Jacinta Nandi on why it might be worth learning German in Germany’s capital.
My friend Tanya and I are eating dinner in Neukölln with an American friend of hers who has a PhD from a renowned US university. We know he has a PhD because he mentions this fact every 7.4 seconds, and we know the uni he went to is well-renowned because he mentions that fact every 23.5 seconds. Approximately. Tanya and I both went to bog-standard comprehensives and then studied German at non-renowned British universities. Modern Languages are taught at such a basic level in Britain that I sometimes feel my Bachelor’s degree is almost of as much value as a Seepferdchen certificate. “I like your girlfriend, Paul,” I tell him. He has a younger Polish girlfriend who is funnier and sexier than him. At the very least he should be aware, right?
“Yeah?” he says.
“Yeah,” I say. “She’s great, articulate, smart…”
“She’s not that articulate,” he says. “Her English isn’t that great, to be honest. My cousin was over from the States the other week and he said he couldn’t understand everything she was saying.” I take a breath. “I wouldn’t know,” I say icily. “I speak to her in German.”
Maybe I am too petty for words, but I sit there, fuming. The arrogance of English speakers in general – and Americans in particular! It drives me mad! Shortly afterwards the waitress arrives and Paul, of course, orders in English. Why wouldn’t he? We’re in Neukölln, after all.
“How long have you lived here, Paul?” I ask him innocently.
“Seven years,” he says.
“Maybe in another seven you’ll be able to order your drinks in German,” I say.
“Oh, I could order in German if I wanted to,” he answers. “It’s just easier to be understood in English.”
Look, I get it. You couldn’t have much more German-speaking privilege than me: 11 years old when I started learning the language (Und wie geht’s Ihnen, Frau Patel?), 12 when I visited Limburg for the first time (I saw Pretty Woman dubbed in German and understood everything because I knew it off by heart) and 20 when I moved here.
“Are you going to pack your Oxford Duden dictionary?” my mum asked worriedly.
“Mum, I’m practically fluent!” I yelled confidently. Then I arrived here and tried to order a Currywurst – “Ich spreche kein Englisch!” the guy screamed in my face. I was crestfallen – that wasn’t English but practically fluent German, right? What was wrong with him? At Warschauer Straße I bought a Motz off a homeless guy and he wished me a nice day like an American. “Even the homeless speak English,” I whispered to myself forlornly as I suddenly realised that I wasn’t brilliantat German. I wasn’t even that good at it – I could just speak a tiny, basic bit of it. (Entschuldigung, Frau Patel!) So, I’m not about to judge anyone for not being able to speak this horrifically difficult language. And I know how judgy Germans can be: after 19 years here I basically am fluent – but because of my non-white appearance and terrible accent, there’s a certain type of German (racist) who doesn’t notice.
Not being able to speak German isn’t, in my eyes, something to be smug about. It makes life harder – sometimes it could even be dangerous. I remember after giving birth in 2004 in Urban Krankenhaus. It was the first time I had to pee after having my catheter out, and it felt like I was being sliced open by a blade.
“Mein Pinkel, mein Pinkel!” I called. “What’s wrong, what’s wrong?” gasped the nurses. “Mein Pinkel ist ein Messer!” I announced as they burst out laughing. “Wir wissen genau, was Sie meinen,” they said, and reassured me it was normal.
But the last time I went to my family doctor in Neukölln, the doctor got me to speak to the receptionist, showing me off like I was a dog who’d learnt to curtsey or do a Hitlergruß.
“Listen to this,” the doctor said. “It’s amazing. She can say anything she wants to. She’s talking in full sentences,” he went on. “I’ve been here 19 years,” I protested weakly.
I think it’s okay to live here for 19 years and still not know your adjectival endings – in fact I think it’s a bit unsolidarisch with people who work in Dönerläden to get too good at German grammar. And I think it’s absolutely okay to watch all your Netflix shows in English. I also think it’s okay to become demotivated and lazy when speaking to those German friends whose English is practically perfect and who, let’s face it, just want to use you as a free English teacher (hello, Claudius!).
But it is not okay to judge non-native speakers whose English isn’t perfect when you’ve been living in the country for seven years and still can’t order yourself a fucking Orangensaft. Come on, man. And now that everyone’s streaming all their favourite shows in English, you’re not going to teach yourself German through daytime TV or by watching the same episode of Friends dubbed into German one million times. The only thing you can do is get yourself back to school – and I don’t mean an Ivy League one. The Volkshochschule will do.