Antje (dieastra) wrote,

Yay, another language disussion

My friend sagestreet recently wrote a very interesting post at Tumblr - you can read the original here:

I am also copying it into here since we had the same discussion not so long ago - some of my American friends felt bad about not speaking any other language than English, and we concluded that it is not their fault, as they just are not exposed to other languages the same way as we are to English in our daily lives. So please read what Sagestreet has to say, as he is making a few very good points, and to see it all listed up like that really touched me. There is so much English in our daily lifes, we barely register it anymore, but when elderly people are excluded even though they are not in a foreign country, then that doesn't feel right somehow.

Maybe you want to join the discussion, I'd be happy to hear your opinions!


I’m always in two minds about posts like this one. Of course, I am flattered when people tell me that my English is great. But then, I kinda feel like it’s (at least in part) undeserved praise.

You, English native speakers, aren’t any less talented or less gifted just because you don’t speak German or French or Italian the way we speak English. It’s just that you aren’t exposed to these languages in the same way that we are to English. Because we really get bombarded with American culture over here.:) (I don’t mean that in a bad way at all, BTW.) Many English native speakers know this in principle, but it doesn’t really sink in until they experience it first-hand.

Just imagine what it would be like if you got up in the morning (in your home town in America) and switched on the radio and 95% of the songs were, say, in German. And all the major films and TV shows were from Germany and about Germany. And a considerable part of the news were devoted to Germany and German politics every day. Imagine you got on the bus and had to go past numerous German-speaking advertisement posters and billboards every day. With German catchphrases and slogans on them. Imagine, for a moment, what it would be like if you learnt German for 6-8 years at school. What if your universities were currently giving more and more lectures in German only? (Even on subjects that aren’t related to Germany at all.) What if there were entire ‘international’ sections in your newspapers that weren’t in your native language but in German instead?

If all of that were the case, wouldn’t you be fluent in German (insert any other language here) as well?

Yes, of course, learning languages is extremely hard work. It’s, as you’ve rightly mentioned, like sweating blood and spine fluid most of the time.:) And yes, some people absorb it much, much better than others.

But I wasn’t really talking about learning German or any other foreign language a non-native speaker would have to invest a lot of time and effort in.

I was talking about the degree to which we are exposed to English, specifically.

What I wanted to point out was that the exposure level to English is much higher here than the one to any foreign language in English-speaking countries. That’s why I didn’t just bring up the 6-8 years of school education but mentioned all the other stuff, too. What I meant is that there is just no way in hell you can escape English in Germany. (To the point where my late grandma, who had never learnt a word of English, had trouble communicating with people at the German (!) post office because everything down to the smallest parcel had an English name and nobody even used the German words anymore.) Whereas to an English native speaker it is pretty easy to not be exposed to German or Czech or French, etc. at all.

So, yes, hard work goes on top of that. But there is a fundamental difference at the bottom of it all.

That’s why I always think compliments on tumblr about another person’s English language skills are a bit of a two-edged sword. They’re certainly nice and flattering. But whenever they come paired with the, ‘I could never ever do what you’re doing,’ kind of remark, I think people don’t realise that we’re not all working from the same starting point.

And this is what I posted on Tumblr:

I have to agree to the “you need to be interested to learn a language”. Back in Eastern Germany, while I had the opportunity to take English lessons in school, I did not like them very much, found the grammar lessons boring and when we were listening to a tape I never could understand a single word. It sounded all like mumbo-jumbo to me. And it wasn’t exactly like I saw a way to any practical use, with us not being able to travel to the UK or America.

This only changed several years later, after the world had changed, when I would watch DVDs of my favourite science-fiction show with English subtitles and read and listen at the same time (and realizing that my difficulties stemmed from the fact that they tried to teach us British English pronouncation while I found American English much easier to understand).

From then on, I taught myself. I just started to read English fanfictions. In the beginning I used the dictionary for almost every word, but once you have looked up the same thing for the third time it will just stick in your head and soon I had a huge vocabulary as well as phrases and proverbs. I don’t even think about grammar, I just write what “sounds” right in my head and most of the time it (hopefully ;) ) is.

And with the internet nowadays and the interaction with all the forums and websites and friends all over the world, I sometimes am so far gone into using English all the time, that when speaking German I stumble over a word as I can’t find a German equivalent. Some things are just untranslable. After spending several days in the UK, I once even managed to ask for the way in English at Frankfurt airport when I was changing planes. So, there are two sides of the coin!

Therefore, if you really want to learn a foreign language, my advice is to find a topic that interests you. I know people who learn Japanese to be able to read Mangas, or French Girls who were fans of a German music band and suddenly got interested in German. But you need a reason, and school cannot provide that unless you find a way to actually use the language.

For the same reason (not using the language anymore) sadly my Russian has died down to only a few words and phrases.
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