Posts Tagged ‘Language’

German Also Spoken Here

Monday, September 27th, 2010

We’ve been here for four months now, and I have to admit that my German hasn’t improved as much as I would have liked. Which isn’t great news, as improving my German was one of the reasons I wanted to move here. On the plus side, I discovered when we arrived that it was better than I had thought. The simple expedience of having to speak German revealed this on the day we moved in to our new flat – I had to talk to the removal men. As we’d hired a German firm to do the move, this meant I had try out my skills. To my surprise, I opened my mouth and out came something distinctly Teutonic. Even more surprisingly, it must have made some kind of sense because rather than a blank look or laughter, I got an answer, and this was when I learned an important lesson. It’s all well and good to be able to form an understandable sentence, but it’s another thing entirely to be able to understand the response. It’s usually me who is left looking blank, as I try desperately to work out what on Earth I’ve just been told. More often than not, I have to ask for it to be repeated, a little more slowly. You only notice how quickly people speak when you can’t understand them. Thankfully I’m usually able to get there in the end, though of course there are occasions where I get the wrong end of the stick.
What has surprised me since we arrived is how much more prevalent English is here now than it was when I first visited Berlin nearly ten years ago. I used to be fond of joking that it’s impossible to go for a walk on Hampstead Heath these days without hearing people speaking German at some point, to illustrate the increasing number of German expats in north London. The reverse is just as true in our local park (Volkspark am Friedrichshain) – I hear people speaking English there almost every time I go, though they aren’t all necessarily British. This is probably a function of the fact that Prenzlauer Berg is very popular with English expats – there is an English child in both Carla and Helene’s nursery groups, for example. This is great for me as I get to speak English to someone other than Ilka or the girls from time to time. There are also some German neighbours in our building who speak English, which is enormously helpful. It’s so much easier to learn from someone who also speaks your own language, who can explain your mistake or translate what they just said that left you baffled. After a visit to the market on Kollwitzplatz one Saturday I formed the opinion that we’d moved to the wrong part of Prenzlauerburg due to the amount of English voices I heard there. However as time has gone on I’ve realised that there are just as many on our side of the tracks – that’s the tram tracks on Greifswalder Strasse.
Then there’s the perception that English is cool – there are a surprising number of English advertising slogans, and I have also seen some TV ads that are entirely in English. What’s really annoying though is the fact that all the TV here is dubbed. Subtitles are great for learning language, but there’s no stomach for them here. The worst of this is the tendency to do a live translation of people being interviewed in English – you get to hear the beginning of the sentence in English, then the translator barges in and starts firing off the translation at the speed of light as s/he tries to keep up with the interview. It’s a lose-lose situation – you can’t hear the English under the translation, and it’s hard to concentrate and keep up with the German being spoken.
The biggest factor in my lack of progress so far is the fact that I work from home. Due to this I don’t have to leave the house very much, where we mostly speak English. I’m having to find reasons to go out, most of which are for shopping, which at this rate means learning German is going to be an expensive business.
It’s been interesting to see the children’s language developing – Helene already spoke pretty good German by the time we arrived here, but Carla was only beginning to speak and her vocabulary was mostly English. Helene is now miles ahead of me, and I have to suffer the ignominy of having my speech corrected by a four your old. Carla is catching up pretty quickly – having gone through a phase of mangling both languages she’s now finding her feet, and I face the daunting prospect of being outstripped by both of my daughters, which was the catalyst for me speaking German in the first place.
The final irony of all this is that there is one person who I have little trouble understanding and conversing with, because she speaks very slowly and clearly. That person is my mother-in-law. I’ll let you write your own punchlines.