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.


I Stand Corrected

My mother tells a story of how, when visiting the local Botanical Gardens, she pointed out some budgies to her small daughter. I apparently told her witheringly, “Those are not budgies. They’re love-birds.”

I got the same treatment from Ollie this morning. We were poised at the top of the stairs, about to head down for breakfast. I said to him, “There’s your tractor, darling. Do you want to bring it down with you?”

He grabbed the tractor, turned to me and said, “It’s not a tractor, Mummy, it’s a digger. It is for digging erf.”


Ollie Coins a Phrase

Yesterday was summer (it comes but once a month), and so we grabbed the ever-ready pool bag that sits permanently and hopefully next to the front door and made for the Burg’s rather lovely, tree-shaded swimming-pool. I chose to put my swimming costume on before I left, because lax though I have become in Germany about body issues, I didn’t fancy stripping publically, or having to baby whisper three kids in a minute changing room (have done that; won’t do it again). We leave for the pool, with me already in costume. Ollie turns to me and says,

“Mama, you wearin’ your soggy?”

I did in fact spend much of the next four hours being soggy, either soggy in the pool or soggy out, but I think my little fella meant “cozzie”, which is the South African contraction for “swimming costume”. I like “soggy” though; I may have to keep it.

(I love language acquisition. I find it adorable. When Daisy was about the same age as Ollie, she coined a good one. Instead of saying “cuddle” or “hug”, she would ask for a “cuggle”. To this day, we still cuggle.)

Meanwhile, Ollie is acquiring German. His version consists of very long sentences, of which only the odd word is discernible. He is not shy, and accosts big kids at the pool, and then converses with them Germanically while they look at him, confused. A typical conversation might go:

Ollie: Nein! (Diverse Germanic sounds) Meine Bagger! (Germanish) Nein, kind.

Child: —

Ollie: Ich und meine Mama (more Germanish) schwimmen (Germanigook) Daisy.

Child shrugs shoulders and departs.

Ollie is completely convinced he is speaking comprehensible German. At the moment it sounds like German, it contains pieces of German, and if you wrote it down it might look like German. It is excellent mimicry of the sounds of the language, which is what he started doing with English when he was about one. Perhaps he’ll call his Badeanzug a “zuggie”.


Lost in Translation

My darling two-and-a-bit-year-old son has started at a little German playgroup four mornings a week. It is a Waldkindergarten, which means the children spend as much time outdoors as possible, whatever the weather. Most days he goes togged up in his rain-gear since it is, naturellement, raining. They do have a room where they can retire to play if the weather is completely foul, but the kindergarten guarantees a minimum of half an hour spent outside every day, come rain, snow, hail or monsoon. When the weather is good, they are out all morning long.

All this exposure to fresh air has had the wonderful benefit of Ollie’s sleeping like a log all afternoon. He often falls asleep on the way home in the pram, and if not, then during his lunch or immediately after. He is one tired baby.

Another benefit is that he starting to speak German. In English, he is already a verbal guy (future girlfriends will be happy about this), who talks about his feelings (“I luf you, Mummy”) and expresses his needs (“I need milk. I NEED it!”), so it’s been fascinating to witness his German arrive. In five weeks he has gone from single words (ja, nein, Auto, Polizei) to sentences.

Today, after I had changed his nappy, he stood up on his changing mat, tenderly stroked my cheeks, looked deep into my eyes and declared, “Du bist meine Papa.”

Given the way he feels about his dad, this is the highest of compliments. I am honoured.


In Which I Am A Bad Influence

I’ve spent a lot of time with my nearly two-year-old son last week. My kind and lovely husband took our two daughters for a week of skiing in France, leaving me – at my request – at home with Ollie. It was bliss being tied to the schedule of a person whose day looks like this: wake, eat, play, sleep, eat, play, eat, sleep. I didn’t need to consult a calendar to find out what his plans were for the week, make any play-dates, ensure that he had clean sports clothes for the next day, oversee his homework, make his lunchbox or get him anywhere on time. The freedom of only having a baby to look after was completely heady.

Delicious things happened: I was able to read Anna Karenina in the bath while he had his morning nap, write blog posts while he played, take him for leisurely walks in the pram whenever it suited us, visit playgrounds at prime homework time. The house stayed spectacularly clean and tidy, I cooked and froze meals (unheard of, let me assure you), taught myself how to do a podcast, saw four girlfriends, chatted to other girlfriends on the phone, completed one work assignment and did shedloads of washing (washed, ironed AND put away). I was amazed at what I could achieve – without trying overly hard – with only one child in the house.

I also spent some lovely time with my fella. We talked about trains a lot. I took him for walks to see the trains go over the railway bridge. We read train books. We played with his train set. We cuddled under a blanket together and watched his Thomas the Tank Engine DVD. My Ollie, he loves a train.

He also loves to chat and comment on everything around him. I was giggling at someone’s blog (wish I could remember whose, then I’d link to that post), and he said to me: “You crying, Mummy?” I said, “No darling, I’m laughing” and he responded, “Oh, laughing. Ha ha ha” and headed off for some more trains. His dad has noticed that after a week alone with Mummy that his speech has taken off and that he’s making lovely long sentences. It’s great to know I’ve been a good influence on my little lad.

Except for this moment: I’m packing bottles into a shopping bag to take to the grocery store for recycling. Some of the bottles fall to the floor.

“Oh, bloody,” says Ollie. “Bloody howl.”


Ollie Makes a Call

I need to share some Ollie cuteness. I overheard him today on one of his toy telephones, having a conversation:

Haro. Daddy!

Ummm …. Daddy.

Ummm …. Daddy.


…… Daddy …. Daddy …. Daddy

Dye-Dye, Daddy.

This boy just loves his father.

He also loves things with wheels (“voom-vooms”), even bigger things with wheels (“tactors”) and monster things with wheels (“tucks”). He likes a “dink” from his “bup”, preferably accompanied by a “bis” or a slice of “kek”. He enjoys “befis”, “bupper” and his “barf”. When Mummy is drinking something in a mug, then it must be “boffee”. His sisters “Lala” and “Dezee” are his favourite playmates in the world, and he loves to “tuddle” them. Yesterday we were walking past the bakery, and he leaned out of his “pam” to tell me that’s where we buy “bed”.

The other day, I said to him, “Ollie, you are a star!”. He looked up at me and replied, “Tinkle, tinkle”.

He is adorable.