The Expat Language and Culture Dilemma or "Can't we all just get along?"


This post was originally intended as a comment on the blog post ‘“Wie, bitte?” Ranting back at Exberliner’ by Lauren Oyler on the überlin blog, which in turn was a response to the article ‘RANT! “Sorry, no German!”’ by Julie Colthorpe on the Exberliner blog. But my comment ended up being so long, personal and possibly slightly off topic that I thought it would be more fitting on my own blog.
In short, Julie Colthorpe had an issue with expats not learning German: “The problem is the blasé nonchalant attitude that some expats adopt when it comes to speaking the language of their adopted country: they don’t.”

Lauren Oyler responded from her perspective that speaking German in Berlin is not a necessity: “Here, you can avoid that if you want to, but people — usually non-native German speakers — will scold you for it.”

Please read those articles to get the whole scoop, since summing them up in one sentence doesn’t do them justice.

Mietschuldenfreiheitsbescheinigung is a word you might need to learn if you want to rent your own apartment in Germany. Or you can ask one of your German friends to translate for you.

So much has already been said by the original article in Exberliner, in the response post on überlin and in the myriad of comments on those articles. I still feel compelled to add my opinions, because I always feel the urge to express myself, which is a reason why I try to learn at least some basics of the language of whatever country I am in.

First of all, I have mixed feelings about the core question: should foreigners (Aylanten, Gastarbeiter, Expats… all Auslaender) learn the native language? Should it be a requirement? Should it be a question of shame?

When pressed for a definition of my status, I refer to myself as a German New Yorker in Berlin or an ex-expat. Born and raised in Hamburg, Germany I ended up living most of my adult life in the US, mainly in Brooklyn, NY. That is about 16 years of living as an expat without being aware of the term expat or socializing much with other Europeans. I had fully integrated and became a New Yorker, with body, soul and language.  

When a few years ago I realized that my German had an American accent and I was losing my connection to my family and culture, I decided to return to Germany temporarily and have been living in both Berlin and Brooklyn for the last three years.

The main reason why I moved to Berlin, not my hometown Hamburg: EXPATS!

First and foremost, I needed to find a city in my Vaterland where my Floridian New Yorker husband could communicate, work and generally feel comfortable during his first expat experience. While he had taken several semesters of German and lived with me for over a decade in the US, his German language skills weren’t perfect yet.

Second of all, it was also about where I could feel at home. Maybe it started when I was an exchange student in Florida, maybe it started when I read “Als Hitler das rosa Kaninchen stahl” in elementary school – but I just can’t quite identify with being “German”. There are too many political, social, educational reasons to name why I can’t identify with being “American” – but I wholeheartedly identify with being a (German-raised) New Yorker because of New York’s diversity in people, culture, art, business, economics, food and language etc. In Brooklyn alone there are 136 different languages spoken by people of 150 nationalities. In Berlin 26% of the population has a migration background, representing 184 nationalities!

Places like Berlin and New York seem so great because you can come from anywhere and feel home amongst people from anywhere who are open to people from anywhere. It’s the idea of a global community that I embrace and envision to be our future. All you need to communicate are some basic skills in a common language; and as of right now, that is still English among most travelers, expats, international businesses, media and educational systems.

I celebrate the idea that in a country where the native language is German, people can live without being ostracized for only speaking English. Imagine a world without discrimination where we can all communicate and get along!

But because we celebrate diversity and otherness, we should also embrace the native culture. Isn’t it a no-brainer that you’d want to learn at least the basics of the native language wherever you live, even wherever you travel to? Don’t you want to be understood and ensure that you understand what’s going on around you? Not to mention enjoying all that this culture has to offer, including films, books, music, etc.

My husband’s frustration with language in such a global city was that whenever he tried to speak German, Germans would notoriously respond in English, because most of them seem to enjoy honing their English language skills just as much as he liked practicing his German.

German is a tough language to learn. Maybe we can help our foreign friends not by scolding if they hide out amongst other foreigners in an Australian breakfast spot, American burger place or Turkish tea house, but by patiently encouraging them to express themselves in rudimentary, grammatically-weak Deutsch and by dropping a few German nouns or verbs every once in a while. Embrace, don’t judge.

When speaking about language diversity on foreign soil, we also speak about culture in general; and as we move into the age of a global society there is the anxiety of losing one’s culture.  Then it becomes a question of making efforts to preserve a language and specific culture – both the native as well as the foreign.

Some US citizens fear that through the large Spanish-speaking population American culture and language will get lost – at least in some areas. Already in Miami street signs come in both languages. When you call customer service numbers, there is usually the option to switch to the Spanish menu.

In Germany we have a large Turkish population, which in my eyes has the right to preserve their own culture and language. Why shouldn’t they have their Turkish-language cafes or meeting places?

While I lived in America I didn’t seek out any Germans, as I mentioned I totally integrated. But I did look with a little envy at my Irish friends who could socialize naturally at Manhattan Irish pubs and reminisce about the old country. In the long run I realized that I suffered from having cut myself off from my culture, my language and my roots. This is why I had to return to Germany and why today I embrace keeping alive my American/NYC and my expat culture by going to the American burger place (even though I’m a vegetarian) or that Californian bar or soon that Australian breakfast spot in Neukoelln that I found out about through the Exberliner article.  

On the other hand, the first generation people who have moved here as adults run into serious problems if they can’t communicate. My mother was the principal of an elementary school, which had a sizable Turkish student body. The children usually spoke German – but some of the parents didn’t. So the kids or other adults had to translate. And then my mother decided to learn Turkish. Embrace, make an effort.

Our world is continuously changing, it is becoming more global. I don’t think it’s a process we can stop. Tribes move, languages change, cultures adapt. It’s just the process of evolution.

I am delighted and proud of my international family. My mother’s sister married a French man and moved to France, where I now have French cousins with children; my husband is American and with him I gained a lovely Southern family; my brother’s girlfriend is half-Swedish and their son grows up speaking German, Swedish and English.

I wish we could all embrace each other’s diversity, make an effort to understand each other – on both sides, the natives and the expats. Share each other’s cultures, learn each others languages, but also be understanding of those who want to preserve and celebrate their own language, culture and community. Let’s appreciate the diversity and stop hating so much.

Can’t we all just get along? 
Koennen wir nicht alle einfach miteinander auskommen?