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Sprich Deutsch!

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on February 12, 2008 No Comment

The International House (endearingly truncated as “I-House“) at Cal affords an unparalleled multicultural and multilingual experience for residents, staff, members/visitors, and cafe regulars. In my six months here, I’ve witnessed and been engaged in numerous cross-cultural and cross-linguistic exchanges that have amused, moved, and confounded me. This blog focuses on linguistic interactions between a group of my fellow residents, all German Economics graduate students (in their early twenties), visiting Cal on a year-long study abroad program.

A constant source of tension and strife in the group dynamic is Markus’ (one of the exchange students) insistence on speaking in English to his fellow German friends (a group of about ten). The whole group is constantly thrown together because they take many of the same courses, and generally socialize together, and Markus’ insistence on speaking English is bitterly resented. As an “outlier” member of the German troupe, I have had an interesting vantage point from which to observe how this resentment has unfolded. Initially, I figured Markus spoke to others in English out of compassion for me, so I would not feel left out, with my poor command of German. [His direct interactions with me, however, were in French (we both were trying to increase our fluency) and English.] Every time I observed a conversation between Markus and other Germans, I sensed a marked irritation on the part of my German friends, and the reason for their anger did not require any complicated sleuthery; it was patently clear that Markus’ English usage was the prime source of friction.

Markus is not about to back down, even after six months of being at the receiving end of some very choice epithets. As he explained to me, “I’m only here for a year…I came to America not so I would spend all my time speaking in German to Germans….I came to America to practice my English! I want to practice as much as I can!” My other German friends, however see things differently; Edith, for example, says that speaking in English to fellow Germans makes one “pretentious.” Erika thinks it’s “unnatural,” and feels that if Markus wants to improve his English, he should do it with Americans. Uwe doesn’t like the “Germanic structure” of Markus’ English.

The friction has taken many forms: the German troupe has refused to respond to Markus if he spoke in English, threatened him with ostracism, openly confronted him on the issue, and, during a recent trip to Hawaii, they started the trend of charging him a quarter every time he used an English word; Markus, needless to say, has bought several pitchers of beers for the troupe [when I asked Markus why he paid up so easily when he could just use German, he said (1) he is not going to back down from using English and (2) he is paying for a good cause-drinking.]

I’ve found this issue very interesting on several different levels. Both sides are convinced they are right; Markus cannot understand why he should speak German in America, whereas the others do not understand why they would need to resort to speaking in a foreign language with a native speaker of their mother tongue. Markus is constantly frustrated but perseveres in his English use, whereas the troupe is constantly angry and equally adamant in their beliefs. Markus spatializes his language use, whereas the others think language use should be a function of the immediate community with which one interacts. For Markus, this is an incredible opportunity to exploit the immersion context for FL acquisition; the troupe, I think, embraces the touch of home German represents for them. As Edith told me, only half tongue-in-cheek, “We’re protecting the German language!”

I’m not quite sure if this will ever be resolved…three more months to go. However, I have a feeling Markus is paying for many more pitchers of beer this semester. I don’t think he’ll be complaining too much. It, as he notes, is for a good cause.

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