Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Language accomodation

There was a new guy called Michael at my volunteer job today.  -a job, im grossen und ganzen, conducted primarily in German.  When I met Michael, I pronounced my first name in a distinctly American way, and that must've given him the green light to try out his crap English on me.

Rule #1: if my German sounds like it's better than your English, then I'll not be speaking to you in my native language.

I tried to abide by Rule #1 for the length of 'new guy' hanging about the clothes shop, but lapsed a bit when a punk from Detroit, yes, that Detroit, waltzed through the doors saying something like: Deutsch...sprek...nicht gut.  We immediately got to chatting about 'Homeland' security, travel, and the difficulties of becoming a dual nationale.

A little bit later, Michael needed to let me know that someone had taken a small stack of clothing 'coupons' from the main office and that we should be on the look-out for any coupon not possessing his signature at the bottom.  This information was communicated to me in piss-poor English to which I responded with: du kannst mit mir auf Deutsch reden.  When that request went unheeded, I 'amped' it up with the slightly annoying: wie bitte?  Ich versteh' kein Englisch.

As if to explain his behaviour, Michael told me that when he speaks to Germans, he uses Hochdeutsch, and when he speaks to Americans, Britons and the like, he uses English.   A Swiss friend of mine termed the tendency of German Swiss to switch from Swiss German into the language of the interlocutor 'accommodating'.  That logic doesn't take into account those native English speakers already possessing a fairly solid foundation of German.  What it does reinforce is the knowledge that standard German for German Swiss is almost as much of a foreign language for them as it is for me.  The main difference being that in present day America there are relatively few German language newspapers, if any, no TV stations broadcast from the Fatherland, and, if there were to be bilingual education, then, in my home state of California, the second language learned would be either Spanish or Mandarin.

While I understand that 'German German' may be considered a foreign language 'round these parts it does, unlike in America, feature fairly prominently within the culture.  German, with some exception, is the language of instruction, the language of print media, and, save for some Swiss German programing, much of what one hears on television.  These people grew up with German, in various forms, and I, as an American, did not.

I live in a place where standard German is spoken, not all the time, but one hears it.  I use German in order to navigate through my daily life here in Zurich.  My knowledge of German helps me make sense of the world around me.  I am lucky enough to understand a bit of Swiss German, and, on occasion, catch subtle humor, register mild upset and all sorts of other things that non-German speakers certainly would miss.  Mostly, I only speak English with other natives and foreigners not possessing German skills.  In order for me to feel like less of an outsider and to be able to communicate with folk who either do not or will not speak English (I do not assume that the Swiss should speak my language, we are not, after all, in America), then I feel I need to be linguistically savvy, so to speak.  If I had grown up watching Sesamstrasse instead of Sesame Street or had read the San Fransiskaner Tagesblatt instead of The San Francisco Chronicle, then, with German presumably more firmly entrenched in my head, maybe I'd be prepared to speak English with Michael and any other Swiss German who wish to 'accommodate' me. 

The Sesamstrasse Gang

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