My Linguistic Love Affair
Speaking in your home country’s language would seem like the most direct and simple way to communicate. But laden with a history of meanings and experiences, it’s also the most complex possibility of all. That’s why I’ve chosen to turn away from my native tongue, German, and embrace my true love, English.
While I excelled at English as a child and enjoyed American and English music, my love for the language didn’t really deepen until I developed a certain curiosity about the British. I guess it has something to do with the rain – I love rain, and Great Britain is famous for its always rainy weather. I am also quite a pale-skinned person with grey eyes and dark hair, so maybe I subconsciously identified myself with the stereotypical Brit. When I was in year 11 at school, which is the time when quite a lot of students here go abroad for some time, I went to Carlisle, England for three months (“three months” used to be kind of hard to pronounce for me – I guess the double “TH” tends to put us Germans over the edge.)
I lived with a host family and went to the local school like a proper English teenager. Even though my stay there had its ups and downs, I grew to love Britannia even more. I love baked beans and jacked potatoes with peas, I love the strong black tea with milk, and I love the people: brainy, bookish, unathletic and with a great sense for style – chic and a little nerdy, but never boring. Living in a North England town close to Manchester, I also fell head over heels in love with their accent.
When I went back to Germany, I chose English as my main subject for my last two years of school and never regretted it. I began to approach the language less intuitively and more academically for the first time. When I wrote a 30-page piece on the American politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk, I surprised myself at how much I enjoyed it. (You have to understand that I really am a brain-person. Climbing stairs leaves me out of breath and trying to do something with my hands – such as buttoning a jacket –makes me lose my balance. I am really not made for sports. I am not even competitive. But I enjoy using my mind.) I have always loved to write – letters, stories, shopping-lists. Yet writing that Harvey Milk essay really challenged me, in the best possible way, and led me to an important epiphany.
It is easier, of course, for me to express my thoughts writing in German, but I prefer writing in English. As soon as a German piece is finished, I cannot stand to read through it again. I hate to “hear” my German literary tone. It sounds terribly earnest, smart, snotty, and totally unlikeable - like a bad imitation of Nietzsche. I don’t want to sound like that, but I can’t help it. Speaking and writing in English, on the other hand, is completely different. I am so busy remembering vocabulary and putting words in the correct order that I don’t have time to worry about what it sounds like. My main aim is to be understood and, if I’m lucky, bring across some humour or irony from time to time. When I put my thoughts on paper in English, I usually only know one word for every idea and I am not in a position to choose. This makes my own writing – to me, at least – sound kind of pure and innocent, even naïve. I love that! I feel brand new!
In one’s native language a person connects billions of associations and memories to every single word, because they have heard and used them in so many different situations and contexts. I love this when I hear German poetry, the only kind of poetry I understand, but when I hear someone speaking German I get overwhelmed; thousands of thoughts cross my mind without me even noticing them and I hear so much more than is really said. English is the complete opposite.
I still have to go back to speaking and thinking really simply when I speak English. Rather than translating English words into German all the time, I have learned to think in English, only using the words I knew – and it’s worked. I pay a lot of attention to the words themselves rather than to the things they describe. I listen carefully to the way they are being pronounced, and when I see something written I read it out to myself in my mind, always trying to improve my skills. And whenever I use a word that I have read somewhere for the very first time (which happens very often), I feel like a little child again.
I guess you could say that my relationship with the English language itself is much more intense, nothing like that intuitive, subconscious habit I have with my native tongue. It is like German is my husband and English is my hot affair. But I have hope that the three of us will agree on an arrangement that will let us live together like this forever.
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