Learning Doitch

The ‘language issue’ might have determined the whole course of my life here in Europe.

I got three shocks when I first came to Germany.

Firstly, it was as if my entire savings had been wiped out by a bank failure, as if I’d gone bankrupt. My English was suddenly worthless – like a currency that was no longer valid. Secondly, coming from a country where the kind of English you spoke practically decided your class, category and social status, it was surprising to find a developed, prosperous, western nation doing entirely without it. The Germans seemed to manage with their German. Translators and interpreters saw to the rest, where languages rubbed shoulders. Thirdly, I hadn’t known how difficult it would be to learn German, to attain the same level of proficiency in German as in English.

But I was perceptive. There were certain things which I saw or realized, some at once, some with the passage of time: that language or languages are a part of the geography of a continent, you can’t disregard them any more than you can disregard the Alps. Language represents the true borders of a country, its defences, its Siegfried and Maginot Lines – even its Chinese Wall! Nation means physiognomy, language and religion, in that order. These are the things that bind and the things that separate tribes, and keep them strictly divided from one another. Languages leave their mark on history and bear its imprint, in their turn. One can, with a certain effort of the imagination, conceive of a world with only one, or no religion, even a world where physiognomy and skin colour and the other anthropoid characteristics do not play a role – but it is difficult to imagine a world in which everybody speaks the same language, makes the same sounds to signify the same things – unless we all start speaking in smileys. Otherwise there will always be ‘us’ and ‘them’, meaning the others, once called barbarians, today simply foreigners or aliens. Or at best everybody will have to turn multilingual on an unprecedented scale – and we’ll have to demarcate the operative areas of the various languages as well: English will be the language of politics and poetry, Japanese of trade and industry, American of armaments and entertainment, German of law and order, French of love, Chinese of dogma, Italian of domesticity, Arabic of religion, Russian of the Black Market, Polish of immigration, Spanish of unemployment, Hindi of poverty and Swahili of starvation. Some such scheme.

And then there’s the question of the accent. In those early days, I was vastly surprised to see a Samaranch or a Perez de Cuellar speak a very curious kind of English, to say the least, and apparently nobody sniggered. Somebody like Kohl, the Chancellor of a mighty nation, might even need an interpreter to translate President Bush’s golfing jokes to him. Kennedy once declared, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, ‘I am a Berliner’ (which is otherwise a kind of sugared bun with marmalade in it), in an atrocious accent, and won the heart of the German nation. So it wasn’t necessary to speak everybody’s language with perfect ease, after all, or was it? Then why were the Turks laughed at here in Germany? Why was an ‘Indian’ accent so incorrigibly funny in Britain?

That was another problem: you learnt their language, they wanted you to get the right accent; you did that, and they wanted you to change the way you dressed, you cooked, you prayed, you beat your wife; you did that, and they wanted you to change the colour of your skin.

In any case, the main division in Germany was between those who spoke German, and those who didn’t, or spoke only in infinitives. The main division in the world was between people, otherwise dumb, ignorant people like you and me, who’d had the chance to learn a language from the age and the stage of an unaborted foetus upwards, and learnt it badly, but were still ‘natural’ to those parts by the joint operation of jus soli and jus sanguinis, and the others who had begun far too late, their heads and hearts full of some other kind of gibberish, their tongues twisted out of shape by other vowels, syllabic liquids, dipthongs, voiced and voiceless, aspirate or unaspirated or nasal, velar, palatal, retroflex, dental or labial consonants, not to mention the conjunct ones.

I found myself relegated to the second category and had no intention of remaining there. What I hadn’t taken into account was the fact that when an Indian spoke English, there was at least a major historical accident behind it. But when an Indian spoke German, it was a purely personal accident. And it has remained just that – a source of permanent despair and perpetual pain.

