Sunday, January 19, 2014

Who Owns a Language?

In Intro to Cultural Anthropology freshmen year, Tom Williamson asked us if its possible to ever really be fluent in a language. I dismissed his question immediately. Ja, duh. I'm fluent in English. Case in point. Then he went on to say that he is certainly not fluent in Physics. Or anything related to football culture. I had to agree, neither was I, but how well do you have to know a language to be considered fluent? Although frustrated at the time with Tom's question, his conversation helped prepare me for learning German abroad. I understand that fluency isn't a constant, its fluid. Fluid enough in a language to be able to adapt to never before discovered vocabulary or grammar structures.

I've never been one for memorizing grammar rules. I liked memorizing vocabulary, but that was mostly in comparison to learning grammar. My solution to mastering German has been repetitively living in the country. Its much easier to try and pick up on a language as a baby would than sitting with a textbook.

They say living in a country is the best way to learn, but there is a flaw in that logic when 85% of the country (ballpark figure) is "fluent" in English. And 99% of that 85% REALLY love speaking English. Its a rare occasion I meet someone new and they learn I'm American and they don't try and say something in, if not switch the entire conversation into, English. Or worse, they very sweetly and in a generous voice let me know that they speak English and we can just speak in English (because thats probably easier, right?).

Am I exaggerating? Perhaps a bit.

However, I honestly feel panic-y sometimes when talking with other people I know speak English because I'm just waiting for the moment when they revert back to English. Or the moment they'll lose patience with my jumbly opinion and ask me to repeat it in English. Or I won't understand what they've said, and instead of repeating it a different way in German, they'll say it in English. I feel physically distressed even writing this. I know the don't mean to insult my intelligence, but thats how it feels. They don't realize what its like trying to learn another language when everyone else already speaks yours.

How many times have you heard people say, "if you want to learn a language, you need to live there; you need to immerse yourself"? This is such a commonly understood fact, yet I have to fight for my right to speak German. That's how I feel. I have to fight my own laziness for I know I could be well understood in English and I have to fight the determined will of the German nation to practice and perfect their English.

I don't live in a host family. When I'm at home, I'm in my own English brain. Then I'm teaching English in class. Or lesson planning. 50% of my day is going to be, without much choice, in English.
Which means that any conversation in German during the day is highly valued and highly appreciated.

I know I can be unjustifiably sassy about this topic. Probably because I never confront people about it and just let it boil.

Because, what right do I have to say what language we should speak? How is that wholly my choice? A conversation, a relationship, is more than one person. Because at this point, I really feel like Germans own the English language (what does "own" even mean? ... ) Americans don't own English and if the British did, they certainly don't now. English- the global language. Its not American English- the global language, or BE for that matter. Germans have their own way of using the English language that is different than how I would (not wrong, just different). English is fluid, too.

So do I have the right to say I only want to be spoken to in German?

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