Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Deutsch and I


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.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

17 thoughts on “Deutsch and I

  1. Yes yes! Replace “Deutsch” with “Italiano” and I’m right there with you!

    The basics aren’t all that hard (especially when you don’t have a choice), but getting to be yourself, your *real* self…I’m still working on it four years later, and I know I will be doing so for a long time.

    And I agree–that makes blogland all that more special 🙂

  2. It’s the jokes and dry wit that are the hardest thing to lose when you’re living in a foreign language – often you might understand their jokes but they just aren’t funny – at least that’s what I found in Italy.

    I’m lucky to have landed up in an English speaking family in a half English speaking land and only miss out on the apparently uproariously funny but untranslatable Afrikaans jokes! I should follow your fine example and buckle down to learning it, but laziness or an innate leaning to romance languages has me still at the learning numbers stage

  3. wonderful post. being able to understand and make dry jokes in a foreign language somehow seems to be an essential step to feeling you have mastered a language – i remember how happy i was when i realised that i had just cracked my first silly joke in english without even noticing.
    i recently remembered your post about your daughter learning to read from tv subtitles – i discovered last weekend that i can read dutch! must be from all the dutch subtitles we got on the dutch movie channel (my parents lived close to the dutch border and we had one dutch cable channel waaay before satellite tv). i read a whole book and i swear i understood every word. now i just have to learn to speak it …

  4. Hi Charlotte,

    Not sure how I landed here, but this post, naturally, intrigued me. I am German born and bred but have spent the better part of the last two decades living in Canada, England, and, lately, the US. I had the advantage of learning English in school for many years, yet this didn’t mean that I didn’t feel awkward and tongue-tied during my first few years in an English speaking country.

    Throughout this time I have kept up my German, mainly through my jobs with German companies, but I can honesty say that these days both languages are completely intertwined, to the point where I translate from English into German when speaking my mother tongue. I also think and and dream in English, mostly. Yet I never lost my accent when speaking English, although here in the US I am often mistaken for Scottish or Irish, and even South African, because the Americans cannot place my German accent with its British twist.

    In the end it has become a bit of a linguistic twilight zone, with both my English and my German being there at 99.8% each, perhaps because I have never ever had lace curtains or sniffed at bins, not even when I grew up in Germany 🙂

    Take care,

  5. Great post Charlotte. Language is so interesting. I grew up in a spanish-speaking home and considered myself quite fluent in both spanish and english. I landed a job doing medical interpretations and I realized my spanish was very limited. Sure I could speak with my parents but rarely did we speak anything too technical and often when I couldn’t find the right word in spanish I would just say it in english. What an eye-opener this was.

    Now I struggle with my children, because I want them to learn spanish, but I find myself so easily reverting to english. They understand, but answer me in english and to be frank, sometimes I just don’t notice.

    My dad, a lovely man, learned to speak english in his 40’s. He can be understood and when confronted with someone who doesn’t want to understand him, he MAKES himself understood. He gets the tenses wrong sometimes, but he communicates well.

    I’ve always thought that was the key. To communicate and make yourself understood. Even if you flounder or make mistakes, the bottom line is did they get what you were trying to say.

    Sounds like you’ve done wonderfully.

  6. In Germany, when someone praises someone else’s talent for languages, they say, “So-and-so speaks English/German/Russian/etc. fluently and without an accent”.

    When I first met Charlotte, my German friends, who also met her, said exactly that about Charlotte’s German. I was simultaneously green with envy (after twenty-five years in Germany, my German is, at best, fluent but grammatically inaccurate) and ridiculously proud of my new-found friend’s ability to master an impossibly difficult language.

    Charlotte, that 2% you are talking about keeps you humble and makes you a very interesting enigma for all who have the pleasure to know you.

  7. Even a lifetime of work would probably not be enough for the last 2%, or the last .2%. I am quite certain that someone can’t be a native in two cultures. I find it sad, and in the meantime, I find it just. Nobody can usurpate anybody else’s culture.

  8. I remember getting as far as the restaurant level then getting stuck – too many people speaking English constantly at me (the only people I could really try and practice German with where other exiles), mostly from soon-to-be-former Yugslavia. Looking German, though, which I did and do, definitely made it a lot easier to fit in. People used to ask me for directions and patiently listen when I tried to give them.

  9. Learning languages.. Even after getting an MA in Finnish and spending a couple of years in Finland, I never felt I could express myself well enough to show people who I really am.

    I think I can express myself adequately enough in English to reveal the real me. Spoken English, that is. Of course I make mistakes, a non native speaker, but I don’t mind too much. Living in an English speaking county, hearing, speaking, reading and breathing English all day long, I thought writing in English wouldn’t really be any different. As it turns out, writing English and really express myself is far more complicated that I’d anticipated.

  10. Thank you for answering my question! I studied German for years in High School and college and so am rather envious of your chance to live in Germany and become fluent — the process of becoming comfortable in another language is a fascinating one to read about.

  11. Thank you for sharing that fascinating part of your life!

    I’ve studied several languages but have never traveled, so my knowledge is minimal at best, and I’m much better at muddling through them on paper than speaking them. The best I got was in college when I was studying a lot of Italian. I remember my first dream in Italian — I was so excited!

    I think that 2% is a fine thing to keep for yourself.

  12. Right on – that last two percent, the one where you’re trying to swim along with the banter, but no matter how fast you paddle, you’re always a half-stroke too late. It’s the law of diminishing returns. The closer you get, the harder it is to see results or be satisfied by them. Great post.

  13. That’s really interesting to hear. I am depressingly monolingual, but I have enough Spanish to know that if I were in a Spanish-speaking country for long enough I could probably get the hang of it. But it seems so terrifying to go someplace where you don’t yet have the language! I admire your courage for doing that.

  14. I lack that 2% in Spanish as well. Or maybe it’s closer to 5% in my case. I remember sitting at a family dinner where my husband’s uncle kept going on and on about “conejo” (rabbit) and it just made no sense to me why everyone was laughing. Turns out “conejo” is slang for female genitals.

    Sometimes it’s better not to understand everything.

  15. What great post. Language is such an interesting aspect of human life and I often wonder how much of your language informs your personality and attitudes. I mean, I just cannot imagine an Italian speaker being as reserved as a Flemish speaker, or a Flemish speaker waving their hands about in the animated way of almost all Italians. And I think that’s where your 2% comes in – it’s the part that tethers you to what you were born as.

    Here’s a question for you – do you dream in German?

  16. My guess is that if you tried to get that last 2%, you’d run into issues other than curtains.

    Hats off to finding the balance that works for you.

  17. Pingback: A door opens. I step through it. « Vendorprisey

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