Friday, August 26, 2011

Ich Lehrne Deutsch

I grew up speaking German even though I was born in Vancouver.   I did not speak a word of English when I started kindergarten.   So how ever you slice it, German is my first language, my language of birth, the langauage of home and family.   With the death of my parents, the amount of German I speak or listen to has dropped off to almost nothing.  My German is now the weakest it has ever been in my life and I need to do something to fix this.

Growing up the language in the house was always German.   English was only spoken in the house when there was a Canadian over and did not know any German.   As a kid I went to German school on Saturday mornings till I was about 13 or 14.   I was left being able to speak German fluently like a kid, but not as an adult.

20 years ago I lived in the UK but was responsible for the German market for an English computer consulting company.  For two years till age 27 I spent most of my working hours speaking German - an odd situation in an open plan office of 50 English speakers.   It did mean that by the end of my time in the UK I could speak a much more fluent adult German especially when it came to do with anything to do with the IT business.

At the end of my time in England my parents visited us in London and my mother made one of the most embarssing comments to me that I had even been told - I spoke German like a person from Germany "Ach Berndti, du sprichts Deutsch wie ein Reichsdeutscher!".    Given that I am a Baltic German, this was hardly a positive remark and had a certain sense of I was being assimilated into being a German.   The best analogy I can think of for a Canadian would be to told that they sound like they are an American.

Back in Canada, for the next 16 years I would speak on the phone with my mother a couple of times a week and visit my parents in Tsawwassen a couple of times a month.   I probably spoke German for more than ten hours a month not counting times when I had guests from Germany staying with me or I when I was in Europe in 1995, 2001 or 2006.

My father died suddenly in June 2003 and my mother passed in early January 2009.   Since then the most common reason I have spoken German is when I have had guest staying with me from Germany.  I have been going months not speaking any German at all.     When Laurel and Thomas were staying with us last fall, I realized how weak my German had become.   I would try to hold a conversation and specific words or phrases simply would not come into my mind fast enough.   I needed to do something to improve my German.

It has taken me a time to figure out what I can do, but about a month ago I finally grasped upon the fact I can watch streaming TV from Germany.   I have been watching the majority of my TV in German for the last month either on ARD or ZDF.   I have been watching a lot of documentaries and a lot of 'Krimis' - police procedurals.

So is it improving my German?  I am certain that it is, I am being reintroduced to words that I really do not use myself, my German vocabulary that I can quickly call on is rather small.    It is really to expand my vocabulary  that I watch German TV.   I am not sure how to estimate it, but I am guessing that 5-10 words a day are moving from a passive vocabulary to an active state.   I have not had a of chance to speak German with anyone lately so I am not sure how easily the words will flow when called on.

In theory I could go to somewhere like the Edelweiss Club, but my problem is that at these social clubs the immigrant Germans are more German than the Germans.   Baltic Germans tend towards being completely unnationalistic.   I personally feel more kinship with the Swedes, Estonians, Finns and Russians than I do with people from Germany.

Germans abroad very easily suffer from a bunker mentality.   A sense that no one gets them and everyone sort of hates them.   They also tend to assume that no one can speak German other than Germans and all German speakers are on the same side.    This has lead to me being told more than a few times that Hitler was not that bad a man.   The most extreme example was in early 2005 when a man that was the selected Green candidate on the island was at an event with me.  Afterwards among about 40 Greens in the UVic University Club he bought me a drink and them proceeded to tell me in German that the holocaust was a Jewish hoax.

Growing up, other than German school, as a Baltic German in BC, we had nothing to do with the larger German community in Vancouver.

So I am in this odd situation, my first language is getting weaker all the time but the country connected to that language does not feel like home.   I have a desire to speak German, really to speak the Baltic German dialect, but there is not much of a chance to do that.

  • Mon Français est bien mieux qu'il était, mais toujours non couramment
  • Jag vill lära mig svenska
  • Nagu ma olen Eesti kodanik, ma peaks eesti keelt

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