Bilingualism Brings Out the Devil

by contributor · 14 comments

By Suze Nowak
Photo credit: Laura Dye

Over half the world’s population is either bilingual or multilingual so it shouldn’t really come as a shock when you meet someone who speaks more than one language. Although the UK is largely a fantastically multi-cultural and multi-lingual society, many people are nevertheless, surprised and often fascinated by those with the ability to communicate in more than one tongue.

Hamburg, I’m reliably informed, has an extensive British expat populace. I wouldn’t know. I actively avoided this particular community when I arrived. Not particularly the club/society/association type, I hadn’t been a member of one in the UK so why in Germany? The temptation so to do however, is undeniable. 

In the early days after emigration, when you might only be able to catch one word in every twenty and wonder why the locals don’t understand your pronunciation of “geöffnet”, the idea of sharing your frustrations with other like-minded and like-spoken fellow strugglers, is an appealing one.

I however, remained doggedly strict with myself and ultimately my fortitude paid off. Now, whilst my accent is duly noted, a German might not be able to place his finger on exactly where it originates from. Despite innumerable grammar blunders, I can speak fluently and make myself understood. Except in Bavaria, obviously, but that’s a whole other post!

In fact, my ear has become so attuned to the numerous and diverse accents one experiences here, I can, with some confidence, identify a Brit speaking German on most occasions. Although, that said, I did once find myself chatting to someone for hours in German before discovering that we were both in fact from the same district in Yorkshire!

Of course it is practically impossible for someone to lose their accent completely if they haven’t actually been brought up in the country. I shall always have an accent when I speak German and, as they would say, “Das ist gut so”. But the longer we live in a country, the more we integrate and the the more indistinct our personal intonations can become.

To the untrained mono-linguistic ear of course, German is German. This fact played to my advantage one day, as I was sitting in a coffee shop in Hamburg with a female German friend, sipping frothy coffee and peacefully putting the world to rights. Well, it would have been peaceful if not for the small stag party of young British lads openly making comments about my companion’s legs.

She does, in fairness, have a spectacular pair of pins and, adorned on this hot summer’s day in very short shorts they looked resplendent. Come to think of it I wonder why she is my friend at all! Anyway, the testosterone-fueled group, clearly of the impression that we would not be able to understand them, continued making  lecherous remarks.

After allowing them ten minutes of blissfully ignorant commentary and avoiding all eye contact should I inadvertently give the game away, I surrendered to temptation.

Swinging round in my chair to face them I fired with both barrels. Not attacked by a fiery German as they may have expected, but with the full force of Yorkshire mettle they were, I think it’s fair to say, dumbfounded.

Exaggerating my accent for maximum effect, I suggested that they might encounter more success with the opposite sex if they applied a modicum of respect and a lot more intelligence. Or something along those lines. I don’t remember my exact words as I was distracted by the pleasure of watching the consummate stupefaction on the the faces of five British men.

You may consider my actions somewhat devilish but I suspect those lads will never make assumptions about people’s linguistic abilities again. Who knows, maybe I even motivated them to take on a German language course?

Suze Nowak decided to quit her job in UK ten years ago and with a “now or never” motto, determined to realise her life long dream to learn another language, she upped sticks and moved to Germany. After teaching English for five years at Berlitz Language School, she resolved to concentrate on her dream career as a freelance writer and had great success with her award winning column for, “Achtung Baby”. The column followed the trials and tribulations of bringing up a bilingual child and being a foreigner in the country she chose to live in and has grown to love. Ten years down the line Suze has gained a certain proficiency in her second language, has married a German man and has a six year-old daughter who switches nationality on a daily, nay hourly, basis.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kath Liu April 4, 2012 at 12:56 am

Ah I love this article! I admire your restraint to allow them to carry on for a full ten minutes before giveing them what for – in a full Yorkshire accent. It’s truly a thing of beauty and underlines the old adage about making assumptions, no?

