I just got back from Berlin last night. My impressions are almost opposite to what everyone I know told me about this ‘vibrant’ city. Most of all, it was not in the least true that people spoke English there and that foreigners had no problem communicating with the locals. Before we set off, my beau asked me if I spoke any German. I said, no, of course, I don’t.
Everywhere we went, all the information we enquired about, we got German spoken back to us. Then we would look at each other, and after a moment’s silence, I would produce a clumsy translation of what the person had said. At the end of the first day, J said to me – but you said you didn’t speak any German! And I don’t – that’s what I believe. I studied German for 4 years and I lived for a year in Austria. I measure my knowledge of German against the time spent learning it – the outcome is disastrous considering how much effort I’ve put into it. German makes me feel inadequate and linguistically thick, so I would rather forget I had ever had any contact with it.
But J doesn’t understand my worries. Being English and wanting to fight the dominance of his mother tongue, he wants to speak the language of the locals. So I give him some basic phrases – bezahlen bitte, cappuccino ohne chocolaten pulver, ich ferstehe nicht… Like a dictionary, I provide him with phrases and translations, and he uses his mouth to utter those sentences. Together, wir sprechen Deutsch. He believes that a certain number of words and sentences makes you speak the language. He is never afraid to speak, even if he knows only a single word! I believe I don’t speak German because I am inhibited by my own guilt for not speaking it as fluently as I should have. Yet, together, we get by, determined to enjoy our stay in Berlin.
When on our last day we finally buy currywurst – the German most popular fast food – J, now feeling quite comfortable with speaking German to waiters, explains that we want one with catch-up and one with mayo. He says it in Spanish to the German Turk. Uno con catch-up y otro con mayo. But the guy understands him and that’s all it matters really. We get our food, the Turk gets the money, J is pleased for not having talked in English and I finally relax about my notoriously rigid linguistic rules. At the end of the day, you speak the language if you think you speak it and not if you get an A at school. Language is a living thing – The French say frittes for pommes-frittes and the Germans say pommes for the same thing. We all know what it means and what chips taste like, don’t we?