new year, pt. 2

new year, pt. 2

just an hour into 2005, i got caught up in a discussion about language, in english. there were two main points of view. 1. if you are in germany, you should speak german or at least try. it’s your right. 2. if you are just beginning to learn german, it’s not always the best method of communication. language is about communicating with people the best you can. my pet peeve about these discussions is that many people who have acquired second language skills through years of schooling really don’t understand what it is like to drop into a country and to start learning the basics of a language, to be fully aware of your communication limitations, which are not caused by a momentary lapse in a huge volume of knowledge stored somewhere in the back of your brain. it is not comfortable for anyone who is not 4 years old to have the speech abilities of a 4-year-old, 24 hours a day. at some point, no matter how beneficial practicing this new language is, moments of respite are needed. say on new year’s when you just want to have a good time, not take german lessons. or migraines. using another language does not signify a lack of effort to learn the majority’s language. if there was a matrix language chip, no one would be turning it down.

the idea that one has a "right" to speak the language of a majority was amusing to me. this "right" was imagined after the experience in germany of people hearing a strong accent and then replying in english. i was reminded of one of the other americans on a study abroad in paris. he lived near pigalle and would have conversations with the hookers to practice his french. the hookers weren’t busy or going anywhere. living in another country is not disneyland. people are not characters paid to interact with you and smile. the newspaper man wants to sell newspapers. the vegetable seller is not trying to help you with grammar. it’s not an insult if someone replies in english. it’s an attempt at communicating better.

perhaps as a black person i’ve never imagined this type of insult. for a white person to have someone speak english back to them, i could project that maybe they feel like their german skills are being devalued. the assumption being that if they speak german they should be accepted just like a native german speaker. a shape-shifting fantasy that allows one to blend in. just buy a funky bag in mitte, hang out in a prenzlauer berg cafe, add water and stir. ich bin einE BerlinerIn. the same phenomenon happened in paris. this usually involved scarves, all black clothing, chain-smoking, and trading in kicks for high heels.

i will never disappear and never imagined doing so. people may think i’m from africa, the americas, who knows what language they may think i know better than german, if they hear an accent. (the last time i was in new york, this jamaican dude asked me where i was from. he wouldn’t believe i was actually from new york. he said i had an accent). for me, this situation is only problematic when it affects germans. people who are assumed to not "look german" despite growing up here, speaking german or german dialect as a native language. if you have a clunky accent, it may just be hard for the other person to understand what you are saying. in the end, it’s all about communication. 

i remember reading a column by wladimir kaminer not too long ago, which described people coming up to him and scolding him publicly on the street, as he was speaking russian with a friend. this is germany; you should speak german. as if speaking another language in public is a threat. the affective nature of language is often not understood by people who only speak one language. one language can embody all that is expressive, emotional, and creative, while the other takes on an administrative or functional position. it is odd to start speaking a different language with someone close to you. this topic bothers me a lot because these opinions spill into the debate on bilingual education and immigration. often the people with the most pointed opinions, which end up affecting policy, have no practical experience in what they are talking about.

in any case, i decided not to take another german class. it’s all about japanese at the city hochvolkschule in the oh-five.


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