I recently renewed my German visa for the fourth time. I've been living in Berlin for five years now, but this was my first interview at the Ausländerbehörde – where the officer inspects my bank account transactions, my health insurance records, my tax documents, pretty much everything except for my pant size – which I've gotten through by speaking only German. In previous years I've always hit a stumbling point (probably the point where the officer asks how much money I make), and reverted to English. Something about the experience of trying to convince a person in a position of authority that I really belong here gets me too flustered to remember my participles.
At first I felt triumphant leaving the meeting, visa in hand, but on the subway ride home from Moabit I couldn't stop myself from replaying the interview in my head. I knew I'd messed up nearly every sentence. Das Konto. Die Anmeldung. Scheiße. My pride turned quickly to shame.
Living in Berlin, shame is a feeling that arises almost every time I open my mouth and try to pronounce an Umlaut. I'm not the first to complain – German is a notoriously difficult language to master. In 1880 Mark Twain wrote one of the most slaying critiques in his essay The Awful German Language. "Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp", he wrote. "One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, 'Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.' He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it. So overboard he goes again, to hunt for another Ararat and find another quicksand."
I probably don't need to reiterate to you, dear German reader, the difficulty of grasping verbs that halve themselves and flee to opposite ends of a sentence; of picking apart compound words that clump together like they are cold and desperately seeking warmth from each other's bodies; of decoding genders that flip and waffle and neutralize themselves according to what is being done to them. This language is rocky terrain. But lots of languages are hard to learn. I've struggled through learning some others, with plenty of embarrassment, but until moving to Germany I had never experienced such an intense linguistic shame. The shame goes far beyond my struggle with the technical aspects of the language. The shame is about what happens when I try to speak it in real life situations.
Let me explain some of the games I get to play with native German speakers on a daily basis. (These examples are true stories.)
1. The Don’t-Understand-You Game
I enter the cooking department of Karstadt in search of a wooden spoon for my kitchen. I don’t find the spoons right away, so I find an employee and ask: "Haben Sie Holzlöffel?"
The employee looks at me blankly.
"Holzlöffel", I say, beginning to doubt the words even as they come out of my mouth. "Für kochen. Kochlöffel."
"Sprechen Sie Deutsch?"
"Ja", I say very slowly. "Ich spreche Deutsch. Ich suche einen Löffel? Kochlöffel? Holzlöffel?"
He shakes his head, pretending not to understand a word I’ve said, and just says: "Haben wir nicht." As he moves away I see that he’s been standing in front of the spoon rack.
2. The Switcheroo
I’m at a big dinner at the house of a German friend. Everyone is speaking German.
"Die Kartoffeln sind sehr lecker", I say to the host.
"Thanks", he says in (bad) English. "They have much butter."
"Oh", I say, switching to English to follow suit. "Butter is always a good idea."
He turns to the rest of the table and says loudly: "None of these Americans ever tries to learn German anymore. We are all speaking English with them now, to make it easy for them, and they don’t even try."
3. The Compliment Game
I’m having a conversation with two friends at a gallery opening. They’re speaking German, and I’m shy to join in, but I get up the courage to interject with a comment. Instead of responding to the content of my statement, one friend says: "Dein Deutsch ist ziemlich gut geworden!"
I say thank you, and try to continue the conversation, but the other friend blocks my way: "Ja, dein Deutsch hat sich sehr verbessert!"
The fact that I can’t participate without them calling attention to the fact that I am indeed speaking German makes me so self-conscious I immediately forget every word I’ve ever learned, and I sink back into silence.
Next time I see one of them she says: "Wow, dein Deutsch ist viel besser als letztes Mal!", belying the fact that it wasn’t good last time at all. I knew it.
These games used to seem like peculiar cultural quirks, not worth losing sleep over. In the last game, for instance, I assume the intention is good, meant to bolster my confidence, and it just backfires. But the longer I live here, working doggedly to smooth over my accent and get my prepositions sorted, and the longer these games persist, I have started to suspect that there’s something more going on. I will illustrate with one more anecdote, the story of a night when the game-playing turned sinister, less like Boggle and more like a linguistic Hunger Games.
