friendly stream of babble while walking the dogs on the path by the river. Then the inevitable: “Sorry. You speak English?”

“Yes, well you seem to have forgotten something back there.” He points to a part of the path under the bridge. “From your dogs.”

I get his meaning but am not going to take this. “No, it’s not me! I always pick up after my dogs,” I insist, pointing out the red bags attached to their leashes. He shakes his head, walking away. A minute later I realize he was right: I must have dropped my bag of merde de chien.

“Entschuldigung!” I say in my head. He is long gone and I am sorry indeed.

Learning a new language is humbling.

There’s a lot to be sorry about these days. This song was recorded in 1976 at Eastern Sound in Toronto as part of Elton John’s album ‘Blue Moves’. That studio was a landmark in my hometown, and in early in my career as a copywriter I went there a few times to record commercials. It was located in Yorkville, Toronto’s once artsy-edgy neighbourhood that emerged from the sixties and seventies as the preferred location for high-end shops and hotels. Sadly the Victorian building that once housed the famous sound studio was torn down some years ago. It’s now the Four Seasons.


What are you sorry about at the moment?


  1. midihideaways · November 5, 2020

    Funny, when I go to Germany I almost instinctively reply to strangers in French when I’m out and about. It’s the autopilot taking over… 🙂 I’m sure you’ll get to grips with German before too long, it’s just a question of time before it becomes second nature. Sorry was a word I used a lot when I worked in London and I once had a French client tick me off “you british are always so sorry!”. Désolé doesn’t come up in conversations all that often, does it??

    • MELewis · November 6, 2020

      Danke, Andreas, for the moral support and making me feel less like an outcast. Reassuring to know this also happens to a native speaker! As for désolé, I find the French avoid apologizing under most circumstances. Admitting ‘un tort’ is somehow against their nature. 😜

  2. margaret21 · November 5, 2020

    Language-muddle’s so disconcerting. My Spanish comes out in Italian and vice versa, and like you, French pops up everywhere with me when ‘speaking foreign’ is required. I don’t think it ever goes away!

    • MELewis · November 6, 2020

      You sum it up perfectly, Margaret. Language-muddle is just that. How reassuring to know it’s a thing and also happens to others. I fear that I will be ‘speaking foreign’ for a long time…😆

  3. Ally Bean · November 5, 2020

    I can imagine how disconcerting it must be for you. You’re becoming trilingual but perhaps driving yourself bonkers in the process? Makes for good blog stories, though.

    • MELewis · November 6, 2020

      I won’t give up but I think it will be some time before I can lay claim to being trilingual. Writing about it makes me feel a bit less bonkers. Glad you enjoy reading about my bumbling efforts to integrate!

  4. Dale · November 5, 2020

    I’m just happy you are working on learning the language. I am always disconcerted when I hear of people livingi n a country and not. Seriously? I had a friend in the Canadian military who was stationed in Baden Baden for two years and I speak more German than she does. What in the blessed Eff? I only took two semesters in college a hundred years ago but lemme tell you, if I had been in her shoes? I would have taken classes. Her answer: Why bother, we live on a base…. Pffft Merde alors!
    Sorry and désolée are so much easier than Entschuldigung, that’s for sure!

    • MELewis · November 6, 2020

      I agree Dale: so many expats live within their bubble when abroad and never even bother trying to go local. It is one of the reasons we decided to move to Central Switzerland rather than stay nearer the bigger city where my husband works (another was cost of rents!). But when in Rome and all that, so I am going to give it the college try, although it may take some time before I can mutter more than sorry. I’m generally a slow starter in these things but when I get going, I fly!

  5. Bonnie · November 5, 2020

    My Mistake was taking 2 years of German in college instead of French or Spanish.I’m a smart person with poor spelling ability! Those long German words were my undoing. It ruined my grade point average. Just passing with a C was harrowing. Good luck with your studies. I agree that if one lives in another country, no matter for how long, effort should be made to learn enough of the language to get by in daily activities at a minimum But I’ll take French any day over German.
    I’m so enjoying your posts from your new home, and jealous beyond words about the view you enjoy daily.

    • MELewis · November 6, 2020

      Thanks so much for that, Bonnie! It is a boost to know that people enjoy reading about my frustrations. It’s funny how we have different strengths and weaknesses in language learning. I’m a pretty good speller but have a terrible time understanding the spoken word. Anything written down is far easier for me to decode than a babbling stream. Of course growing up hearing French spoken in Canada helped me develop a good ear for that language, but the rest in terms of grammar, conjugation, etc was really tough. But some of the skills you develop in one language do help you to learn others. For example I’m familiar with the formal and informal forms of address in French, which makes it easier to understand in German. I’ll take whatever help I can get!

