I am a fan of bilingualism. I think people who can speak more than one language are intelligent, empathetic, funnier and just goddamn sexier than those of us confined to the monolingual.
I have made a couple of attempts at becoming bilingual in my lifetime. The first attempt was forced when my parents, in their constant, adorable quest to raise well-rounded super-human children, enrolled me (6 years old) and my brother (4 years old) in Japanese lessons. Proving they were not, in fact, fortune-tellers, my parents fully expected Japan to be the economic powerhouse of the 21st century and we were to be given a head start in our future business careers (HAHAHA, I mean, unpaid artistic careers) by learning Japanese early, when our brains were essentially sponges and just soak up and retain everything that they come in contact with, rather like tampons with that blue liquid in tampon commercials (I mean, that is my understanding of how a child’s brain works, and I DID take science classes RIGHT UP UNTIL THE FIRST MOMENT I was allowed to drop it at age 15). I often wonder if Dad looks back on those years of private Japanese lessons (in light of the 1997 Japanese economy crash and subsequent stagnation; and in light of the fact that all I can now say in Japanese is ‘My name is Jenny and I’m sorry, I don’t understand’) and, claps his hands together happily and thinks, ‘ah, yes, money well spent. Money well spent.’
The second attempt at becoming bilingual, when I headed to Norway for a year on exchange, was a little more successful. By the end of the year, I was amusingly forgetting the English words for things and demanding my hapless brother help me translate pølse (it means ‘sausage’, by the way). But my attempts to keep the bilingual dream alive have faded over the years, with my opportunities for practicing Norwegian few and far between and the dawning realisation that most of my knowledge of the language was confined to phrases appropriate for a night out and not, say, to the intricacies of climate change, philosophical debate on the Social Democratic state or even, say, what a good piece of music made me feel (beyond, ‘It was good and I liked it’). My skills were rather lopsided: I could listen and understand, I could read and understand (and if you ever need an alternative translation of Norwegian cartoon Nemi please don’t hesitate to ask), but attempting to speak my own thoughts and feelings in Norwegian (and I do like to speak my own thoughts and feelings, preferably in as convoluted and round about way as possible) is a whole other kettle of salmon.
Despite my happy little post a couple of weeks ago, I’ve gotten to that point in my German language learning where everything is suddenly getting hard. The first month is very exciting. You’re learning many things! You remember the things! You use them appropriately! The things make sense! Then gradually you start to realise: You don’t know many things. The things you don’t know far outweigh the things you do know. There are many, many more things much more confusing than the things you do know still to learn. You’re forgetting the things you did know to make room for the things you’re now learning.
On top of which, there are all these, incredibly sexy bilingual German people about, who insist on speaking English to you at the drop of a hat. Hey! It’s not hard! They cry. Look at us! We do it all the time! German-English-German-English! Whatever! Any language! It all means the same to us! Some of them are even trilingual! Oh, sure, I speak Portugese as well! Spanish, why not? Yes, I speak Italian, tra-la-la-la-la. Oh, look at you, you poor darling thing trying to speak German properly, I can’t even begin to understand you, why don’t we just switch to English? Because that’s not a problem for me, la la la la *skips away with a basket of flowers*
Look, I’m not saying they’re rubbing it in my face, but… well…
I think they’re kind of rubbing it in my face.
And, here’s the thing, you lovely, sexy, German bilingual speakers. I agree with you. You’re so much cooler than me with your many languages. I bow to you with your language superiority. I admit it, all us English-speaking monolinguals are ignoramuses. And we’re terribly annoying coming to your city and not learning your language. It must be terribly irritating to have us all stomping around and not spitting enough whilst we talk and ordering Cheese Kitchens instead of Cheesecake, but all I really want to say is, I’m never going to get to be a sexy bilingualist if you keep talking English to me. Yes, it’s probably not your job to teach me German and yes, it might take a little longer to explain things to me and maybe I’ll get the wrong end of the stick once or twice, but we can do it! Together! I swear! I know it doesn’t sound like I could possibly understand anything, but mostly, if you speak slowly and clearly I will figure it out! I promise! And the upside is, that the more you do this for me now, the quicker I will start to learn German and stop being a general pain in your rear-end. Besides which, the slow, simple speech and pantomime act can be quite fun if everyone enters into it in the right spirit. Let’s work out together how many words the other person can understand and how we can get them to understand!
It is always so devastating when someone hears you order something and then immediately switches to English. It is so disheartening. I understand why they do it and I know that pretty much everyone is doing it out of the goodness of their hearts and they probably just think I’m a tourist so there is no point in trying to help me learn the language if I’m only here for a few days, but when it happened on Sunday, the last time in a long line of, ‘let’s just switch to English, sweetheart’, moments, it genuinely made me want to cry. There’s a lot more in that then just my frustration at not being able to speak the language – general loneliness, feeling out of place – but, not being able to speak the language certainly contributes to those feelings. I’ve written before about my desire, as a tourist, to blend into a place and not have anyone guess that I’m not from the country I’m visiting. Imagine how much stronger that desire is when I’m actually living in a city.
I’ve had two bitchy waitresses over the past 4 weeks who have refused to switch to English when they’ve seen me attempting to force my mouth into German pronunciations. And I know that they were doing it deliberately (one served me tea with a biscuit swimming in tea – I had to spoon it into my mouth, it was so soggy) and attempting to make me feel like an idiot, but these were actually some of the happier interactions I’ve had. Because I had to listen to what they said and figure out what it meant. And I could do it. Yes, if they had started discussing the finer points of Marxism, I may have struggled, but ‘What do you want to order?’ ‘Where are you sitting?’ were all fairly easy to figure out. And, to be honest, continuing to understand what they were saying when they were attempting to make me not understand just added to the victory.
But don’t worry, I’ve come up with a plan. I’m going to learn how to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t speak English. Do you speak Finnish?’ in Finnish so that the next time someone starts talking to me in English, I’ll just whip that phrase out and see what happens.
Of course, I could just learn the phrase for, ‘Could you please keep speaking German, I am trying to learn,’ but that seems less fun.