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 www.parentdish.co.uk, “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.