Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The English Language Junkie

Want to win a bundle of romantic novels? Then scroll down to the bottom of this post. Best-selling romantic novelist Samantha Holt, whose interview I featured here in October, has organised a Christmas giveaway. The link to enter is below. (If you don't see any of my books featured, I can assure you that one of the runner-up prizes is a copy of Rules of the House).

As an expat in an area where there is no expat community, I miss the opportunity to speak my own language with other native speakers. The OH (who is becoming more and more of a part-time OH and may well gradually fade off the radar completely at some stage) speaks fluent if ungrammatical English. I try to practice my teaching skills on him, but he stubbornly refuses to recognise his verb tenses and tends to mix up his word order still. I get ratty with him in a way I cannot do with my “proper” students, for whom I have to remain patient – I never used to, but although his English improved for a while after we met it is probably not helped by being back in Germany where he only speaks it with me. Apart from writing, and exchanging messages and sometimes phone calls with English friends, I rarely get to have a real conversation in English. I am now like a drug addict who can’t get her fix nearly often enough and will speak to anyone if they can speak to me in fluent English. An English language junkie, if you like. At a restaurant where I was taken for my birthday I quickly realised that the couple on the next table were also English – a real rarity around here – and eventually I gave in to temptation and spoke to them. We chatted happily away with them for the rest of the evening (they were on holiday in the area).  

In the adjacent village, I know there live a South African couple and an Englishman. I was once, a matter of years ago now, in the local supermarket when a young woman wove her way as fast as she could through the aisles, saying “Schuldigung” repeatedly as she dodged around the other customers. She found what she had obviously forgotten and re-joined a man at the front of the queue as I joined it further back. They then started to speak to each other in English as I stood frustratedly wanting to approach them but unable to do so. I later learned that a South African couple live not far away and they must have been that couple. We’ve never actually met. Two or three years ago a woman came and rode with us a few times when her own horse was out of action. I found out that she also lived nearby with her (then) fiancĂ© (now husband) – who is English. I met him once; I see her occasionally, but never bump into him.

On a medieval market where I was helping my friend with pony rides for children (they were horses, not ponies actually, but horse rides for children sounds odd, somehow) a woman, one of many, brought a couple of children, asked how much, paid, saw the children settled on the horses, took them away afterwards and all was carried out in German – naturally. The market was small and compact, all packed into one street in a village, and we led the horses the length of the market and back, repeatedly. I passed the woman, who called out to me - in English – that someone had told her I was English. In a series of exchanges transacted as I led a horse up and down the street past her, I discovered that she was Canadian, had come over here to get married, had had a child, divorced, stayed in order for the child to stay near his father, worked as a teacher. She found out a few details about me, too. When I was eventually given a break, we sat down and talked nineteen to the dozen. She lives a little way from me and we’ve never seen each other again.

On yet another medieval market, I encountered an American running a stall. He had a sign prominently displayed proclaiming that he spoke only English. Of course we got talking and he told me he lived in the west – a long way away. I asked how long he had lived there and he told me 17 years. My mind boggled. How can anyone live in a foreign country for so long and not learn the language? I realise that here in the east it is probably much more of a necessity to learn German as so few people do speak English, whereas in the west English has long been a standard subject in school. Before the wall came down, the first choice of second language taught in schools in the east was Russian. Few ever learned any English at all. Those who did have mostly forgotten what they learned all those years ago. Nowadays children do learn English, but of course relatively few gain any degree of real competency and many lack the enthusiasm to try and speak it. There are exceptions, of course, but it is impossible to live here and not learn German if you want to talk to anyone. I suppose if English-speaking people move to somewhere where there is a large expat community they feel  less pressure to learn the local language, and for older people it does become increasingly more difficult to learn a new language (as I know only too well, having uprooted myself at a relatively advanced age) so if the pressure to learn is not there perhaps it is tempting to take the easy option   

Once a week I teach in an after-school place where coaching is given in various subjects including English (when I started there I was asked if I could teach maths as well. The answer was an emphatic “no”. Maths was never my strong point, and I certainly couldn’t teach it here where I have no idea of the way it is taught beyond the first couple of years. For the latter knowledge I have my friend’s ten-year-old to thank. I was at least able to help her with her homework when she first went to school). There is another teacher who is, apparently, American. When she is off sick or on holiday I provide cover for her but, like ships that pass in the night, we have never met. In two days’ time there is a Christmas party. I am told that the other teacher is looking forward to meeting me, to which I replied that I was looking forward to meeting her as well. We can talk! In English! There were general groans around the room as everyone knows that once the two of us get talking in our own language there will be no stopping us – and nobody else will be able to join in. There is a small satisfaction in that as that is the way I felt when I was first here.

There are of course, those here who speak good English. The surgeon who replaced my knee a couple of years ago is fluent (which is very helpful as if I didn’t understand the German he could explain properly to me). I met a woman who was part of a television film crew – they were filming in the local butchers’ shop one day and I just happened to go in there to be confronted by lights and cameras and everyone looking their very best behind the counter. When one of the assistants pointed out that I was English (I’m still a novelty hereabouts) the woman broke into perfect English. Turned out her mother is English. But the funniest example happened in Vienna. We were talking to a group of Austrians, who evidently twigged that I wasn’t a native German speaker (that was when my German was much worse than it is now, but I’m aware that nobody mistakes me for anything but a foreigner) and one of them spoke in English. In a broad, southern Irish accent. Apparently his grandparents were Irish and he spent a lot of his childhood over there. Which caused a few problems during more politically sensitive times because he was suspected more than once of being a terrorist carrying false Austrian papers and was almost refused entry to England when he was en route to Ireland. 

Meanwhile I shall get my fix of talking English later this week. I’m looking forward to that more than to the meal.        

Now, as promised, here is the link for the competition:

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