The politics of language

There’s a chapter in an English as a foreign language text book called: ‘How to avoid saying no directly’. I burst out laughing when I saw it. Is there anything more stereotypically British?

I came across it at the language school I work at, where we regularly teach the art of small talk to students. Things like how to apologise for everything and hide your true feelings – you know, the British way of life.

Although stereotypes can be overegged and unhelpful, I have to admit; I’ve definitely come across a few of them since moving to Berlin at the start of the year.

It’s true that Germans communicate more directly (believe me, you grow a thicker skin living here) and I actually think they’re quite proud of this fact. “Why not?” they’d probably reply if you asked why they always got straight to the point.

And so I wasn’t surprised at a recent news story, in which CDU politician Jens Spahn complained about too much English being spoken in the capital’s restaurants.

“It drives me up the wall the way waiters in Berlin restaurants only speak English, said the junior finance minister.

He added that “co-existence can only work in Germany if we all speak German”.

Why mince your words, Mr Spahn?

In some ways I agree with him. I think it’s important to learn the language of a country you’ve chosen to move to. Not only that, I think language learning should be taken far more seriously at school, whether you move away or not.

Who am I looking at when I say that? The Brits, of course! Oh how lovely it would be to have had one foreign language under my belt before I moved abroad. Unfortunately I think education on the island falls way beneath the mark when it comes to this subject – I had very little to show after my measly four years of German.
Friedrichstraße in Berlin’s Mitte district. Jens Spahn says waiters in the capital are speaking too much English. 

So here I am today, still struggling with the gender of words and all that goes with it.

Sometimes I feel life’s too short to learn German grammar and maybe I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than go through another minute of it. But really, I want to learn. I’ll keep trying because I want to understand the world around me.

I want to hold a conversation with the man in the bike shop next to my flat and I’d really like to not embarrass myself again by asking for whipped cream to treat my mosquito bites in the chemist.

I’d like to understand menus in German and not have to Google translate when somebody asks me something simple like ‘close the door, please’.

Jens Spahn’s experience of Berlin is a little different to mine. Yes you hear a lot of English here – from Germans, from other nationalities and from native English speakers.

But I often find myself surrounded by a group of people speaking German, nodding along and smiling without a clue in the world what they’re talking about. I understand the odd word but there’s no way I can keep up with a regular conversation.

It’s not always that the people I’m with can’t speak English. Sometimes I think they just want to talk in their mother tongue with their friends rather than cater to the non-German speaker. Not everyone speaks English all the time and why should they?

Berlin is home to so many nationalities and I love it for that. On one U-bahn ride I often hear about six different languages and I dream of a future (which is far, far away obviously) when I’ll understand them all.

Right now, though, I need to focus on trying to improve my German and do the work that comes with it. Who knows? One day I might even ditch the polite small talk and become more direct. Then you’ll know I’ve really nailed this language.

Adapted from my newsletter, on the road with eu, published on August 18

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