learning German

A Day In The Life

 

And don’t forget the joker! – Lemmy Kilmister

 

My irritability keeps me alive and kicking…
– Magazine, Song from under the Floorboards

 

Sometimes when you’re having a bad day, you have a good day. I have often noted that I seem to do better when I have a small inconvenience or minor annoyance to overcome. Case in point – I quite appreciate having a small cold when I’ve got a job interview. It somehow stops me stressing as much. Maybe it makes me live more “in the moment”.

This happened today. I was tired from being up late-ish with my toddler, then I couldn’t sleep because of monkey-mind worrying about money and how to save it, planning a potential trip to Australia, work stuff etcetera. This morning I woke with a scratchy throat after weird dreams.

So you know what? I gave myself permission just get on with it and I was actually really efficient. I dropped the kids at kindergarten and daycare, I went to Migros supermarket to spend obscene amounts of money because it was the Farmmania Jokertag and I wanted to get one for each kid (for the non-Swiss residents: Migros is the national supermarket, which has an annual game of figurines to collect. You get a ‘lucky dip’ packet containing a figurine when you spend a certain amount and on special days they have an extra-special “Joker” figurine that you have to spend even MORe to get. This year the game is farm-themed and today’s Joker was a crappy plastic tractor, but I digress). Anyway, I was home by 9.30am, ready to help Himself start building his website. But he didn’t really need me so I took myself off up to our newly created attic writing space for a couple of hours.

And managed to do some decent plotting, as well as writing a few thousand words on my novel. Oh, did I mention I’m writing a novel? Early days… early days. Mustn’t say too much.

Anyway, then I came back downstairs, paid some bills and we went to lunch. Had a good chat that somewhat allayed my fears about the possibly impending Australia trip (also early days, no more can be said yet!)

Then we went along to the local optician to get my new specs sorted. This is something that’s been hanging over my head for AAAGGEEES. I bought new frames online a while back and since then I have literally stood outside the optician at least three times hesitating… only to decide “nup, can’t face this today” so it was kind of major to cross this threshold. And then, wouldn’tcha know it, the optician RUINED my old glasses. OK so they were on the way out, but she did some funky cleaning thing to the lenses and they’re all peeling and fucked up now! OK so they were already a bit fuzzy, due to being pretty scratched and losing their UV coating or whatever, plus of course I’ve given birth in them – almost twice (I remembered to take them off the second time. Top tip: one does not need to see to give birth!) Anyway, I almost cried when she wrecked them (then did the Swiss thing of saying “it’s not my fault, it’s just something that happened” – yeah but on your watch, lady!). But I managed to turn it around by getting a free express service for the new ones by calling her out. I mean, I didn’t ask her to use her funky cleaning machine on my old faithfuls and they really are wrecked now. Annnyway, so expect a new-look Claire from tomorrow.

Then, because I had to wear my weird “other” glasses (an ill-advised purchase when I was trying to look like Kathleen Robertson in Boss) and I had a story to tell about why I was wearing them, it actually sparked a pretty decent convo in German with the Hort Frau – another win!

Plus, in the midst of all this, I somehow managed to change our internet package to one that’s almost half the price per month (er… let’s hope I don’t experience a crazy slowdown when I go to publish this blog and end up kicking myself). Something that’s been on my to-do list officially for about 2 months. Unofficially for about two years.

Anyway, so the takeaway is – sometimes if you’re feeling a bit crap, it can unexpectedly result in a sweet spot where you give no fucks and just crack on with stuff. I’m sure a psychologist could give a more scientific explanation of this phenomenon, but I’m just chuffed to have kicked some goals today.

And now I’ve written a blog post too. Tchüss !

 

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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. 

Kleidung

Frühling in Zürich

 

Ich habe meine Kleidung vertauscht

Es hat mir etwas traurig gemacht

So viele Kleidung, so viele Jahren alt

Und auch neu

Denn ist es Frühling

Ich bin krank mit ihnen

Sind sie krank mit mir?

 

I’m giving National/Global Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo / GloPoWriMo) a go – write one poem, per day throughout April. Today’s prompt didn’t work for me so I thought I’d try writing a poem in German because, fuck it.

A life in two languages

 

Flamingos at Zurich Zoo

Tell it to the birds? I didn’t have anything better to illustrate this post.

