Language as performance

Does Aussie anti-elitism stifle language learning? Discuss... Photo: Iain Scott

Does Aussie anti-elitism stifle language learning? Discuss… Photo: Iain Scott

Autumn has arrived in a shower of rain, the kids are starting a new year of school and krippe in Swiss-German and I’m thinking about language again this week. Himself and I have had the privilege of a private German tutor since the start of the year but she’s due to go on maternity leave so we’re winding that up. Plus Himself is on the job-hunt in earnest now. It feels like a new phase for many things.

Two wise women gave me some interesting insights about language recently. One friend in Australia pointed out the peculiar strain of Aussie anti-elitism that regards the ‘correct’ pronounciation of foreign words as wankery.  Her example was that, to the average Aussie, people who call a croissant a “Cwausson” are wankers. And it’s true. And there’s a part of me that feels that way too. And I didn’t quite realise it. And it’s a block. Not an insurmountable one, but a block nonetheless to mastering and using a foreign language properly. In fact, even when my own dear mother was here earlier in the year, she pointed out that she could hear me labouring away in German in my Aussie accent and she understood why I did it (because it somehow feels more ‘honest’) but she also insisted I needed to “go for it” a lot more with the Deutsch intonation if I want people to, say, understand what I’m saying. She is also right and a part of me feels that way too. (When I tried to explain this to Himself, he looked at me like I was crazy — is it any wonder he’s powering ahead in German so much more confidently than me!)

And just today, I was talking to a local friend about how I often get stupidly nervous speaking to groups — not even “public speaking”, which is a common enough fear — but just introducing myself in a group situation, even. Heart pounding, voice shaking, the works. Even in a small group. Even if we’re speaking English. It’s so embarrassing. (Does this happen to most people?) And my friend said that it was similar to how she often feels having to use German. “Because every time I speak in German in front of people, I’m on stage”. Gosh, how true that is! (It may be worth noting the friend is a professional stage manager). But again, it’s something I’d never articulated in that way. And it’s another mental block in my language-learning journey. (I should also note that I don’t get “stage-fright” every time I speak German anymore, thank goodness — my son’s krippe introduction session today went off almost without a hitch and almost entirely in Deutsch).

Anyway, as well as being one of the standard How’s-your-German-how-are-you-feeling-about-it conversations I have regularly with other expats, my friend and I were also talking about this stuff because I’m increasingly feeling as though I should do some spoken word / poetry slam type performance with my poems. And, while I’m pretty OK with the idea of this — I’m confident in my poems and I feel they’d work well in this environment — I’m deeply worried that my stage fright will fuck it up. What do I need to do? I’ve thought of singing lessons, which might help. But, ultimately, I don’t think there are any quick fixes beyond: practice, practice, practice. And ditto for the Deutsche sprechen, I guess.

Oh well, I hope at least in some small part, being able to recognise and articulate these stumbling blocks is a small step towards overcoming them.

What do you think? Do you need to thesp it up a bit with a new language? When, if ever, does it start to feel normal and not like you’re a putting on a show?

addendum: I  feel like a bit of a dork for posting this stuff about getting nervous/anxious when speaking to people. I’m not a complete social retard and I’m not even that shy in many situations, particularly one-to-one… really, usually, I swear… whatever. 


  1. I think you should go with the spoken word idea. It could be easier than the challenging social stuff because you have the protection of performance. If it doesn’t work then you can strike it off your list. If it does work, it’s bound to help your confidence in other situations.
    As for language learning, I think that you have to get into a certain persona when you speak a foreign language, even if it does feel fake to begin with, and that means making an effort with the accent. I sometimes feel like a parrot, copying not just the way words are pronounced but some of the actual things Swiss-German people say in certain situations (particularly thinking of other parents). Once you have the hang of that you can start being original, I hope!

  2. Great post. Spoken word sounds like an ace way to exercise your voice – because it’s good to hear yourself speak, in any language – and to share your work with people – because it deserves to be heard. With regard to the accent thing, I’ve been embracing the Paris extra syllable lately (bon – shur – ah) and it’s helping. I tell my students that speaking a foreign language should sound weird. But that doesn’t always help the stage fright. Does it get better? Yes, absolutely, slowly, slowly. And if you do start singing, do it in German! Bon courage! xxx

  3. I have a thicker Aussie accent than a lot of my friends because to learn English as fast as possible I had to throw myself in headlong whereas they had the luxury of somewhat choosing where in the social register they fell. By the time I even realised there were degrees of ocker, it was too late.

    I’ll just say, stop overthinking everything, dude!

    (And if you want to know how well that advice works out for me, ask me how my novel is going. :D)

    1. Accent is a whole leap beyond pronunciation, one which I’ve barely begun to consider! How’s that novel going? I love your accent btw x

  4. I hear you on this. I live in Germany, and when I hear the “ü” sound, I’m tempted to say, “Look, you don’t have to make that sound just because I’m here. Surely you don’t among friends.” But they do, right? I just prefer Tchuss, as in loose, rather than with the ü, because of the bias you describe. Barthelona comes to mind here. But right, one has to dive in 100%. It’s hard.

    1. Oh Damone – I thought you’d be in NYC forever!! The language struggle is real… and Swiss-German is even more of a mindfuck than Hoch Deutsch by all accounts :/

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