Guten Tag, Frau Schmidt

In the office the other day my colleague was in a quandary. “But I don’t know whether to write ‘Du’ or ‘Sie’”, she said, brow furrowed, “I’ll have to text my friend and find out what she says to her.” The “Du” / “Sie” under discussion was a cleaner, recommended by a friend. My colleague had the mobile phone number but no knowledge of the cleaner’s age or general attitude to linguistic formality. For non-native speakers and students of German, the “Du” or “Sie” dilemma is all too familiar, but here was a born-and-bred German stumbling through the same maze of uncertainty.

The assumption that Germans just know this sort of detail – imbibed through years of interacting with aged relatives over Kaffee und Kuchen – no longer holds true. Customs have changed: some Germans and some parts of Germany have become less formal, it seems. The challenge now lies in knowing which ones. My colleague did not want to offend an older lady with the informal “Du”, nor to come across as a fusty stickler for tradition with a bright young thing. “If only I could write to her in English,” she bemoaned, “A simple ‘you’ would be so much easier.”

In the olden days – a mere fifteen years ago would suffice – the answer would have been clear to all Germans. “Sie” for anyone older, a stranger, or a distant acquaintance; “Du” for close friends and family. Neighbours and colleagues would fall into two camps. Those you had an intimate friendship with who had offered you the “Du”, and a brief “Sie“, plus head-nod on the stairs for anyone else.  Continue reading

Who am I, really? Talking Identity with German Freshmen

IMG_0317I’ve been living in Germany for 4 years now, three of which I’m spent teaching first year students at a private university in Cologne. More than anything else, this experience has taught me humility; I realize now just how thankful I should be that I’m not 19 anymore. Teaching at the university has given me the opportunity to speak to thousands of kids, most of whom exhibit a curiosity bordering on incredulity when I tell them I’m from Chicago, a reaction that I still can’t really understand. More often than not, their general interest in my background sparks a conversation about our two countries, the most interesting parts of which relate to how my students see themselves and their country.

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The Expat Trap

I’ve been living in Germany for about two years. From time to time I meet up with other English speakers in cafes or restaurants just to get that “fix” of speaking my native tongue at full speed complete with cultural references and a chance to drop my guard. Being in a foreign culture you tend to be guarded with respect to things you say and expect simply because people behave so differently in your host country.

In the time that I’ve been here, I’ve noticed something. Generally speaking, there are two types of expats. Integrated or potentially integrated are the first type. The second type are the non-integrated. The first group are difficult to pick out of crowd, by their very nature of blending into their host society.

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The downside of English as the universal language

Why is it that many Anglophones seriously consider going to Germany to work when they have zero German skills? A German would never for an instant think that he/she could go to Britain or the United States to work without knowing English well. So why would it be OK for English-speakers to live and work in Germany with minimal German skills?

Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? After all, isn’t English the universal language? Don’t many global companies in Germany use English as their “official” language? Everyone in Germany speaks English, right? — Well, the answer is a definite jein (German for “maybe” or “yes and no”).

ice cream

Just because German businesses often use English in their advertising does not mean expats do not need to learn German.
PHOTO: Chloë D

If you don’t know that English has become the de facto universal language (Weltsprache in German), what cave have you been living in? English dominates academia and the world of international business, especially in Europe. A 2008 survey found that 90 percent of European students study English at some stage of their education. (“Study” does not always mean “learn.” French and German are the most popular but distant runners-up.) A recent article in The Economist states that about 60 percent of young Europeans speak English “well” or “very well.” (Note that it does not say 60 percent of “all” Europeans, just those in the 15-24 range, and even that figure should be taken with a grain of salt, since it includes young native speakers of English.) Even in China, nearly 60 percent of primary school children now get English lessons!

The Economist article also mentions that many European newspapers and magazines, including Germany’s Der Spiegel news magazine, now publish online editions in English, in addition to the local language. This means that many Europeans (and Americans) can follow events and issues that they otherwise would not know about — in English. In fact, Der Spiegel is trying to establish a “pan-European network” that aggregates English websites published by periodicals in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, France, and other European countries. A Dutch journalist points out that “very fine pieces” are published in Dutch that “the rest of the world never notices.” English makes such articles accessible to many more readers who don’t know Dutch. Continue reading