I’ve been thinking about language and identity again lately. Mostly, I guess, because I’ve finally managed to re-start German lessons (yay!). Himself and I are having a private tutor come once a week. It’s probably not quite enough for my ideal language-learning scenario. I’m starting to realise that when it comes to German, I want a bit of language S&M: I need to be tied down and whipped into shape with a fairly rigorous routine or my natural laziness / procrastination / fear of failure kicks in and I don’t do the homework. I probably need the “deadline pressure” of a more intensive course, because I’m also a people-pleaser who wants to get her gold star. Anyway… it’s a good start.

I’ve also been trying to get my thoughts straight about English and other languages and raising bilingual (or multilingual) children. I’m on a Facebook group about this and there are some interesting discussions. The ambition of some parents and the abilities of their children is truly astounding.

While there’s plenty of literature around now about the benefits of being bilingual, I was surprised to discover that up until fairly recently, bilingualism was considered detrimental to children … I guess they’re thinking of kids who don’t know the language struggling in schools and stuff? However, recent research all seems to suggest that bilingualism can help people become better problem-solvers and have more empathy, among other things. Here’s a post that debunks some theories about raising bilingual children.  And here’s a blog by Olga Mecking, a Polish woman living in the Netherlands, about some of the negative things people say to parents raising multilingual children. I like the latter because Mecking seems to subscribe to one of my own parenting mantras: Butt out of how other people are raising their kids!

There are still issues, however. I thought this blog post on code-switching by an Aboriginal writer (I’m afraid I don’t know her name!) was very thought-provoking about the power of language skills and how, even if you know a language well, being a less-competent speaker can reinforce negative perceptions, particularly if you’re part of a minority and/or ethnic group that people are already prejudiced against. I’ve also witnessed plenty of online snidery about people whose English spelling and grammar is not up to scratch. And while the ex-subeditor in me mostly agrees, the atrocious speller-of-German-words in me feels some despair at this. Of course, context plays a big part – I guess people aren’t excommunicating their friends who misspell your and you’re on fb status updates (or maybe they are) and it’s reasonable to expect, say, the teacher of your children to have a pretty good grasp of basic grammar and spelling! Anyway, it suffices to say: judgement based on language skills is definitely A Thing.

And this is not just something that happens to the disempowered. I had dinner with a Swiss friend recently who said that, when doing presentations at his work (a multinational consultancy), his “best weapon” is to have his colleague – a Londoner – do most of the talking. The Polish blogger I mentioned above also says in her post that some of the negativity she’s experienced from others in teaching her children her mother-tongue stems from negative perceptions about Poland and/or Polish people in Europe. This worries me a about speaking German too, which my mouth tends to totally mangle. But then again, I don’t feel like people are prejudiced against native English speakers in quite the same way.

Because, in terms of power and privilege, not all languages are equal, are they? In some ways, English is the Bully Language of the world: the one everyone needs, if not wants, to use to access a huge chunk of popular culture (music, movies, cartoons, video games…), get along in business, and use the internet. I was reading recently about how English is also the international language of the aviation industry (ie: those who build and maintain the planes), and who knows what other industries besides?! In this respect, English can feel like an oppressor that seems to exert an unfair dominance on many aspects of modern life. But English is also the language of cool. And protest – I see a lot of graffiti in English — “fuck cops” springs to mind, which I see often in Zuri.

Not that I’m complaining about winning the language lottery. Although, on some levels, being a native and only-English speaker makes me a bit sad. For one, I have try a lot harder to learn another language by the osmosis of popular culture (although being in a non-English-speaking country – sort of! – does help here). And then there’s the fact my “own” language will almost never be a “private” thing to me and my family – because everyone speaks a bit of English!

And yet, and yet… I do wonder.

I am starting to question if the sort of knowledge and understanding of English I have — as a native speaker, word spinner and language-lover —  is actually quite different to what a lot of English as a 2nd or 3rd language people have. Even so much as to almost call it a different beast. “Business English” or “Tourist English” as opposed to Anglophone English or even Australian English. That said, I have friends who are not native-English speakers whose language skills are, almost without exception, impressive to perfect. So English is certainly not an exclusive club only open to native speakers, by any means. In fact, having English as your mother tongue can even be a disadvantage, according to this article, which talks about how native-English speakers can run into trouble when doing business because their overly-deft use of the language alienates others.

However, for me, losing that deftness of language – skills I’ve spent my whole life honing and polishing – is a genuine concern. Because I do wonder if, by learning German and using German more and more, my English will suffer. Even if just a tiny bit, and that thought makes me feel unhappy. And I worry about this for my kids — I would hate to think of them ending up in a sort of Jack-of-all-trades,-master-of-none situation with several languages in their heads but no deep, wide and abiding knowledge of one in particular. (OK, probably unlikely to be an issue and certainly not at this stage!)

