Last week I had an interesting experience to do with pronunciation (die Aussprache) in a Dialog in Deutsch group with two Spanish speakers. One of these women was trying to explain that she was working as a volunteer – eine Freiwillige – but it came out sounding like •Freibillige because the relationship between the /v/ and the /b/ sound in Spanish. Both frei and billige are words in German and they appear together online in the context Versandkosten frei billige <etwas> – “free shipping [on] cheap <somethings>” so I am guessing that this added to the comprehension issue for the native speakers present. For me, with only a bit of German to interfere, and some knowledge of Spanish, it was clear what she was trying to say. Indeed, I am not even sure that I would have noticed the error but for the blank faces and the fact that they instantly cleared up when I said Freiwillige with a strong emphasis on the pronunciation of the /v/ sound.
I’m sure it isn’t unusual for one non-native speaker to be able to understand another non-native speaker better than a native speaker who is part of the same conversation because both non-native speakers are struggling. In addition, there is a sense of community among non-native speakers that centers around the desire to communicate and the frequent sense that the right word is just out of reach. If you can search your own word bank and pull out something that might help the other person express him or herself, you get a nice jolt of satisfaction from being helpful. And as many models of learning stress, helping someone else is a great well to build your own skills. I don’t think I’ll be forgetting the meaning or the pronunciation of Freiwillige, frei or billige any time soon, at least not voluntarily.