Bicultural Urbanite Luke English Confessions of a Bicultural Urbanite
Traditionally, the beginning of a new year comes with resolutions. But I’d like to start mine here with a confession. The divulging of a dirty little secret I’ve been harbouring and trying my best to forget. It could compromise my prized status as a bicultural urbanite, and it has to do with my bilingual abilities. Though ‘abilities’ would be a generous term here.
It’s terrible, I know. And as I sit here periodically composing my thoughts for the prestigiously German Goethe-Institut, penning my little column on Berlin life in ostentatious English, my cheeks burn a little hotter with shame every post. A so-called Master of Literature and Cultural studies—a supposed connoisseur of language and culture, no less!—living in Germany, with loads of German friends, a German ex-girlfriend of many fond years, and still speaking some ridiculous brand of baby Deutsch that fluctuates between cutely erroneous (my self-assessment) and embarrassingly incorrect (the likely reality).
The Berlin English Language SyndromeFor those reading this from outside of Berlin—those who’ve never lived here as a foreigner, that is—this probably sounds like an outrage. But for the jaded expats on the inside, it would hardly rouse surprise. Which is not to say there aren’t native English speakers here with German fluency. There are, of course; my fellow bicultural urbanite is one of them, and my hat goes off to her and the handful of others I know like her. But the fact is that such diligent Deutschlerner are an exception to the rule, with the vast majority of countless English-speaking expats I’ve met here over the years falling victim to something one might call the Berlin English Language Syndrome.
Aside from unloading a heap of repressed guilt about this in a public arena, it behooves me to actually explore what lies at the crux of this phenomenon. For I believe it to be a little more complicated than ‘damn those lazy native English speakers and their stubborn refusal to learn proper German’. While having the closest thing to a world language as your mother tongue can certainly make one complacent, it doesn't fully explain why so very many English speakers in Berlin—often intelligent, ambitious, and curious people—grind to a halt at such a crude level of German. Nor does it account for how we somehow feel (sort of) okay about living like this indefinitely.
Non-verbal communication in dark rooms is a popular choice in Berlin | © Isabelle Beyer
It takes two to tangoAfter much heated debate, defensiveness, rationalisation, and genuine contemplation, I’ve come to the conclusion this circumstance is the result of a botched exchange of almost farcical proportions. The expression ‘it takes two to tango’ comes to mind. And this particular dance seems to be designed around misconstrued intentions and behaviours, which ironically serve to reinforce the very intentions and behaviours that both sides would prefer to abolish. The choreography, from the expat’s perspective at least, typically unfolds as follows.
After arriving in Berlin and deciding to settle here with zero German-language abilities, you take a couple of months of German classes in earnest. You make a little progress. Then you quickly start running out of savings and get caught up in the challenge of building a new life in a foreign country—one that conveniently revolves around the many great English-language opportunities that keep arising (case in point: this very project). For a while, you keep trying out your baby German, but the Germans you’re speaking to almost invariably answer you in English. You persevere a while a longer, but your persistence starts to feel futile and awkward in most situations.
Supplies for breaking down the language barriers | © Isabelle Beyer Meanwhile, your blossoming social life is more culturally diverse than ever—Germans, Australians, Koreans, Italians, Americans, Swedes, Brits, Turks, Russians; the list goes on—all using English as the connecting vernacular for grammatically curious banter. What’s more, you start to realise most Germans love speaking English. They’re generally very good at it, and eager to show you so. The younger generations in particular have usually mastered the language over a decade of meticulous schooling and can enjoy harnessing you as a human utensil for honing an already comfortable ability. And the fact that your German friends can casually dissect continental philosophy in English while you struggle to describe your day in German doesn’t really feel like an incentive to struggle onwards.
A city of dazzling contradictionsEventually, as your English-based life advances, those burgeoning German skills are pushed to the back burner; first unconsciously neglected, then actively avoided. Until one day, many years later, you realise you’re still stuck at an embarrassingly rudimentary level: understanding a lot in most contexts, mumbling through your stock of trusty Deutsch phrases when necessary, but loath to converse properly for fear of sounding like an incompetent dullard. And so it goes: the English speakers keep mostly speaking English and resenting themselves for it; the many Germans who speak great English keep not only incidentally enabling this, but actively fostering it; and the leftover Germans who don’t speak much English become disgruntled about all those pesky expats eroding the German language in their homeland.
Pirouette, sidestep, tangle, crash; regroup and twirl all over again. Thankfully, the tune we’re dancing to in this town is a harmonious one, and uplifting enough to make all this seem like nothing but a comical background distraction to what’s really happening centre stage: a genuine cultural exchange, and one that engenders a vibrant quality of social life I’ve still yet to find anywhere else in the world—in spite of language barriers. And this is so typical of Berlin, a city of dazzling contradictions whose pitfalls and quandaries are inextricably tied up with the very things that make it so attractive and special. Just don’t ask me to repeat that sentiment auf Deutsch.