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How I chose to learn the wrong language

The Local · 12 Sep 2014, 12:07

Published: 12 Sep 2014 12:07 GMT+02:00

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When I told my grandmother that I had met a German and was moving to Germany, without missing a beat, she replied, “what a pity you couldn’t have met a Frenchman, German is such an ugly language.”

At the time, I was suitably outraged. I now understand her comment in the light of her own position as an avowed Francophile.

As one of the early female graduates of (the now) Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, she studied French language and literature. Way back when, the study of a foreign language consisted mostly of comprehension tasks including reading, writing essays and dictations.

One could also hope to pick up a further smattering of what my grandmother called daughter languages of Latin - the offspring in this case being Italian and Spanish.

At that time in New Zealand, the study of languages was considered an academic pursuit with little or no application in the real world - apart from a career as a teacher.

However baffling that sounds today, there is a kind of logic to it. Unless a field trip to nearby Tahiti was on the cards, it was of course a dim possibility in that far-flung outpost of the British Empire that one would ever need any language other than English.

Much later, with the rise of cheap air travel, a trip to see 'The World' (read: the UK & continental Europe) became a rite of passage for young New Zealanders. Dubbed the OE (Overseas Experience), it consisted mostly of drinking too much and throwing up in a gutter in Charing Cross, followed by sleeping on a mate's sofa in a squat in Earls Court.

But that was much, much later, and I digress.

English... or nothing

In my grandmother's day it was strictly English all the way. The language of the 'mother country' served a two-fold purpose. Firstly, as a social glue amongst newly established populations from different language backgrounds.

A second and less acknowledged outcome was the socially engineered decline of the Maori language. Spoken by 100 percent of the indigenous population at first contact, today Maori is spoken by just 3.7 percent of the population.

To return to the topic at hand: my Francophile grandmother lived to the age of 99 and at this great age she was entirely accustomed to making statements of a greater or lesser degree of outrageousness. At any given family gathering, installed on a comfy chair with a good peg of single malt, she handed down pearls of wisdom to her multitudes of descendants from her matriarchal seat.

One such pearl was her comment about the wrong language. And the reason that her comment cut to the quick, was that (at that time) I shared her love of all things French.

My French fantasy

Since early childhood I had nursed a burning desire to actually be a French nun. The fact that I didn't meet any of the pre-requisites, such as being French or being acquainted with any religious doctrine, was of no concern to me.

At the age of six I regularly paraded through the house with the cloth bound version of the Concise Oxford French Dictionary as my song book.

I sang along cheerily to our LP of The Singing Nun. Soeur Sourire was actually Belgian, but at this age I made no distinction - I happily subscribed to the bliss of ignorance.

Feeling myself to be somehow French by association or osmosis, I pretended that I could understand French and regularly told people that my grandmother was French.

Hindsight is a marvellous thing

Story continues below…

Now that I live in Germany and do battle with the wrong language every day, I regard my earlier self with a satisfying degree of Schadenfreude.

It serves me damn well right, I say to myself, that I regularly break my tongue in my second language. If only I had stuck with learning German in school, instead of changing to French.

In typically fickle fashion I changed languages after one week of German instruction. Partially because of my instinctive rejection of a language which forced me to listen until the end of a sentence to get the full meaning of what was being said.

And partially because the French teacher, Madame B, was French and actually wore a beret. This last fact pleased my grandmother no end, may she rest in peace.

You can read more from Tessa's blog, Letters from Hamburg, here. Expat Dispatches posts a blog from an English-language writer in Germany each week.

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