Everyone of us, I believe, has travelled at one point or another in our lives, be it for business or for leisure. For overseas travel, one of the most often asked questions, when planning or preparing for the trip, would be “do they speak english over there?’.
I grew up with English as my second language, and got to be quite proficient at it, if I may say so. Knowing that you are fluent in English does give you the confidence whenever and wherever you travel, as rightly or wrongly, English is accepted as a universal language spoken widely all over the world, many thanks to Hollywood and Rock n Roll.
When I was offered, in late 1986, to undertake a course in Germany sponsored by the Carl-Duisberg-Gesellschaft (CDG), my natural reaction was to say yes. It did not dawn on me until a few days later that the course was for one and a half years, and the language of instruction was German. Being young (I was 25 then), I did not worry too much about it. At least, think of the experience I would have gained, I thought. A new country and a new culture. A new language, if I’m lucky.
After much preparation, the day came when I finally boarded the plane to Germany. The Lufthansa flight was from Kuala Lumpur to Frankfurt-am-Main and from there, another flight to Saarbruecken, where I would be based for the first few months, near the French border. And if I had any misconceptions of what was in store for me, it was cleared up when the cabin crew delivered the safety instructions in German.
It hit me then, and I asked myself the age old question whenever you realized that you may have made a big bad boo-boo, what did I let myself in for. One and a half years of living in a country whose lingua franca was German and not English, a language that I was comfortable with. One and a half years of trying to learn something technical, in German. Could I cope? Would I survive? Would I ever be the same?
Luckily the flight was long, long enough for me to calm down and prepare myself to face the next one and a half years. By the time we landed at Frankfurt-am-Main, I was ready. But first, we had to deal with the case of a flight cancelled, due to engine trouble (not always a good sign of things to come, if you are supersitious and why must it always be engine trouble?) and of a long and unplanned coach ride to Saarbruecken (introduction to seeing people drive on the wrong side of the road).
Upon arrival in Saarbruecken, we were delivered to our designated boarding house. It was more like an apartment block and apparently, it was sort of a clearing house for all CDG sponsored newcomers to Germany. We had different nationalities there ; Asians, South Americans and Africans. Conversations in English, Spanish and French filled the air as we get ourselves familiarised with the new environment. Nothing German about it, or so I thought.
The first few months was dedicated to getting us familiarised with the German way of life, its culture, its politics and of course, its language. We had a very friendly language instructor who taught us the fundamentals of learning the German language. We were given the priviledge to ask questions in either English, Spanish and French on that very first day and that first day would also be our last, with respect to our usage of the English, Spanish and French languages for we will not be entertained thereafter.
Sounds harsh? Well, if ever you want to learn a new language, it is a very good idea to be totally immersed in the language, from TV programs, to shopping and even to converse. It is already an advantage that the environment is very conducive to learning the new language.
Admittedly, it was quite an experience getting on the bus heading to downtown Saarbruecken, hearing the language being spoken in its natural environment, deciphering all the signboards at the supermarkets and malls, paying for the foofstuff in deutschmarks (then), and one of the the biggest test of them all, ordering food or drinks, from the menu, at the local restaurant and that when the food is finally on the table, it was what you actually wanted and not something else entirely.
Its was also an experience watching German TV. You know you have gotten somewhere when you somehow understood what they were saying on TV.
In Malaysia, we do not see the need to have TV programs translated into Bahasa Malaysia, which is the national language. Instead we rely on subtitles to help us understand and so, Malaysian TV have a combination of movies and TV series in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Hindi, Tamil, Arabic and whatever language that comes under the sun.
It is, however, not the case in Germany then. Ever tried watching the American TV series “Dallas’ in German? The most memorable line that I could ever remember from that series was Sue Ellen telling JR Ewing, ‘JR, du bist schwein’. Yes, JR was a scoundrel but somehow, telling JR that he was a pig in German sounded so much better and somehow, hilarious at the same time.
Another word would be ‘Idiot’. In English, it sounds demeaning but for me, it sounded both insulting and funny at the same time whenever I hear it pronounced the German way. Try asking anybody who can speak German to pronounce the word and maybe, you’ll understand why.
One of the most often used phrases that we picked up was ‘Sonst noch was?’. If you go to a restaurant or a cornershop, you’ll be posed this question and if you are done with your order, your reply would be ‘Nein, danke’. For the uninitiated, it means “Will there be anything else?’ and “No, thank you’ respectively.
And I must say, the German language can ever be so polite with “Bitte schoen” and “Danke schoen” always part of the conversation.
Learning a new language can be fun even if you are at an age when learning another language can be quite tedious and downright boring. But if you ever get stuck in Germany or Austria or Switzerland, it may prove handy especially if you are asking for directions to the nearest toilet and you are out of dance moves.
Bis naechtes Mal, Auf Wiedersehen.