“It was the band! The speckled band!!!” my mother read with dramatic intonation. My brothers and I huddled against her. I didn’t understand a word she said, but fidgeted around with excitement nevertheless.
“Was ist das, ‘speckled band’?” we interrupted immediately.
“Das ist, ein Moment,” my mother paused as she looked it up in a German-English dictionary, “ein fleckiges Band.” We debated for a while of what on earth that could be. A belt? A rope? Something with a weird pattern on it? Very mysterious indeed.
My mom closed the book. “Enough for tonight! Tomorrow we’ll read the next chapter.” We went to bed, protesting.
This is how I learned English: through schooling and my mother’s late-night readings of Conan Doyle. I had my first English class in 4th grade but was disinterested and lost. Maybe this is what prompted my mother to give us these Sherlock Holmes extra-help sessions at home.
Our English teacher was one of a kind. She rapped her ruler on her desk and growled fiercely: “If I hear another one of you pronounce the word “but” as “buhtt” instead of “baht,” then something terrible will happen!”
My turn to read out loud: “Ann went to School. Buhtt – “ Oh no. I waited apprehensively for the terrible thing to happen, but I was saved by the bell. Literally.
I decided that I didn’t like English class very much. At home, however, it was a different matter altogether. There my mother enticed us with The Speckled Band and The Hound of Baskervilles. This is where I learned how to correctly pronounce “but.”
I also learned other beautiful English words such as “the speckled band,” “dark and sinister business,” “investigating a case,” and “looking at it with a convex lens”. This was a lot more interesting than learning about Ann and Pat going to school. Ultimately, who cares about those dull kids when you have Sherlock teach you English instead?
Unfortunately, my English teacher insisted that Ann and Pat were more important than Sherlock. So I kept bringing home 4s (Ds) in English.
This continued for a while; then my parents, wisely realizing that this had nothing to do with my inability to learn English but more with poor pedagogy, sent me into an English-speaking school.
This new school was very tough, but I enjoyed it more than my previous German school.
What I found encouraging was that no one really cared whether I said “buhtt” or “baht.” Instead, they tried to encourage me to do Math, History and Science in English. After about half a year, I suddenly found myself communicating more and more with my peers, in English! My grades changed. I started bringing home As in English!
At one point I must have fallen in love with English. As a teenager, English became so important to me that I started to speak English not only with my German-speaking friends, but also with my brothers. It became my adopted mother tongue!
Because of my English schooling, I actually have an easier time writing and speaking in English than in German, which is technically my “native” or “first” language.
I had to admit that I avoid writing in German, claiming that this is because German is an unwieldy, complicated language. In German, it takes a whole paragraph to express a simple idea, which in English you can express in a short, simple sentence. With the new German Rechtschreibreform, the spelling reform, how the heck is one supposed to know how to spell correctly these days, anyway?
It is not that my German is that bad. It just feels a little awkward. I cannot seem to shake out the sentences with the same kind of ease as with English.
Speaking is a different issue altogether. When I speak German, English words insist on coming out. When I speak English, German words are on the tip of my tongue.
They say that this is a very typical phenomenon of bilinguals but sometimes this really frustrates me, especially when looks from others indicate that they think I am trying to show off with my code-mixing.
Why can’t it be acceptable to speak both languages at the same time? For wenn es nach mir ginge, then everyone in this world would speak in whatever way they liked, even if it’s a totaler misch-masch, ohne dass man translaten oder seine Sprache dauernd rechtfertigen muss.*
“But Holmes, this is so dreadfully confounding!”
“It’s elementary, dear Watson. Elementary!”
*English translation for the above sentence: “For if I had any say in the matter, then everyone in this world would speak in whatever way they liked, even if it’s completely mixed-up, without having to constantly translate or justify one’s language.”