  6. mistermuse · November 5, 2020

    If Trump wins the American election, I can’t think of a more appropriate Canadian response (in more ways than one) than “Sorry.”

    • MELewis · November 6, 2020

      Funny but so true! Let’s hope that’s one sorry we’ll be able to spare ourselves… 🤞

  7. George Lewis · November 5, 2020

    Is entschuldigung one of those German compound words? Maybe breaking it up into it’s pieces would help in remembering and pronunciation

    • MELewis · November 6, 2020

      Not sure, Dad. I’m discovering those compound words at the moment but not yet able to tell the difference in many cases. One thing that helps though is breaking them into pieces. I’ve pretty well mastered it by remembering it as: ent-shull-dee-gung.

  8. Susanne · November 5, 2020

    Sorry you are having a hard time communicating our quintessential Canadian word. Most frustrating!

    • MELewis · November 6, 2020

      A most fitting response from a fellow Canuck. Merci Susanne! 🙌

  9. Colin Bisset · November 5, 2020

    I find it so difficult being in countries where I don’t have a clue about the language (German being one of them) and I can’t say sorry. I fall back into English and turn into a pantomime Uriah Heep. So I’m sorry to all those people I’ve scared with my over the topness…

    • MELewis · November 6, 2020

      Ha, ha…I know just what you mean. My worst nightmare is seeing my pathetic pantomimes turn up on a Youtube video somewhere!

  10. Suzanne et Pierre · November 7, 2020

    I though it was interesting when you said that French pronunciation was coming to you when you tried to learn German. A long time ago (while still living in Toronto), Pierre & I took some Spanish lessons. Surprisingly enough, I spoke Spanish with an English accent though some of the words where closer to the French pronunciation. I couldn’t figure it out why though I am pretty much tone-deaf so it is difficult for me to replicate sounds. I also understand how you could be speaking French to people on the street or in stores. When we moved to Paris after living in Toronto for 25 years, English was first to come out of my mouth even though I could speak perfectly in French (though with a Quebec accent which was often mocked by French people…). Good luck with your continued adaption to living in a different language. (Suzanne)

    • MELewis · May 27, 2021

      Hi Suzanne! Just going over some older posts and saw your comment from November. How lovely to hear from you, even with a time lag! Hope you are Pierre are keeping well? I can only imagine after a year of confinement you will be itching to get back to traveling soon. I know the situation in Ontario is still bad (in large part to poor management by the Ford govt). Hope things are getting better in Quebec. My German learning is not moving very quickly but perhaps when masks begin to disappear it will help. Thank god for the tolerance of most Swiss Germans!

      • Suzanne et Pierre · June 10, 2021

        Hi Mel. My turn to take a while to see your reply. I must admit that I don’t visit the blog very often these days as we haven’t had much to publish over the last year. We are doing well and, indeed, looking forward to travelling again. Things are doing well in Quebec. After a brutal first wave, the government seems to have learned a few lessons and has managed second an third wave much better. We both have had our first dose of the vaccine and should be able to get the second dose soon. If the US-Canada border reopen soon we may plan a road trip on the East Coast. Otherwise we have nothing planned yet for 2021.

      • MELewis · June 11, 2021

        Nice to see a reply from you, Suzanne! Glad to hear Quebec is doing better than Ontario (or maybe not so different in reality despite the perceptions of terrible leadership in my home province). Have always wanted to visit the east coast of both Canada and the US — looking forward to hearing of your photographic travels again soon!

  11. acflory · November 8, 2020

    Hearing a language all the time helps reset the ‘ear’. Maybe watch some of the local tv?
    I picked up a little bit of German while travelling, but that was a very long time ago. Your post did remind me of this though:

    ‘Entschuldigen Sie mir bitte’

    I think it means something like ‘please forgive me’. Talk about a mouthful!

    • MELewis · November 12, 2020

      I do try but as yet can grasp very little. TV with subs helps. And there is another expression for I’m sorry’ that’s a bit easier than your version: Es tut mir leid

      • acflory · November 12, 2020

        lol – yes, that sounds a lot easier to say.
        I wonder if there are any online language courses that would allow you to practise German over and over again at your own pace? As an adjunct to the live classes perhaps.

        I remember that the language lab at the Sorbonne was fabulous, even as far back as the 1970s. There must be something similar or better now.

        Anyway, good luck and try to have fun. 🙂

  12. Pingback: Thank god it’s Freitag | FranceSays

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