Ripped from the headlines in Germany, YouTube has shamed and ridiculed yet another public figure, this time former Baden-Württemberg’s Minister President and now Germany’s European Union Commissioner, Günther Oettinger.
The widely circulated video is of Oettinger painfully stumbling through a speech clearly neither drafted nor rehearsed by him. The point of the speech, recently held in Berlin at a Columbia University hosted event, and Mr Oettinger’s main message as the new EU Energy Commissioner are unfortunately lost, overshadowed instead by Mr Oettinger’s inability to pronounce many of the more “challenging” words such as “justifiable,” “interference,” and “initiative” and making other words such as “does” and “otherwise” unrecognizable. Already known for his rather distinctive way of speaking in German (read here: he has a very heavy Swabian accent), Oettinger managed to “swabianize” English. The well-known Baden-Württemberg tagline, “we can do everything except speak high German” has been refashioned by commentators to, “wir können alles außer Hochdeutsch – und Englisch!” along with the terms “schwänglisch” and “Spätzle-Englisch.” What made this all the more humiliating perhaps is that the YouTube video included footage of Mr Oettinger emphasizing how all Germans, regardless of their profession, must be able to speak and understand English.
The video was indeed cringeworthy for all those who watched as well as laughable. Since my family and I live in the heart of Mr Oettinger’s home turf here in “Schwabenland” or Swabia, everybody has been talking about this video. My circle of English teacher friends and I have been shaking our heads wondering how he could have tried delivering such a speech with such poor preparation; he clearly needs a new language coach! My husband’s colleagues, nearly all German and many Swabian, were mostly horrified. They were ashamed that Oettinger, in his now more prominent and international position, had so poorly represented Germany. Their fear was that everyone else would now be laughing at Germans.
Last Friday evening, as my husband and I were enjoying a rare evening out by ourselves (ohne Kinder!), a party of ten Swabians were also dining out in the otherwise empty restaurant. (The snow seemed to keep most people at home.) It was impossible not to overhear their discussion. Rather than being outraged by Oettinger’s poor English language skills, they were more upset by the fact that he was being ridiculed at all: “The EU is full of so many translators anyway; that’s what they are there for!” “That American woman on Johannes B Kerner’s show, who criticized Oettinger, spoke such horrible German herself and the Amis, British and French never bother to learn German anyway! Why do they ridicule Oettinger who is at least trying?!” “What was important was not his English, rather what’s in his brain!” Clearly, they were not so pleased that their native son had not only become the butt of many national jokes, but that this had gone international!
I don’t think these people have to worry. Sure, this recent YouTube debacle has been fodder for perpetuating stereotypes of Germans and their accents. (Remember that great Berlitz ad: “Mayday, Mayday! We’re sinking! We’re sinking!” and the German coast guard radio controller answers, “What are you thinking about?”) But while Mr Oettinger absolutely needs to improve his language skills (otherwise we will continue to not understand what his brain is trying to tell us without a transcript!), I don’t think this has been a PR disaster for the rest of Germany.