English Girl in Vienna

Cultural Commentator

Archive for the category “Observations on language”

I Speak the Lingo You Know (Well, Kind of…)

I am still struggling with the language. I don’t mind. I know it will take another year before I feel comfortable with it, and I feel quite positive that I am chipping away at it and making the effort. I have been attending classes steadily since last April and I’m signed up for an intensive summer course.

It’s weird, but I mostly speak German with people from outside Austria; these people are the others on my German course. I’m happy that English is not our common language, because to get on with each other and have a natter, we must do so in our broken Deutsch and I love it. Once, I walked with my Italian friend for twenty minutes on our way home from class and we spoke German the whole time. We attracted many confused looks from locals along the way as we butchered the language in our heavy accents, but somehow we both made ourselves understood.

The people I speak German with the least seem to be the Austrians themselves. Take for instance the other day; I called a restaurant to make a reservation and did the whole thing in German. I was so utterly proud of myself and felt quite smug until the guy taking the booking repeated the whole thing back to me in English by way of confirmation. I felt dejected and very sorry for myself.

My course mate from Nepal asked our teacher how she could improve her pronunciation because whenever she speaks German in shops or cafes, the listener invariably screws up his or her face in utter confusion. The teacher told her she had good pronunciation and was perfectly intelligible. He said that of course she had an accent, like we all do and assured her that those who cannot understand her probably have the same problems with native speakers from other parts of Austria, or from Germany. He then went on to say it was the Viennese way to make a face on every possible occasion and we should not be put off by it. I then told him the predicament I have, that everyone can hear as soon as I open my mouth that I am English and immediately speaks back to me in English. He advised me to tell them to stop and to explain that I must practise my Deutsch. I did this once in a pub. I spoke German; the waiter spoke English.

I said, “Ich kann Deutsch sprechen.”

He said, in English, “I can speak English.” Fair enough, I thought, and we laughed.

It has been suggested that Austrians love to practice their English and on reflection, it does seem that they are trying to be nice to me by doing this. I also encounter people on a daily basis who have spent a lot of time and money on learning English, so I don’t really blame them for wanting to put their language skills to use after all the resources and energy they have invested. There does seem to be a bit of a love affair with the English language. In fashion magazines, most articles will have a headline written in English with the actual piece in German, and so it is with many shop names around the city. Consequently, I have found peace with the knowledge that all my dealings with locals will occur with me speaking German and them speaking English, and all my dealings with other Auslanders will be completely in German. It is one of the many quirks of living in Vienna.

English titles and captions in "Wienerin" (Viennese Woman)

English titles and captions in “Wienerin” (Viennese Woman)


German Class

The other week I finally started a German course. As we went round introducing ourselves I began to feel very international. In all of the sixteen students, I am the only native English speaker. I expected that we would be over represented, speaking too much English. But, no; there is no ethnic ‘majority’ at all. There’s a student from Turkey, Thailand, Ghana, Italy, Spain, Colombia, Ecuador, Romania, Hungary, Russia, India, Egypt and Slovakia. As you can imagine, there are some very interesting ‘German’ accents when we try to speak. Not that we can speak much at all at the moment. The thing about German grammar is that you need to know a lot of it before you can make simple sentences. We often start to speak but cut ourselves off because we’ve forgotten which form of the word ‘the’ or ‘a’ to use and believe me there are many versions to learn. And so, most of the time we sit there like mutes, understanding little more than we are able to express at this stage of our language learning.

Being a mute in a language class makes you both feel and look stupid. Beneath our glazed and dazed exteriors are all kinds of interesting people that cannot be expressed yet. I look round the class wondering what I may one day find out about each one. So far we know that one is an architect and obviously intelligent. The Colombian guy is a student who comes in most mornings looking hungover and I wonder what his story is. I already know that he can speak French and Spanish fluently and when he asks a question that he doesn’t have the German for, he does it in fluent English. He is studying philosophy and economics at the university and now he needs German. But to look at him, he looks like a kid in school, not aware of anything that is going on, with a tendency to stare out of the window. That’s exactly what we are, children with adult egos that need protecting while we stumble through a minefield of new vocabulary, spelling, punctuation, learning to count all over again, learning how to construct sentences as if for the first time, being corrected in almost every utterance, getting lots of crosses on our homework, being made to read out loud in class, getting most answers wrong. Our sense of humour has reverted to that of children as well. Our limited language means that our jokes are limited too; the most we can do to make each other laugh is point to a picture in the book of an ugly man, or a really old woman and say ‘You love him,’ or ‘That’s your girlfriend!’ and snigger accordingly.

Like enthusiastic kids in primary school, we do try hard, and then for all our efforts, we go outside and still have no idea what the man at the deli counter in the supermarket is saying to us; my tactic is just to say ‘no thank you’ to every question. I also have no idea what the special announcements on the tram say so my strategy is to follow the crowd whenever I get kicked off a tram, hoping that others will walk to an alternative stop I didn’t know about.

I think I’ll have a few more months of this, until I get to a stage where I can get my meaning across. Until then, I’ll just be faking it by smiling when people talk to me, or saying, ‘I’m sorry I don’t speak Deutsch.’

My course book. If it ain’t in there, I can’t say it.

Alien Activity in the Classroom

The other week in class, in answer to one of my questions, one student started talking about the Mother Ship. I wondered what on earth she was talking about because I really hadn’t  asked about extra terrestrial space crafts. I had an image of a giant spaceship hovering over us in the classroom, calling for our return and I was about to burst out laughing at the randomness of it all when it suddenly clicked what she meant. She was talking about a photo in the textbook which showed a woman holding new born twins and by Mother Ship, she meant motherhood. It’s an easy mistake to make; we do after all have friendships, relationships and memberships, so applying the suffix ‘ship’ to ‘mother’ was actually quite logical, though it changed the meaning entirely and almost took our lesson into another dimension.

It got me thinking how tricky it is to learn a language. I once very innocently said in a German class that I was hot, but because I translated directly from English I actually said I was feeling horny. So, just remember if you go on your jollies to Deutschland or over here, you can’t say “Ich bin heiss” but have to say “Mir ist heiss’ which roughly means ‘for me, it’s hot’. I believe the same direct translation from English to Spanish has the same meaning, so be warned!

Since the Mother Ship incident, I’ve been on the hunt for words that are funny to an English speaker, but innocent to a local. I must admit that most of them are a bit juvenile, but I find myself sniggering every time I see them all the same.

When you’re a bit fed up, head to the Bloomin’eck flower shop

A prize what?

How nice of them to wish me a good fart.

What do they sell in this shop???

Oh frickety frick it

Would you like to go to this Austrian town on your jollies? This was from a newspaper article; apparently this sign keeps getting nicked.

What is WHAT?!

Art! It means ‘art’!

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