Back to the Bully Language thing: I hope I don’t sound like one of those Men’s Rights or White Rights assholes by complaining about this from my position of privilege. And hey, maybe I’m being a bit too precious about “my” language here. OK so it is one of my few marketable skills, but perhaps I should just chill the fuck out about it all. Is it true that you hold on tightest to something just as you’re about to let it go?

A disclaimer: I’ve been sitting on this post for more than a week now and I’m still not sure it perfectly expresses what I want to say, but it will have to do. I’ll no doubt revisit this topic again in future. In the meantime, I would be interested in your thoughts in the comments below, so… Publish and be damned!

What will work?

Helvetiaplatz

I haven’t had much time for this blog lately. Life has definitely got in the way! It feels like a new chapter in my Zurich life is beginning – or maybe it’s already begun. And that chapter is loosely titled: Work

I’ve been doing bits and pieces of work for a while, of course. Maybe I never really stopped. I seem to remember submitting in a very scattered piece of writing the week before I gave birth (thankfully salvaged by a kind editor who was aware of the situation and forgave not being up to my usual standards!) and I’ve been chipping away at various things ever since. Including taking on quite a lot (too much!) freelance while Himself was away for a month. It kept me sane. Or rather, helped me feel insane in a reassuringly familiar way.

But now things seem to have ramped up a notch. The baby is 8 months this week (time flies!) and I’m ready to put some regular childcare in place and increase, or at least formalise, my workload.

But

What about those German classes? I did a few back-of-envelope calculations this week during some much-needed downtime (thanks to Himself and the in-laws being around) and, well… I find myself in a bit of a quandary. Assuming I can find a childcare place for the baby (I’m thinking half-days at this stage) should I use that time to work, or to learn?

Work it, baby

Work it, baby

Picking up my German studies again is something I’ve been trying to do since I stopped prior to our Australia trip last October. It’s been a year. Oddly, despite thinking I’m “going backwards” by forgetting some of what I learnt, I actually feel more confident to bust out some Deutsch lately. Maybe it’s just my brain is so full of other stuff I have to give less fucks about being embarrassed. Tiny things like making myself say “Ich habe ein termin mit Laura” at the hairdresser instead of “I have an appointment with Laura” – which they would totally understand of course, but it’s so much better to attempt German. (and I’m sure I got tenses, articles and spellings wrong there, but the point is, I should say it anyway). Because otherwise, I just speak English and then I hear English in reply and how does that help?

And working is… work. I dunno. I’ve always worked. I like it. I get a lot of my personal identity out of the work I do. Maybe (probably) I identify more with being a writer-and-editor than I do with being a mum, for better or worse. I’ve done the latter for much longer, after all. So there’s that. Versus being a student, which I’m not exactly bad at, but maybe not great at either. I don’t know if I enjoy learning as much as… doing? Doing my job? Doing a job. Being a parent? Maybe I shouldn’t include parenting in the mix. It’s not something I can chose to do or not right now.

So working versus learning. It’s something familiar versus something new and challenging. But the familarity of work also has challenges within it. And, of course, I get paid for working. Whereas I have to pay to learn. Speaking to another expat recently (about a job), she said she didn’t feel 100% at home in Zurich until she joined the workforce here. And I get that.

Work can be fun

Work can be fun

Then again, there’s no doubt that learning more German will also help the assimilation process. And it will probably even enhance my career prospects in the long- or medium-term. Hell, maybe even in the shortish term if I can get to the stage where I could do basic translations/editing from German to English (with the help of Google no doubt!).

Work also stresses me. Quite a lot sometimes. Does language learning stress me? I think maybe not so much.

Assuming that I can, and will, work for the rest of my “working life”, but I can probably only learn German now, while we’re here in Switzerland (for however long that may be) I should probably take this opportunity… But if I have to pass on work to do so? Tough one. I guess I want to do a bit of both. But I don’t want to do a bad job on either. Hmm

I also have to give up some parenting time, particularly to do both. It’s quite a juggle. And time with friends? I haven’t yet attempted language learning while having a baby so that will also be interesting.

I read a really good article recently – Why Does Learning a new Language Feel Soo Bad? – about how we often feel it’s a moral failing if we haven’t mastered the local language. It really struck a chord with me. I don’t want to tie my self-worth up in German lessons. But I do seem to tie it up in the work I do (and in parenting, and maybe my social life). And now all these things are duking it out for my time. I’m not quite sure where that leaves me.