The Anglophone Millstone


I’ve owned up in an earlier post to the rather disgraceful fact that I can’t speak German despite having once spent 18 months living in Germany. I know how to to produce the sounds of German accurately; I can read the language aloud from a text, and pronounce everything correctly — I just draw a blank on most of what the text means.

I have the necessary motivation. A key determinant of success at learning a language is the degree to which you like the speakers and want to interact with them and be like them. Mission accomplished: I have quite a few German and Austrian friends, and always enjoy my trips to the German-speaking countries. In every case I can recall where I have gotten to know German speakers and had meaningful extended conversations with them, it has been very satisfying. I have learned things from them about all sorts of subjects (linguistic theory included), and genuinely enjoyed their company. I would enjoy being able to converse with them in their own language — and to do it well enough to be mistaken for a native speaker.

Ich möchte in der Lage sein, gut Deutsch zu sprechen. And genuinely wanting to be in the position of being able to speak a language well gives a huge boost to the likelihood of being able to accomplish it.

I spent the past long weekend with a couple of German friends who were visiting Edinburgh. I love them both. They were once my next-door neighbors in Santa Cruz, Calif., but they have now moved back to Munich. During their visit Edinburgh had an unusual combination of blue skies, sunshine, and cool dry air. Like a Santa Cruz fall. We all had a wonderful weekend. On Sunday we drove out of town to see two other German friends of mine who live in an isolated house in the fields near a tiny village half an hour east of Edinburgh. A friend of theirs, yet another German, was visiting. We all sat down together in the large kitchen and chatted.

Five adult Germans around one kitchen table — an engineering entrepreneur, a bioscience fund raiser, a student, a bank computer specialist, and an artisan baker — and what language did they choose? English, exclusively.

Several of them knew I would be pleased for them to relax and use their own language. I very much need exposure to conversational German. But they couldn’t do it: I was there.

So after a while I took the opportunity to sneak away. I went out the back where two young children were playing in the yard. I helped them dispose of a dead field mouse they had found. We watched the chickens for a while.

After plenty of time had elapsed, I went back in the house and slipped unobtrusively back into the kitchen. The conversation snapped back into English so smartly you could almost hear the click of a switch.

I was told later that they had all continued talking English to each other for several minutes after I disappeared, until someone explicitly pointed out that it would be fine to switch. Then they chatted in German for a while. But not for one second after I reappeared.

In the whole weekend I didn’t get even a single minute of German conversation to attune my ears to or to use as a model. Nothing.

I don’t mean to be making excuses, but for us unfortunate speakers of English it is becoming difficult to learn new languages. English is increasingly the sole global language of planet Earth. Almost every educated German speaks English better than I will ever speak German. My friends are not on the payroll as German tutors; why should they slow everything down by having to deal with an ignoramus like me who can’t keep up — especially if it would seem rude into the bargain?

Using English they can understand one another and be confident that I have understood too, so there is no embarrassing social exclusion. Moreover, they are practicing their command of the language they are going to have to use every time they travel not just around Britain but in North America or Asia or Africa or almost anywhere else. It makes perfect sense for them, Englisch zu sprechen.

But I don’t know how I am ever going to expand my isolated snippets of Teutonophone competence to attain even minimal fluency in German if, with the social millstone of being a native English speaker hung round my neck, I never get to hear conversational German round the kitchen table.

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