IV: A Plea for Language

The first Germans I ever met on my travels were English teachers. They would quiz me on my language, asking me about sentence structure, verb conjugation and problematic prepositions. They knew more English grammar rules and spoke English better than many native speakers I know, yet would often apologize for their “bad English”. I never accepted these apologies. Here were young women, only a few years older than me, feeling unqualified for not being able to speak their second or third language perfectly, while I, the native English speaker, could only claim to speak one language with any level of proficiency. But you’re from Canada! Don’t you speak French? I studied French for six years in school and can tell you all about conjugating être in the passe composé using DRMRSVANDERTRAMPP but when it comes to actually having a conversation I am really only equipped to speak with children…and even their vocabulary will far outstrip my own.

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Street art in Mitte

I knew my skills with learning new languages were underdeveloped before I ever dreamed of moving to Berlin, which was why the oft asked question So, do you speak German yet? moved me quickly to a state of panic once I arrived. I felt like a fraud, claiming to live in a city where I did not speak the language, masquerading as a native when in reality I was just a long-term tourist. In many ways, I still feel like this. I still can’t speak German. This means more than just being unable to talk to locals. It means I can’t read the news or Facebook events. It means when shopkeepers try to joke with me about my bad cycling I’m forced to fake a giggle after only understanding one word in five. It means I’m poorly equipped to haggle at markets, feel sympathy for the beggars selling their stories on trains, ask detailed questions about things I’m buying or really get to know this city as a local (never mind having to negotiate all the bureaucracy of moving, getting registered, finding an apartment, opening a bank account and securing a working contract when everything is in a language I don’t understand).

In Berlin, you can get away without speaking German; this is a city that draws people with diverse backgrounds from every country around the globe. Yet even in the heart of the city, in the centre of the tourist district, people will speak to you in German first and English second. If you can speak even some German, even some German in a terrible accent, they will encourage you to continue. Defaulting to English will often earn you every emotion from weariness to disdain. This is because the German language is really what ties all these multinationals together. Here, it doesn’t matter where you come from – Berliners accept anyone, even the strange…especially the strange – but if you want to be a part of the community, you must speak the language. Otherwise you are doomed to the fringes as an ausländer – an outsider – an ignorant tourist. In my case, it’s particularly bad – I’m an ignorant tourist with a very American accent.

The result is that most of my friends here are expats. Some, from Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and Ireland, also speak English as a first language. Others, from the Netherlands, Brazil and Hungary, speak at least their native language and English. Most of the people I know who are actively learning German or taking German lessons already speak at least two languages with near fluency. None of them are native English speakers.

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Wall paint around the corner from my Berlin apartment

I think being born in a country where English is the first language is truly both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because being able to speak the international language fluently, to communicate every thought and idea without delay in a way that can be understood by millions of people around the world is a truly powerful gift. We’re taught to value our language, bred to believe that everyone else wants to learn it, and that most are excited to meet a native English speaker. We become a sort of celebrity, valued as an expert by virtue of birthplace, a faunt of knowledge for anyone who wants to practice English’s many grammar exceptions or test their knowledge of inconsistent spelling and borrowed words from other languages (kindergarten, café, hors d’oeuvres, piñata, and paparazzi, to name just a few). And so, we become lazy. English makes us feel that we don’t need to learn another language. It gives us a false sense of entitlement, the idea that it is more important for others to learn our language than for us to bother to learn theirs. Is it any wonder that so many countries and so many cities dislike tourists? Is it any wonder that to truly belong you need to speak the local language?

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Chalk invitation to a day party – heute Samstag means today and Saturday in German

Once you do, doors open. Especially in Berlin, not only will you be able to communicate with anyone – no matter if they were born in the former West where English was taught in schools, or in the former East where they were taught Russian instead – but you can suddenly read the newspapers, volunteer with refugees, listen in on spontaneous street performances, and understand Facebook events. Posters around the city no longer require Google Translate to decipher, and even the sidewalk becomes inviting.

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Waterfront of YAAM, the Young African Art Market, on the banks of the Spree River

Berlin is a welcoming city – welcoming to the entrepreneur with dreams of a start-up, the jazz artist looking to hone her skills, the DJ anxious to cash in on Berlin’s thriving night life, the graphic designer eager to practice on its walls. It’s welcoming for the history lovers fascinated by all that happened here, for all those families reunited when the Berlin Wall finally fell, for the outcasts looking for a place to belong, for the refugees seeking somewhere to call home. With one language, these people are all connected and the city opens up to them all, no matter where they come from, what they do or who they are. It even opened up for me, with the very little German I know. My advice for fellow nomads? For those who risk their voice in pursuit of the unknown? Be brave. It’s not easy learning a new language and speaking with those who have known it all their lives. You will make mistakes, you will embarrass yourself, you will be misunderstood, you will feel stupid and slow and frustrated, and you will hate the looks of confusion shared between people who can’t understand your accent or your words. But try to remember that every non-native speaker has felt the same, and that if you persevere you can gain access to this super cool club of people who will be able to share more with you than you could ever gain in translation…all those people who apologize for their “bad English” when they’re already multilingual. One day I hope to be a member myself.

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