Language is such a power struggle. It can bring about such complicated control-issues in the dynamics of a relationship.
I remember when we were all studying abroad here. We always elected one person from the group to do our speaking for us in the beginning. It was the most language confident individual. Then of course we naturally deferred to these people in other group decisions. And wrongly at times, resented them for the situation we ourselves had put them in.
Later in our fits of jealousy we would all get catty with each other about who was most correct, who had the most correct accent, who had the most correct turn of phrase, who understood the most. I remember in fact being relieved when all but 2 left before the 2nd semester, because it meant, like it or not I would have to take on a more active role in my learning.
My German has highs and lows. I’ve neglected it, I’ve abused it, I’ve been obsessed with it, I’ve been embarrassed by it, I’ve used it to show off, it seems that just when I need it most, it fails me but then again out of the blue I’ll amaze myself with my competence.
Now let me share something slightly shocking with you: The rest of the world does not really expect any Americans (or English speakers) to manage to speak a language whatsoever competently.
And at times I think it’s double so hard, because when your accent is still raw and not worn-in every European thinks it’s their job to take away your precious chance to spit out a few correct sentences and cut you off with their unimpressive school English. Often times this is accompanied by an over-inflated sense of how fantastic their language prowess is and you have to fight through their accent, poor grammar, their ego and very frequently a few rushed sentences about how they either want to or have been to America to get to the point of the matter.
A few examples: I needed a new DVD-drive, went to the computer store to see if I could just buy the part. He told me even though it’s the exact same computer I have to buy it in America. Fine I was ready to go, but he needed to tell me his personal thesis on why American service is better. It is, but they’re all either corporate slaves or tip-whores and it’s not free either, esp. in the HP world of laptops. Plus he’d never lived in America and he was speaking only from his limited experience travelling. He couldn’t help me. I wanted to go. However at least it was a German convo.
Another time, I was buying somethings in the city center. An extra bottle of water somehow got scanned with my stuff. I told her the total seemed a bit high. She switched over to English, but was taking twice as long to explain the situation. I switched her back over and we were both relieved.
A really nasty example was my eye doctor recently. She was speaking way too quick for me and using complicated scientific eye terms on purpose. (I know at times it sounds all very suspicious that I meet so many bitches, but they really are. I am not exaggerating. If anything it’s the opposite! I meet plenty of nice people too, but as this is how I feel people should behave it doesn’t strike me as unusual.) She wanted to send me out quickly and didn’t care if I understood everything. I asked her what this eye-net thing was she was talking about it. She switched over to an icy-tone and said it in English. I looked it up later. You can say Retina in German. I don’t need to learn every single word in the German language. Most nice people just explain it in one or 2 words. But I guess if you want to show people you think they’re an idiot you switch over to their native language in the most condescending tone you can muster. I kept on in German anyway and left with no intention of going back.
When I was studying abroad I went into a bit more expensive shop cause I always liked the clothes even though I could only afford maybe a shirt. I was just poking around, when the young uni-aged shop assistant came to help me, he spoke English and I decided I wasn’t going to play around anymore. We spent 5 minutes chatting, he in English and I in German. I was very proud of my stubbornness and my new phrase in the pub was, Ich habe mein Ticket nach Deutschland gekauft. Du kannst selber nach Amerika reisen, wenn du dein English auffrischen willst.
Basically bugger off, we’re in Germany.
I’ve worked on my accent tons. But it still gets noticed, especially in Starbucks, but usually then, only by those really intent on showing off. Normally I make my order nice and long in German just so that it’s clear I’m not a tourist and they don’t do what this girl did to me this weekend. I said tall –soya– latte. And then she turns to her coworker who wants to know my drink order, sighs and says wait it’s so hard to translate all-the-sudden, in German. I nearly said I speak perfect German, but we can do it your way. But I bit my tongue. It’s Starbucks I get it.
These are the Germans and they’re nice, they like Americans and they like English, but it’s hard to constantly feel like you have to convince them that THIS American can speak German! It’s a reason to work on my little mistakes, learn more authentic expressions and tighten that accent up a bit.
I don’t want to speak German well for an American, or a foreigner. I want to speak it well. PUNKT
Most Americans give up, or don’t push themselves cause the English offensive is so strong, there’s no point.
The Greeks are especially hard. I’ve been laughed out outright, told to give up, asked why I’m learning, told it’s like totally the hardest language in the whole world, so I’ll never be clever enough, told that all Greeks speak perfect English, so there’s no point. In general I’ve been criticized more than encouraged.
No one learns modern Greek fluently expect maybe Albanians and some misc. Eastern Europeans. They think an accent is the most hilarious thing they’ve ever heard. For this reason I have hammered my accent into near native speaker perfection. No stranger I spoke to in Greece this summer guessed I was American. And it was like entering another world. They all wanted and expected me to speak Greek and to continue improving. They told me what a beautiful language it was.
I agree. It’s the language of my heart. I love Greek music, Greek poems, Greek dance, Greek food. I love all the funny expressions they use constantly to make the same stupid jokes over and over again. I love all the sounds. I love the long words. I love the sing-song questions. I love speaking Greek to my BF and seeing his stupid grin cause we’re both thinking on the same wavelength. I love calling everything mine: my child, my love, my eyes, my girls, my time (on time). I love the diminutive form. I love telling the kids to go well, to always be well, to say, happy week, happy month, many years, well met (welcome), good winter, good summer. I love how they greet me and make sure to say bye when they leave.
I love how they tell jokes in Greek, explode into laughter, try to translate in English, it makes no sense, I have them explain slowly in Greek until I start to giggle too. I love how when you learn the root in Greek you automatically know or can very nearly guess the noun, the person, the adjective and the adverb.
But no adult Greeks made it easy for me. It was all my goofy kids, who made fun of me still, but corrected me with respect and admiration.
Here’s my wish and I guess to sum up. I wish we English speakers could band together and be a little bit more of a pain in the butt for all these foreigners making a mess of our 3 future tenses, using will for everything. Goodness knows the French do it well enough and people still bother learning it. People have to learn English. Why do we have to be so frickin’ nice about the terrible state of their prepositions and their total and utter neglect of the present perfect tenses. Why can’t we tell the French to pronounce the H and the Germans that it’s THE not dza.
Which of you English speakers have been so nice and giving these idiots compliments they don’t deserve so that I am inflicted with pompous guys whose English is far worse than my German, but still insist on making fun of my inability to consistently pronounce ü.
Man if someone’s English is crap could maybe we please tell them that for once instead of lying to their face with this stupid, oh it’s not so bad, shit. Trust me the rest of the world constantly returns the favor to all us ex-pats and on top of it, moans about how none of us are capable of learning a second language, really anyway.
Come on guys, do it. Do it for me. Do it for the time we all wasted in 9th grade Spanish and never learned anything. Do it for our mother tongue, which now has more non-native speakers than native.