How it feels when you don’t speak the language
Last week I found myself in an unusual situation for me: I was in a country where everything sounded completely foreign. I suppose, like most people, I’m used to being able to understand the language around me, even though in my case that means several different ones. My house is bilingual (English and Catalan) and there’s plenty of Spanish too in the environment where I live. When we go away it’s often to England, to other parts of Spain, or to France, where I can also understand a lot of what’s said. Even if we go to Italy, although I don’t speak Italian, I can understand quite a bit.
But last week we were in Germany, and there none of the languages I’ve ever learned can help me. My wife, my eight-year-old son and I had gone to spend a few days in Munich, a city we’d thought about visiting for a while, and we had a great time. But there is something about not speaking or even understanding the local language that puts you in a different and more helpless position. Of course, in a country like Germany, where the standard of English-speaking is generally so high, it’s not a real helplessness, but the perception and its emotional consequences can’t be denied.
There’s also the fascination, for a language lover like me, of starting to work out the code. An English speaker has one or two leads on German, although there are plenty of false ones too. I was given a few more clues by my wife, who did learn some German when she was younger. And it was satisfying being able to work out some station and train announcements, for example, and understand the odd sign, noting the parallels with and differences from the languages I know.
Of course, not understanding the language of a country you visit puts you on a par with most British tourists who go on holiday anywhere in Europe every year, as my native country has a notoriously poor record of language learning and teaching. It’s a strange double-edged position to be in. On one hand it’s undeniably a lot easier not having to bother to make an effort to speak anything other than your native tongue, but, for me, that goes along with a feeling of guilt at forcing everyone to make exactly that effort on my behalf. And there’s also the realisation that you are missing so much, leaving you perpetually a little lost and open to being exploited by anyone who has a mind to behave in that way.
I should add that this never happened to us in Germany, but the feeling of vulnerability made me think about what it means not to understand the world around me and I was left wondering how immigrants must feel coming to countries where they have no idea of the language and remembering how I felt arriving to live in a land I didn’t know very well almost 16 years ago.
To finish off with, a lighthearted selection of not necessarily language-related things we came to understand, or were reminded of, during our few days in Munich:
1. “Proper” airlines are wonderful. Low cost is all very well, but this time we took Lufthansa, thanks to a special offer, and it was so good to be able to fly with fewer restrictions, free snacks and drinks and a fraction more leg room.
2. Spring comes late to northern Europe, as evidenced by the snowstorms we ran into while walking around Munich, something I’d forgotten over the course of many mild Mediterranean winters.
3. Bavarian food and my family don’t really get on. This came as something as a shock, as we’ve been to Germany before and eaten quite well, but the thick chunks of roast meat, dumplings and, above all, the potato dumplings, which in appearance and texture resembled nothing other than boiled tennis balls, were too much for us, and we took refuge in schnitzel and the few reasonably priced Italian restaurants we could find.
4. There is a part of Germany that seems to live in a 1970s timewarp: witness the headboard of our hotel bed, apparently constructed of toilet seats covered in snakeskin; the music playing at breakfast time, which was seemed to be a selection from the easy listening tapes my father used to play in the car in about 1974, and the walls of the nearest station, decorated with huge posters advertising “new” greatest hits albums by those blasts from my very distant past Boney M and Smokie!
5. Germany knows, perhaps like no other country, how to organise public transport, and there was plenty to feed my son’s obsession with all forms of it. Two minutes’ walk from our hotel we had U-bahn and S-bahn. There were trams, buses and various types of train, including one company rejoicing in the improbable name of BOB!