By Jacinta Nandi
“I love the way French people love their language,” I say to my German friend Oliver. “They’re so proud of it. They just literally think it’s the most beautiful and the best language in the world. It’s so cute.”
“No,” barks Oliver, like an angry robot. “No! Fuck you! You’re fucking wrong!”
I once kind of taught Oliver that he should swear a lot when he speaks English and then he would sound more like a native English speaker. I wish I hadn’t now. He really overdoes it. I wish he’d fucking stop. Also, I’m really genuinely worried about what will happen if he ever visits Britain. He’ll probably be glassed to death within the first three minutes off the plane.
“I think they have a really healthy attitude towards their language,” I say. “I think the British are arrogant and lazy and complacent. I think the Americans are arrogant, lazy, complacent and aggressive. I think the Germans are masochistic, defensive and bitter. But the French are just in love with their own language. They just love it! They think everyone should speak it because it’s so beautiful! It’s really exuberant and cute!”
“The French are fucking arrogant,” says Oliver.
“They’re not arrogant,” I say. “They’re proud – and a little bit vain. You know what happened to me at Alexanderplatz the other day? I saw a boy – he was a little bit brown, like me, actually a bit browner than I am, maybe he was half-black. I thought he was probably North African, yeah? He was really good-looking, actually. So then he stops me and goes: ‘Parlez-vous Francais?’ And I ridiculously go: ‘Oui, un petit peu!’ And then he asked how to get to the U8 and I tried speaking French for about three seconds, I was like: ‘Continuez au droit….l’escalier…..oui, oui….’ and then I gave up and told him in English. And then afterwards, you know what he said? He said: ‘Merci beaucoup, au revoir!'”
“So fucking arrogant,” says Oliver.
“How is that arrogant?” I ask.
“He should’ve replied to you in English. You were helping him with directions, he knows you can’t speak French…”
“I can speak it a bit,” I say.
“You cannot speak French, Jacinta. It is disrespectful to answer you in French. He should’ve answered you in English.”
“But why?” I call. “We’re two foreigners, two slightly brown foreigners in Berlin. He might not have been able to tell I was a native English speaker. We’re in Germany! It’s not disrespectful to not speak English in Germany! I think it was really healthy, beautiful, normal, natural. They get actual joy out of speaking their language, the French do. In Starbucks, as soon as you say the word ‘tall’ in a non-German accent, they switch to English to tell you the price.”
“Because that’s fucking polite!” Oliver yells. “They’re being respectful.”
“I don’t know why you think people have to be so respectful around language anyway,” I say, sulkily.
“You have a really weird attitude to language, Jacinta,” says Oliver. “You don’t have any respect for languages. You don’t even think you need to speak German, do you?”
This was another argument me and Oliver had, a while back. I don’t think I need to speak German. I speak it, a little bit, but not because I need to. I have about three German friends whose English is worse than my German. And apart from that, I really think you don’t need to speak German in Germany. Especially now that we’ve got FilmOn. I think people should learn German, especially if they want to, and I think there are a lot of advantages to speaking German – but I don’t think it’s a thing anybody needs to do. Mind you, I also don’t think Germans need to speak English, either.
“No,” I said. “I don’t need to speak German. I want to. I don’t need to.”
“You have to speak German if you live in Germany. It’s respectful. It’s disrespectful to not speak German if you want to live in this country.”
“I think you hate the German language, Oliver,” I said, softly. “I don’t think you’d be so respectful of something you didn’t hate.”
“I don’t fucking hate it,” he answered.
“Do you love it?”
“No,” he said. “I respect it.”
I think a lot of Germans hate German, and language in general, perhaps. Not all of them, but the majority. People like Oliver. They’re so fearful – scared of Denglisch, scared of bad grammar, scared of street slang. At the same time, they’re so subservient and meek and masochistic towards English – why the fuck should any tourist in the German capital speak English to a passer-by? Where’s the respect in that? The sexy Arab boy should’ve said ‘Tschüss’ or ‘Auf Wiedersehen’. That’s what he SHOULD’VE said. ‘Au revoir’ and ‘Goodbye’ are both equally as disrespectful. And ‘Au revoir’ does sound better.
My German’s pretty shit. I’ve been living here for 13 years. About 50 percent of my German friends think my German is a Schande, I probably have a Sprachbehinderung, and maybe I could get a tongue operation paid for by the AOK. About 45 percent think it’s fine. Five percent think I am almost perfect and fuck I love them for it. But, in all honesty, for someone who’s lived in this country for almost all her adult life, my German is pretty atrocious. “Dein Deutsch ist sehr schlecht!“, said a fella in a bar to me the other day, and then, just in case I hadn’t understood: “Dafür, dass du so lange in Deutschland lebst, ist dein Deutsch sehr schlecht. Du sprichst ein sehr schlechtes Deutsch.” And, you know, he’s right. I am shit. I’m ashamed. But still. That’s not the kind of thing you say if you want people – foreigners, any foreigners, people who’ve just got off the plane and their German’s shit, people who’ve been here five, seven, nine, 13, 21 years and their German’s shit – to speak MORE German. Even Germans know that. It’s not the kind of thing you say if you love your language. Let’s be honest, German’s not beautiful like French or Italian. Okay. It’s really hard. The “Binnen-I” thing is kind of inelegant. All those Denglisch words are slightly annoying. But isn’t German FUN? Macht es nicht Spaß, deutsch zu sprechen? Auch schlecht? Aren’t the umlauts funny? My accent is so bad, I never know where they go, coz I pronounce everything with an umlaut, so I just liberally sprinkle them all over my vowels like sugar over cornflakes. The other day I texted a German mate of mine: “Du kannst sehr gut knütschen!” He wrote back: “Mit den meisten Frauen knutsche ich bloß aber mit dir knütsche ich auch sehr gerne.” Isn’t that FUN? Why do we need to have respect for language? We should fall in love with it, like the French do. Maybe even fuck with it a little. Why not? I think if a German person loved German, they’d laugh with joy every time an Ausländer got “der”, “die”, “das” wrong, or said “mein Schwester” instead of “meine”. But as it is, every mistake we make is seen as the final proof that German is about to die out ANY MINUTE NOW.
The thing is, they’re right to be scared. German is gonna die out. Not today, and not tomorrow, but in three hundred years, nobody will speak the language anymore. But I dunno. I know it’s a bit depressing. But still. We might as well enjoy it while we can. Like how the French enjoy French. Na.
By Jacinta Nandi aka Amok Mama for the Ex Berliner. An Author and Blogger.