I am also guilty of doing this. I live in Taiwan and although I’m certainly not fluent by any stretch of the imagination (work in progress) I understand a fair whack of general conversation these days. There was one time when I was walking my German Shepherd dog around the local park. I understand that he’s a pretty big dog in complarison to most dogs in this area but he’s a huge softy who will wag his tail at anyone who so much as looks at him. Anyway, there was this woman who was walking behind me who was loudly declaring to her children that they should be careful as that large dog walking next to that foreigner would certainly bite people and be very aggressive. I only lasted 60 seconds before I turned around to face them, smiled sweetly and replied “Excuse me Miss but my dog does not bite people. Thanks.”

I think it’s fair to say she nearly fell over backwards.


2 Fiona MacLeod-Green April 4, 2012 at 1:13 am

Love it! Well done! Have spent many years in different countries, enjoying bilingual moments in Japanese 🙂 My mother did the same in Scots Gaelic – keeps fools honest and amuses the wise, methinks!


3 Suze Nowak April 4, 2012 at 1:14 am

Ha! Brilliant. In this case I’m not sure I would have even managed 60 seconds!


4 Karen Clarke April 4, 2012 at 1:28 am

Ashamed to say I am not bi-lingual and I am one of those people who is totally in awe of such people. I speak a smattering of French , I understand more than I speak, and had I stayed in Switzerland it would have been better. How I wish I had been there with you to witness wiping the smile from their faces. Good on ya Suze !


5 Drac April 4, 2012 at 4:20 am

Excellent, I’d love to learn to speak another language well but all I can lay claim to is having ordered beers in 27 countries.


6 Alex April 4, 2012 at 8:48 am

I LOVE LIEBE THIS ! The fun of being bilingual can be hilarious . Ich Leibe Deustch 🙂


7 Katie April 4, 2012 at 10:55 am

Great article! Good to see (although not hard to believe) there are websites out there posting your stuff:-) Oh, and sorry about my pins… Had I known I would never have befriended you 9 years ago at Berlitz;-)


8 Barbara April 4, 2012 at 7:07 pm

It also works the other way round. There is nothing better to be able to have a conversation in German in front of an especially American car salesman. Butyour are right, you have to be careful, who suddenly migrht be able to understand you. Luckily, the chances are slim to find a German speaking car salesman in the US, even though he migjt have a cousin in the Army in Germany…


9 Chipster April 5, 2012 at 7:27 pm

Reading this took me back to innumerable times in my past with my sister. It made me both giggle and be proud.


10 Drac April 14, 2012 at 3:21 am

Naturalmente, se potessi parlare un’altra laguage questo è quello che avrei scritto.


11 Drac April 14, 2012 at 3:23 am

Naturalmente, se potessi parlare un’altra lingua questo è quello che avrei scritto


12 Kika August 1, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Great story! I had a similar situation during a visit to New York City many years ago. My husband and I went down to our hotel’s coffee shop late at night, and the place was almost empty. Two Argentinian guys sat next to us, and were talking about women in a very demeaning and sexually explicit manner. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I told my husband we must leave, and as I walked by them I made sure to say “Buenas Noches” in Spanish. They were quite embarrassed!


13 Tammy August 1, 2013 at 10:26 pm

Love the story! I have made similar experiences. I used to frequently go Salsa dancing to a club in Germany. Many of the people in the club were Latin. Being blonde and white (your typical German), they did not expect that I would be fluent in Spanish. They probably didn’t even think I knew a single word in Spanish. So it happened once in a while that some guys were talking in Spanish about me while standing right next to me. I usually just stood there and listened. After a while they usually were able to tell by my facial expression and exclaimed “You understand Spanish…?” If they didn’t notice and someone tried to talk to me in English or German after listening to them, I could use it as an indicator how truthful they were as I had just overheard them talking about me…


14 Laura S. August 2, 2013 at 7:24 am

So true! Like others who have posted here I have had similar experiences but in Spanish in the U.S., since I don’t apparently “look” like I would be Latin or fluent in Spanish. One experience I remember in particular was in McDonald’s where I was eating a respectable 2 hamburgers, fries and a soda, and two guys began to discuss in Spanish that I was cute but sure did eat a lot. I let them continue on in that vain while I finished up my meal and then turned to them as I went to throw away my garbage and said in near-native fluency, “If you aren’t paying the bill for my food, why are you concerned?” They were shocked and embarrassed, it was pretty funny. As another poster said, maybe they’ll think twice before assuming someone doesn’t understand them.


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