Wednesday, 7 November 2012

More musings on language etc.  I was talking about the power of our level of fluency in a foreign language to unconsciously influence the perceptions of others, and I KNOW I've waffled on about such things before, but I couldn't find the relevant post (goodness I write far more than I think I do!).  Apologies therefore to those who have been bored by this subject before!

What brought this on was the realisation that of the books I am currently reading, two of the "just for the heck of it" category are in German.  That is a definite first.  I have previously read books in German very conscientously, as self-assigned "homework".  Somehow I appear to have got to the stage where they have shuffled over into pleasure rather than duty.  I am very pleased by this; it represents a step change in my reading of the German language which means there are now thousands of books which I haven't read available to me at my local library!!  (You probably won't appreciate this excitement unless you are also an expat bookworm, mind).  (Another drawback is often having to fish a dictionary out of the assorted cushions whilst making the bed, but we'll pass swiftly over that one.)

Interestingly, I have recently noted a slight impatience in the response of native speakers to my attempts at German.  Took me a while to work out what that was about; it would appear that because I have tried (I cannot help BUT try, somehow it is hardwired into my being) to cultivate a native accent, then the better I get at the language, the fewer mistakes are tolerated.  I was a little freaked out by this at first.  However then I got thinking about a good friend of mine whose first language was NOT English, but who spent a certain amount of time in Hawaii whilst growing up.  He sounds American.  However sometimes, due to English being in effect his third language, he makes grammatical mistakes.  And those mistakes are FAR more shocking than those of people speaking with a noticeable accent.  They jar.  And therefore I am actually more inspired by such disapproval, rather than dispirited.

The original subject I wrote about (somewhere) was the disdain which is often felt for those who don't speak "our" language.  It's not a conscious decision, that; but the automatic assumption of superiority is only really obvious once you've experienced the other side.  Once you've sat there, Cambridge degree totally useless in the circumstances, helplessly allowing strangers to judge you  by your lack of witty response to the topic (the time lag involved in translating the subject laboriously into your native language, thinking of something decent to say, then translating it back, basically means that it's inevitable that you're going to be at least three topics behind.)  This realisation means that (damn it! it was so easy!!) you are never again going to be able to dismiss someone simply because he or she does not have complete command of your language.  You now know that a lack of fluency does not automatically mean a lack of thought.  It's a powerful realisation, and one which can really connect those of us reckless enough to charge into learning another language.  I do really feel, however, that at least trying to learn such languages allows us slightly more intimate insights.  Damned bloody hard work.  But maybe worth it.

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