"Teenagers today," says my friend Susanne, somewhat narkily, "I'm scared of them. Well, no, I'm scared for them, I should say. I'm so scared about the future of my country when I look at teenagers today. The teenagers today, they can't write at all."
"You think?" I reply lazily.
"Yes," she says. "I think so. Standards are constantly slipping. The German young people can't write in full sentences. They write in this strange text-message kind of street slang. And the children of immigrants!"
She raises her hands to the air in an expression of utmost horror. As far as she's concerned, the German used by the children of immigrants is pretty fucking horrific.
"The children of immigrants basically don't speak German at all," she says. "The language they're speaking isn't German – it's this kind of mish-mash language, a gobbledy-gook, a pidgin, basically."
"You reckon?" I say.
"Yes," she says. She's really getting into her stride now. "These teenagers today! Their handwriting, Jacinta! Their handwriting is appalling. They don't know any Schreibschrift. They don't know any grammar. They've never been taught punctuation! All they do is send each other these meaningless text messages, all written in bad grammar. Oh, sometimes they do graffiti, too. And I'm not just talking about the children of immigrants! I mean, the situation with the children of immigrants is bad enough, but I'm not only talking about them!"
"You think they can't speak good enough German?" I ask. "Kids who've been born here?"
"They cannot communicate," she says viciously. "They cannot communicate at all – in two languages. The young immigrant people are unable to communicate at all in two languages. And the young German people are no better! They can't read or write. They don't know the difference between 'das' and 'dass'! It's the school system, and society in general. Standards, Jacinta, standards are constantly slipping."
"Well," I say.
"Is the situation as bad in England?" she asks me anxiously.
"Yes," I say. "Yes, I think so. Well, I think a lot of people in England feel the same way about English teenagers as you do about German ones."
"Oh, my good God," she says.
"Well, don't worry," I say cheerfully. "As soon as standards actually reach rock-bottom, there won't be anywhere left for them to slip to, will there?"
Okay, so I don't really want to go into the whole German-Turkish/German-Arabic teenagers thing, I just literally don't have enough space, but, suffice to say, basically: anybody, anybody, ANYBODY with an ounce of understanding, or a gram of understanding, a milligram of understanding, of what bilingualism actually means will know and accept that the way ethnic minority German teens use the German language is totally normal, healthy and sound. And it has ever been thus, huh, that's what bilingualism is, for all intents and purposes. You mix the languages. That's what happens. You don't keep them in separate containers in the fridge, like cooked and raw meats. That is not what happens, it is not what has ever happened, and it is not what will happen here in German in the future. You mix the languages. That is what happens. You should've heard my grandparents in the 1980s, it was all: "incomprehensible Bengali, incomprehensible Bengali, incomprehensible Bengali, incomprehensible Bengali, incomprehensible Bengali, fish-fingers, incomprehensible Bengali, incomprehensible Bengali, incomprehensible Bengali, microwave afterwards, okay, incomprehensible Bengali, okay I'll do it, Nandi Sahib, that man, huh, incomprehensible Bengali, where are the fish-fingers, then?" Also bilingualism and multilingualism does lead to a slight corruption of the host language – it does corrupt the host language. It always has done. You know. The English language, which comes from Old-Saxon, used to have loads of genders and cases and shit like that, but lost them all around a thousand years ago when Normans, Saxons and Celts were all communicating with each other together and found out that the simplest way was to just leave all that bollocks out. So, I don't want to go into too much detail into the whole Neukölln street slang here, but basically, the way these kids are speaking is not that surprising and actually totally normal for anyone with any understanding whatsoever of what it means to be bilingual.
But I don't wanna get into the bilingualism debate here. I want to focus instead on these teenagers – German-Germans and Germans with foreign parents alike – who are unable to write sentences. This new breed of feral, underclass, anti-social teenager who is unable to write and barely able to communicate. They don't know what nouns or verbs are and they don't know how to do Schreibschrift. They can barely spell their own names. Their signatures look like they just dipped a stick in some mud and scrawled a few lines across a piece of paper. And: they don't know the difference between “das” and “dass”!
