language

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. 

A funny thing happened on the way down Bahnhofstrasse…

Ok so it's not Bahnhofstrasse...

Ok so it’s not Bahnhofstrasse…

I’ve lived in Switzerland for 2.5 years now. Things have got easier.

I had this feeling a while ago when I had a random hour or two to spend along Bahnhofstrasse and I ended up chatting to a stylish shop assistant in one of the fancier places for 10 minutes – we had a basic conversation mostly auf Deutsch just about our kids and that my eldest is almost perfect in Schweizerdeutsch and how when she lived in Lausanne for a few years, she wasn’t much good on the French but her kids were experts etc. I didn’t buy anything (it was all Moschino-level stuff, eek) but I left feeling like I’d gained an extra layer of confidence.

Today I overheard a conversation in a hotel where the lady asked for a black tea and the maître d’ said it was available at the breakfast buffet. Small, basic exchanges but I am understanding them.

My own German is still pretty bad – I lack confidence so I say things quietly and tend to mutter, which doesn’t help me OR the person I’m talking to. Then there’s pronunciation problems – I requested Ibuprofen in a pharmacy yesterday, saying it in my Australian way: “Eye-buprofen”. The assistant looked puzzled, until my friend chimed in with “Ih-buprofen” – A-ha! Then telling the same friend (who is Swiss-French) about a feature I’m writing that mentions Crans-Montana there was a moment…. “oh Crhuns-Montana!” (put on your best French). I will amend my pronunciation of this one from now on. Although there’s a certain appeal to Craaaans maaayte!

Anyway, here’s 11 things I am loving about my life in Switzerland right now

  1. More German conversations. Despite the fact I’m still pretty crap at German, more people seem to continue speaking to me in the language now (rather than switching to English), which must mean I’m improving.
  2. I’ve often theorised that the Swiss are the goths of Europe – rebels who like rules, smart, stylish (in their own way), intellectually arrogant, frugal but willing to spend where they see value, difficult and snobby-seeming (which can be basic shyness) but generally worth it when you get to know them. In this respect, I am not intimidated (mostly!) and I kinda “get” Switzerland/the Swiss
  3. My mum and my best friend who visited recently both said as an aside – “You should stay.” Women whose opinions I value.
  4. Wellness – a revelation. I used to think the whole idea was a bit wack but I’m a total convert.Wellness is a big thing - there's even a permanent sign directing you to the wellness hotel district in Baden.
  5. Frühstück / Brunch. They bring coffee then you go help yourself at the buffet. Ticks so many boxes.
  6. Swimming. There’s sooo much swimming here, and there’s water everywhere! Lakes, rivers, fountains. I love it. Although I do miss the ocean…
  7. Mountains. Also a recent conversion. So pretty and picturesque. I still have to pinch myself sometimes. I’m living in a postcard.
    picture-postcard views
  8. Church bells and shopping hours. After you get used to the bells ringing every quarter hour and the shops being shut on Sundays, it’s more a case of why doesn’t this happen everywhere? Shopping as a leisure activity is kind of horrible (although I do enjoy it and miss it). I like the enforced family time of Sundays and the bells… well… you do get used to them and I appreciate quaint old-fashionedy things.
  9. The sky. There’s these beautiful skies in Switzerland… after the grey of London, the skies here are wonderful.
    mountain
  10. We’re mostly happy here – the kids like their school and daycare, Himself is getting into hiking and cycling, the politics are OK (not that we have any influence), the pace of life is less hectic than London or Sydney.
  11. On a similar note, it feels like there’s time to explore some creative pursuits. I really want to see where this poetry thing might lead and I think I have the space to do it here.

 

I really hope we can stay.

Me diving into the Zurichsee. Photo: Katy Albany

Me diving into the Zurichsee. Photo: Katy Albany

More postcard views...

More postcard views…

20160525_155046

… and pretty skies