This is a scene too familiar to English-speaking immigrants: You speak the language of the country in which you live to a native of that country. They turn around and speak English to you, even telling you they thought that you spoke English to them, when that clearly was not the case. People use words like you are an “international” in a “host country.” Other times people say you are an “expat” who is “practicing” the language of your “host country.” While on a semantic level, these words are non-derogatory and can carry upper-class connotations, the pragmatics denote otherness.
The world runs on compromised English, known as “international English.” That might be comfortable for some, but puts us long-term English-speaking immigrants in a predicament.
I have had numerous discussions with Northern Europeans about the issue of people constantly switching to English when a foreigner, especially an English speaker, speaks their language. Some people have told me that their group of language speakers is small, thus they are sensitive to mistakes, limited vocabulary and errors. Other people have told me that foreigners who speak their language sound terrible. One manager told me English speakers have “coffee Swedish,” meaning she would shoot the breeze with them over coffee in Swedish, but never have the confidence in their abilities to complete professional tasks in her native language. According to her, she never tested the waters.
Then there is the politeness explanation, which might sometimes be true, but which I suspect is also tinged with the desire to show the world how worldly one is and get a bit of free English lessons. I often get the impression that Germans (and other Europeans) insist on speaking English as a self-expression of faux-worldliness and pseudo-openness. Recently, I have even had Germans get offended at me for speaking German to them IN Germany, as if a native English-speaker who can speak German fluently is unnatural and against the rules of common decency. It seems impossible for some people to imagine that the quickest way to get to a mutual understanding is actually in German, because after two decades, my German is better than their “international English.” Beyond efficiency, there is true openness. Those who are worldly and open in the true sense of the words know that sharing one’s language is the best way to breed diversity. English speakers (or other immigrants) are here to further their own goals and perspectives in life, not exist as free language classes and costume jewelry for a so-called open society.
The roll of the eye at the Yanks or other Anglos who don’t have the simple courtesy to learn the local language has a backhanded omnipresence in circles where Northern Europeans and “internationals” share a space. I have often told people the open-mindedness of Anglos goes unappreciated. We politely nod as others slaughter our language, if we mirror those standards that are put on us in order for people to accept our German (Swedish, etc). “International English” is not the same as English that is spoken in the US, UK and other Anglophone countries. (see above paragraphs for the response to those complaints)
People often think that I am Dutch or French when I speak German, which I am happy about. Once I am perceived as a non-English speaker, people don’t switch to English. At a dinner where people admitted to thinking that I was Dutch, I asked the table about why they would be less likely to switch to English with a Dutch person than with an American, as a Dutch person might speak better English than German. The Germans said because they don’t know Dutch. The instinctual switch just didn’t happen.
My son goes to a bilingual German-American school, which is a sought-after public school with a special status in Berlin. My observation has been that parents attach an emotional significance to their children’s attendance at that school. Some see it as a lifeline to an American community. Others see its prestige and access to English as a social ladder. And everything in between. Thus, it was no surprise that the school’s open presentation of its bi-lingual concept encompassed emotional reactions and discussion from the parents. Language acquisition, categorization (there are different tracks and levels of language) and priority thereof is a statement of self, belonging and direction. Few things define us as much as the categorization based on the way we communicate with the world through words.
According to Wikipedia, almost 120000 Americans live in Germany. While there has been little research as to the demographics and permanence of this population- or similar populations, many people in Berlin and other international hubs have noticed an influx of English-speakers and other “internationals” who come here to work with open-end plans. There even exists an industry of English-language apartment searches and similar services, complete with websites with step-by-step instructions how to set-up an English-speaking life in a non-English speaking country.
It is possible to live in Berlin and speak no German. Yet is that desirable? A German-born Berliner would know that a lack of German knowledge is extremely limiting. I have seen many Germans enjoying the English-language-international-coolness of Berlin Meetups. Germans freely go between the international circles and their private German lives. Those private German lives exist in a space that is largely inaccessible to non-Germans due to language barriers and personal networks (which are also contingent on language acquisition). In my experience, the personal networks of German (and other European populations) were more porous to “internationals.” I saw more mixed native-international groups of friends in the earlier part of the last decade and in the aughts. American immigrants who came to Germany in the 1990’s, according to my observations, have tended to learn German. More recent arrivals from the US, I have noticed, take more time to get acclimated and tend to remain within “international” circles. My hypothesis is that the world is getting more insular and groups don’t discuss and mix as much as they used to, unfortunately.
If we were talking about other languages (Arabic and Turkish in Europe, Spanish in the USA, for example), natives would be up in arms about lack of integration. English though has a different status. Yet, the permanence of English-speaking populations raises the same questions as with other more scrutinized populations.
Going forward, both the migrants and the natives will have to consider how to treat language. The conversation of immigration and integration will eventually repeat itself with English speakers in Berlin and similar geographies. Children are born to English-speaking families and grow up in Germany. English speakers spend decades in Germany. What is most visible to the broader society is that English speakers live in a bubble and never bother to learn the language of their “host” country. Many English speakers I know do achieve professional-level fluency AND see Berlin (or other cities) as their HOME. These people cease being “internationals” and become part of the society and their “host country” will be their HOME. My hypothesis is that there is some confirmation bias as to why the latter group is largely ignored and people complain about the “lazy” Americans.
The languages we use, are spoken to, given access to are a question of survival. Language is visceral. Language is identity, job opportunity, place in society, place in the world, the self-narrative and the filter through which the world perceives us all.
Language is the key to integration and inclusion.
Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words create our world.