Learning Doitch. I did my best, of course, but I had difficulty remembering the gender and the appropriate articles, conjugating the verbs, declining the adjectives, forming plurals, deciding the cases, forming the participles of the strong verbs, keeping the various meanings of the weak, separable verbs separate in accordance with the respective prefixes, which are basically prepositions. The vocabulary had to be acquired. But English and German words often tend to sound similar, with just that shade of difference in the meaning. And English idioms cause so much of incomprehension here in Germany that it is fatal to use them in translation. And one should simply forget the prepositional idioms – which are basically the English equivalent of German separable verbs. One should either stick to the German separable verbs, if any alien has ever succeeded in mastering them, or even venture farther afield into German idioms, which are as phlegmatic as oxen waiting to be yoked.

The battle between German and English had begun, my poor Bengali mind caught between the mighty armies of two European languages, Dunkirk, German on the advance, English retreating.

I was there.

(To be contd.)


‘Good English, bad German’

 No, we’re not talking of the war comics and the war films of yore, we are talking about what I call the Subcontinental Syndrome – one could call it the Colonial Syndrome as well. It means the ability to spend half-a-lifetime or more in a non-English-speaking foreign country without learning, really learning, earnestly learning the language of that country – but relying on our baboo-to-brown-sahib Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi English to see us through and salvage our honour.

Take Germany. Like as not you will meet the one or the other of these long-haired, dreamy-eyed, willowy young men just arrived from Mumbai or Delhi to join his German lady love who – the young man – will evince Bertie Wooster’s mentality in all its parochialism and insularity: why are the Germans such asses, Jeeves, why can’t they speak English? The original Bertie was musing about Frenchmen, of course.

My Bertie simply couldn’t accept the fact that the Germans still insisted on speaking German in the Twenty-First Century – despite Windows & Word & Google & Facebook & YouTube & Twitter. Didn’t they lose the war? Yes, but they did not lose their language. And my Bertie will have to learn it if he intends to find (i) meaningful occupation and (ii) social acceptance in this German-speaking country.

And then my Bertie will complain about how pop songs sound so funny in German. ‘To your ears,’ I tell Bertie, to stop his giggling. ‘Look,’ I tell him, ‘would you like the Germans to laugh when they see our Ambassadors & Marutis simply because they’ve got their Audis & BMWs & Volkswagen & Mercedes?’ ‘Do they?’ Bertie was on the warpath at once. ‘No, they sell you their Audis etc., right down to Porsches,’ I told the young man – I think Audi had just held a road show with camels and elephants all the way from Rajasthan to New Delhi at around that time but I might be mistaken. You’ll have to ask Bertie.

And so it will go on. I will have to explain to this perfectly sane and well-educated young man from India that even Angshu Jain was addressing the shareholders of the Deutsche Bank in German towards the end. The Germans like English as we Indians like our chutneys and our pickles – to spice things up and to show that they are on the up and up, that they are knowledgeable, that they are cosmopolitan, that they’ve been holidaying in English-speaking countries ever since they were this high ironing out all misunderstandings with their Deutschmarks and their Euros.

Talk English to them, by all means – especially to your girlfriend, it’s how she fell in love with you, remember? – but don’t tax their patience – I tell Bertie. There will be a point beyond which they will stop listening and start smiling that hard, polite German smile of theirs which says, ‘I’ve got more patience than this fool’. Which will make you come out with your latest acquirement in German, how you can say Guten Tag and Auf Wiesbaden, that’s Good Day and See You, isn’t it? Then why are they all laughing? ‘It’s Auf Wiedersehen, Schatz’ – Treasure or Darling – his German girlfriend will tell Bertie, ‘Wiesbaden is the town we went to, remember?’

Bertie will have to remember for the next thirty years of his life – as I had to – that they speak German in Germany as they speak Chinese in China, Japanese in Japan, Polish in Poland and Finnish in – forget it. Bertie will not listen to a battle-scarred language veteran like me but join the language-impaired, language-disabled, language-challenged of the world and become a permanent member of our Good English, Bad German club.

