Two days ago, I was railing against the daily posting horror that I have taken on for myself. Some very kind cheerleaders turned up, tagged me for memes, asked me questions and gave me ideas for the last few posts of November. Today, I’m responding to Dorothy, who asked, “Personally, I’d love to hear about how you deal with the language stuff — how long have you known German, are you perfectly fluent, do you run into language trouble, etc.”
I arrived in Germany in 1996, with barely a word of German. As a last-ditch measure, I had taken some German lessons in Johnnesburg in the month before leaving, but it was a minute introduction to the language. As part of my husband’s contract, the company paid for our German lessons with an excellent language school who sent our teacher to meet us at the company. Having given up a busy and demanding job as a corporate journalist in South Africa, to be unemployed and more than a little depressed in Germany, the lessons were the highlight of my week. After scaring off one teacher with our typically South African response to her news of a break-in in her car (“They didn’t rip out your stereo? Slash your seats? Pour beer/urine everywhere? Well, you got off lucky then”), we hit on the wonderful, stellar Bernd.
Bernd was cool, and a brilliant language teacher. Although his English was fluent, he didn’t use it once after the first lesson. For the first four months, we met with Bernd – together – three times a week for an hour. Then, when my life changed and the company hired me too (as a technical writer; very scary) I met Bernd on my own once a week for the next three years. The goal was to become conversant in German, never to have to write it, since at the time we imagined that our stay in Germany would be short. We certainly achieved that goal and were conversationally fluent in German by the time we left for England in early 1999.
I think there are different levels to learning a language. The first is to get by in shops and restaurants and we achieved that in the first three months. For many immigrants the next challenge is working in German, and although I was surrounded by German at work (all my emails were in German, as were all my meetings), the company was rapidly becoming more English-speaking. I had a few English friends whose German was better than mine, and they would tell me which emails were relevant or deletable, and also gave me the run-down after meetings to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. The next level in a language is to make friends, and that started happening after a year, although I never felt I was representing myself fully.
The England move was an odd one, and was definitely motivated by me. Firstly, I missed English. I missed English newspapers, English TV and easy access to English books. I also knew I wanted to have babies, but that doing it in German scared the daylights out of me. One friend I had had asked for painkillers during childbirth and had been given a footrub! I decided that giving birth was weird and scary enough without having to go through it in a foreign language. Also, to many English-speaking South Africans, England is the motherland, so it seemed a natural progression. It was, and it wasn’t. Four years later, with two babies in tow, we were back in Germany.
As our children were heading for baptism by fire in German kindergarten, we made a concerted effort never to say anything negative about Germany or the language, but to always encourage their efforts to learn it. We read them German books, let them watch some German telly, and encouraged them to play with German children. Now, of course, their German is far better than ours and I’m really proud of their ability to switch effortlessly from one language to another.
I do run into language trouble occasionally. When I apologise for my German, most people are charmingly encouraging and swear that my German is very good. They seem to like my odd English/South African accent. I find myself getting strangely tongue-tied now and again (usually in places of authority like doctor’s offices or when visiting Rathaus officials), which is a strange sensation because in my own language I’m fairly eloquent. When I write notes to Lily’s teacher, I usually have to do two or three versions before I’m confident that it’s correct. I suppose it’s all humbling, though it’s not particularly pleasant.
To answer Dorothy’s question, I am perfectly fluent in that I can make friends and attend dinner-parties in German. I have the advantage over many immigrants in that I look kind of Teutonic, if on a small scale. However, there is 2% missing – the 2% that cracks dry jokes, that makes cultural references, that reads books and comments on them. This is why I relish my English-speaking friends, because with them I am completely myself. I relish blogland, because it is an island of English in my German sea. I relish reading and writing in English.
I suppose I could hone that 2%, read some books in German, read German blogs, develop a line in German witticisms, but it appears I don’t want to. If I lost that 2% then maybe I’d start putting up lace curtains, sweeping the street and sniffing people’s bins. I keep that 2% safe and protected because there’s a part of me that will be forever English.