No room for regular Germans?
I’m about to leave Berlin for two months and am having going-away drinks at a Neukölln bar. The bar is relatively new in the neighborhood, and is owned by a young German acquaintance, who I know to be an avid player of Games 1, 2, and 3, but who I assume is generally harmless.
An hour into the evening, the owner enters the bar, and seeing my large group of 10 or 15 friends, asks me to come talk to him.
"How could you bring so many people here?", he says in English. "You think you can come in here and invade the whole place?"
"You’re not happy to have a full bar?"
"Not like this! You’re driving all the regular German customers out. You’re too loud."
"What do you mean by ‘German customers’? Half of them are German."
"Everyone’s yelling in English. It’s making a bad atmosphere."
I look at my friends, who are spread out across three or four tables. They’re not being quiet, but they’re not being rowdy. I look at the tables full of his "regular Germans." A group of hipster bros are making fun of each other and spilling beer.
"I can ask everyone to be quiet", I say, "if noise is the problem."
"Sorry, you have to get out. There’s no room for my regular customers with all of you here."
Eventually he threatens to call the cops, and so we relocate to the Kneipe down the street.
I’m hyper-aware of the possibility of acting like a loud American tourist in a foreign country. I know that stereotype, and I avoid it like the plague. But in this case the stereotype did not apply. In this case the stereotype was being used to justify a deeply entrenched kind of xenophobia, a fear of the foreigner invading one’s home and diluting the purity of one’s precious nationhood. Add to that the hypocrisy of a young white male who has just opened a trendy bar in Neukölln implicitly accusing a bunch of English-speakers of gentrifying the neighborhood, and I have to speculate: by the same logic couldn’t he have kicked us out for speaking Arabic? (Would he even have let us in?)
Of course, we weren’t speaking Arabic, we were speaking English, the language of
cultural imperialism, the lingua franca of so much of the wealthy world. And I’m a white person, so the relatively mild
forms of xenophobia I glimpse through language are not intersectional with
racism. I do not intend to align my experiences with those who experience
race-based discrimination too. And yet it is through these encounters that I
have begun to better understand the subtleties of how xenophobia works, and how
powerful a tool for alienation language is. Particularly a language with so
many grammatical subtleties. There’s
no such thing as an "inherently" xenophobic language (English has its own alienating idiosyncrasies
to be sure) but German’s
complexity offers a fantastic premise for resisting acceptance of, or entirely
refusing to understand, those who haven’t mastered it.
How are those volunteers supposed to help?
I can’t even imagine, given my set of privileges, what it must be like to arrive here as a refugee with no knowledge of German or English and try to navigate the bureaucracy. Recently I started volunteering at the refugee shelter set up in Tempelhof airport, and have observed a language barrier in place there that is more like a barbed-wire fence with rabid dogs growling in front of it. Translators can’t keep up with demand, especially given the variety of languages and dialects spoken by the incoming refugees, and assessing the most basic needs of a person without a common language can seem impossible. I spent over twenty minutes one day just trying to figure out what item of clothing an Urdu-speaking woman needed for her child. Time and again I have seen volunteers, with no way of speaking to those they are trying to help, point people in the wrong direction, give them something they can’t use, jab repeatedly at a phrase book, or get frustrated and start screaming instructions in any language at all.
When I see that pantomime of communication going on, I wonder how the newcomer I’m watching will be faring five years in the future. I wonder whether she will ever manage to perfectly master the Dativ case. And if she does, I wonder whether anyone will listen to what she’s saying, or whether the word foreigner will be the only thing they can hear when she opens her mouth.
The title of this article is borrowed from a project by William Davis and the artist group Nouvelle Randonée (Alex Auriema, Morgan Belenguer, Beny Wagner).