Met Bertie’s five-year-old son the other day – perfect German, as was only to be expected, but what about his father tongue, which is supposed to be Hindi? The way the little angel spoke the rashtrabhasha, his own nani, that’s the grandmother, wouldn’t have recognised it, neither on the mother’s side nor on the father’s side.

Heads you win, tails I lose – as I was telling Bertie…

English Made Me

What a confession!

The reference – for those who have not guessed already – is to Graham Greene’s ‘England Made Me’. As I tell young men to this day: go and fall in love with somebody else’s daughter if you must, but don’t you go falling in love with somebody else’s language. I did both. And then I landed in Germany, the kind of evolutionary challenge Darwin would have recognised: will my English survive or will it wither on the stony German soil? All because of my English, learning Doitch was turning out to be not just tough but uproariously funny:-

Herr Kampmann: Good Day, Herr Artmann!

Herr Artmann: Good Day, Herr Kampmann!

Herr Kampmann: How goes it You?

Herr Artmann: Thanks good. And You?

Herr Kampmann: Thanks, it goes. Where come You?

Herr Artmann: I come out of Munich.

Herr Kampmann: And whereto travel You?

Herr Artmann: I travel to Bremen.

Herr Kampmann: Live You in Bremen?

Herr Artmann: Yes, I live now in Bremen.

Herr Kampmann: You excuse, Herr Artmann, my Train! To seeing you again!

Herr Artmann: To seeing you again! And good Journey!

This was Grundstufe Eins, that’s Basic Level One, to be followed by Basic Level Two and then Mittelstufe Eins, that’s Middle School – what the hell, they must mean Middle Level One. Well, whatever it is – or was – we were now dealing with texts like:-

One Cardriver strikes with another Cardriver, who from left comes, and whom he coming saw, together (separable verb ‘togetherstrike’), because he Right of Way has – what presses he with that ex (separable verb ‘express’)? Somewhat only his Right of Way? What forces him, himself this Right to take, since he thereby himself and one other nearly the Life takes? What obstructs him, his Need above his Right to put, to whose Realisation this Right after all there had to be? How great must the Maltreatment of his Needs be, so that he the Means to their Realisation for that uses, their Realisation to prevent? Where are, except in Street-intercourse, these Needs so maltreated?

It wasn’t the fault of that very pragmatic and rational language called German that an ex-colonial expat from India was transliterating everything into English in his head and laughing himself silly in the process. He was not laughing himself silly, he was being silly – the Germans would have told him, had they not been so polite. Since then, they’ve been praising my (by now half-baked, though no longer broken) German and completely disregarding my English, overlooking it altogether. Why? Because I’m not a native speaker. What’s a native speaker? Does it mean a native – in those early days of missionising and colonising – who has just learnt how to speak, instead of communicating his thoughts and emotions in terms of grunts and squeaks? Later, it could have meant (I’m just guessing) a native who has learnt to speak English. Ultimately a native speaker is one who was born speaking English – or maybe just hearing English? ‘Hey, if that’s my son, how come he’s got (or has not got) blue eyes and blond hair?’ Though that should apply to all other languages as well (just change the colour of the eyes and the hair), except pidgin, patois and Indian English.

Well, let’s say a native speaker is something like champagne being champagne only if it comes from Champagne, everything else being sparkling wine. Similarly, my English is neither gorgonzola nor mozzarella, it’s just mouldy Indian English – and who has heard of English growing in India after the British left?

And there was I, feeling as if I’d been dropped behind enemy lines during WWII, or at least like Le Carré’s spy before he came in from the cold (war?). I was feeling as intensely British as in a war movie or a war comic of my Kolkata schooldays, while mildly concerned German friends were asking me if I was feeling unwell.

Tell us about Bengali – they’d be saying, to cheer me up or to distract me, even sitting up in their sofas and couches in their enthusiasm. Now, Bengali, that is your mother tongue, is it not? What kind of a language is that?

Why don’t you go and ask the British? I told them. After all, they had been in Bengal for more than two hundred years. Should be ruddy native speakers by now.

(To be continued)