Standards are slipping – they're not just slipping, they're constantly slipping. German teenagers have lost – or are in the process of losing – their ability to write. In the past, in the good old days, people could write well, their handwriting was beautiful and complex – and now they can't. Their handwriting is sloppy and illegible. Their grammar is appalling. And their punctuation is non-existent.
Okay, so first up: German handwriting, grammar and punctuation? They're really fucking hard. My son's Schreibschrift-Heft – phew. The letter T started halfway across the previous page, it was that flowery. German grammar? There are three thousand words for “the”. And punctuation? English punctuation, as I'm sure you will agree with me, is bad enough, German punctuation is almost unbearably difficult. So you know. This shit isn't easy. There are literally loads of things I can't do, because they're too hard – I can't sing, I can't drive, I can't ride a bike, I can't tie my shoelaces. When things are hard, people can't always do them. There will always be people living in Germany who are intellectually incapable of reading and writing. These people will always be with us. They can't do it. They are not able to do it. It's too hard for them. That's why. I personally think it is okay that some people can't do stuff because it's too hard, but even if I thought these people were a huge problem, I'm not sure I would think the best solution would be to respond to them with disparagement and contempt, but there.
But the really interesting question for me is: are there really so many more people living in Germany who are unable to read and write than there "used to be"? Was there really ever a golden age, when people wrote perfectly, perfectly and clearly, in perfectly formed letters and deliciously, immaculately formed sentences? Was there really a time when everybody in Germany knew the difference between “das” and “dass”? And now we are living in a corrupted, polluted, decadent age, when everybody is ignorant and arrogant, lazy and careless, and also unable, unable to write properly? When was this golden age? The 1950s? The 1960s? Not wanting to be facetious, but in the Nazi era? In the 19th Century? When Guttenberg was inventing the printing press? When Martin Luther was translating the Bible? When? When was it? And was everyone really better at writing than they are today?
The elephant in the room, of course, whenever anybody starts whingeing on about slipping standards, is actual illiteracy. Until a few years ago (not that long ago really: read some Enid Blyton!), Andy in the Adventurous Four can't read or write, it's set during the war – until a few years ago, it was ACCEPTED that certain people in society – poor people especially, but also, until a few hundred years ago, also women, totally rich women – couldn't read or write. They weren't expected to be able to. They weren't taught and they didn't learn. Now, I'm sure Goethe and Martin Luther had lovely handwriting, all right, but most people didn't. Most poor people didn't use to be able to read or write at fucking all. (I pronounced that in my head “a fucking tall”, by the way, just so you know.)
When people like Susanne complain about slipping standards, it's not the slide downwards they're complaining about at all. What really gets them is the RISING standards, the rising of the street urchin, the fact that almost everybody alive in Western Europe can read or write, and quite well, too, if we're honest. I lived in a Frauenhaus after my son was born, I was there for six months, and everybody could read or write, they wrote down recipes for each other, and swapped women's magazines, and wrote down the stories of the new incomers to the arrivals' book in full, more-or-less complete sentences. They were pretty poor women, a lot of them, and some girls, their handwriting wasn't good and their spelling and grammar was atrocious – but they were able to communicate. They were able to communicate IMPERFECTLY. What people who complain about texting and street slang and poor grammar and bad punctuation actually secretly hanker after is to take the power of writing and communication away from the dispossessed. What they want is the "Olden Days": a safe, golden era, when men with white beards sat in rooms and wrote with quills on lovely white pages: perfect sentences, perfect grammar, perfect punctuation and above all, perfect ideas. But the poor. The feral underclass, the street urchins, the gypsies and the poachers from Enid Blyton novels? They couldn't write at all. They didn't learn to write at all.
Of course we're all terrified of teenagers. I think this fear of teenagers is a fear of our own death, we watch children turning into adults and know we must die soon. Also, they are awful, texting and sexting and screeching on the U-Bahn and injecting vodka into their eyeballs and inserting heroin into their vaginas. Don't get me wrong, I am literally petrified of the youth of today, too. I think this is a perfectly normal reaction to seeing people so alive who a few months ago were children and soon will be adults. You look at those awkwardly sexy kids on the U8 and you just know that one day soon they're going to rise up, burn us all alive and eat our flesh. But still. They're not that bad at writing. That's all I'm getting at. And they're actually very, very, very good at communicating. And that's what we're scared of, really. Isn't it?