englishman abroad, Teaching English

When people assume gender…

Gender isn’t straightforward. I didn’t realise until I started teaching Germans.

This is German: der, die, das, den, dem, des.

Or in English: the, the, the, (to) the, (of) the.

The last two options are quirks of the dative and genitive cases, which we don’t have in English. But those first three? That’s what a gendered language looks like.

Except for a few, insignificant and archaic specks like Waiter/Waitress or Actor/Actress, English isn’t gendered. We have one word for every form of ‘the’ and almost every job title has one word, ‘Teacher’ for example. Is the teacher female or male? We don’t know, it’s irrelevant! In German you are a Lehrer or Lehrerin, a male or female teacher. ‘The female teacher’ and ‘the male teacher’ are Die Lehrerin and Der Lehrer respectively.

Although this insistence on stating someone’s gender is silly enough, it’s about to get weirder.

In Germany, tables are male. Yes, all tables and desks everywhere are men or boys. I had no idea before I came to Germany, but there it is: Der Tisch. ‘The (male) table’.

In Germany all fruits, apart from apples, are female. Die Birne, Die Banane, Die Nektarine.

Every single fruit is a woman or girl. But apples are somehow male. Obviously.

German is a truly demented language. 

In English, practically everything is gender neutral. The table is just a table. The fruit is just fruit. The table will not run off with a banana, get married and have lots of mutant babies.

Yet surprisingly, modern German has one advantage over English when it comes to gender. There is one area where German is simpler and more elegant than English. Honorifics.

When writing an English letter, you start with Dear Mr. Smith…

or Dear Mrs Smith…

or Dear Miss Smith…

or maybe Dear Ms. Smith…

Why are there so many options for the ladies? Is John Smith married? No one cares! But everyone seems to care whether Janet Smith is married or not. That’s why she has three options…

…In fact she has four, I forgot about Mx Smith. Mx is gender neutral and could be used by both John and Janet.

So, there are five options for writing a letter to J. Smith. Good luck guessing which to use.

German has Frau Smith or Herr Smith, for women and men respectively. This is far simpler, but the language completely lacks a gender-neutral option.

I guess that makes sense, Germany; if something as simple as a banana can be mis-gendered what chance do people have?

englishman abroad

It is boiling and I am being eaten by mosquitoes

Jaderberg is in the middle of nowhere and I’d only ever been there with my family to visit the Jaderpark. That was true until last weekend when, as my wife and child were on Girls’ Holiday in Holland, I went there with my friends and colleagues to a birthday garden party. The weather was fantastic, wine flowed freely and there was a BBQ with ribs and all sorts. There were plenty of Germans, naturally. There were also 3 Americans, 2 Barbadians, one Dutch and I, the solitary Briton. I was very much a stereotype – A pasty white Englander who couldn’t handle the heat. I would have very much appreciated some light drizzle and a grey sky. It was boiling.

Normally I don’t go in for shorts and a T-shirt but it’s a necessity in this weather. We must have had about thirty-something degrees. We partied late into the evening and it was at this point that the winged beasts descended upon us. I really must have some quite delicious blood as I was clearly the favourite, my legs and arms are an absolute catastrophe of bites and red marks.

I’ve invested in some mosquito repellent for next time.

We’re heading off to Tenerife in a month so perhaps I should look into a knotted hanky and a Union Jack towel, just to really play up the stereotype of an Englishman abroad.

englishman abroad

The difference between Brits and Germans

Women can’t drive, men can’t multitask, Americans love their guns and the French are cowardly. Stereotypes are fun. They make jokes easy, and enrich life if not taken too seriously. They provide a cultural shorthand that facilitates communication. If we say that someone is ‘posh’ the stereotype is a monocle-wearing, mansion-inhabiting, caviar-eating aristocrat. If we say that someone is ‘a white van man’ (this is a very British stereotype) we presume that they read ‘The Sun’, work a manual job and smoke. Obviously, most of us know that a white van is not a reliable indicator of tobacco consumption, monocles don’t equate to social class, and there’s probably a man out there somewhere who can multitask. Maybe the Bermuda Triangle or Area 51.

However, not everyone has met a German before and I’d to clear up two stereotypes that exist about the dear Krauts.

  1. Germans speak an impossibly difficult language

It’s true that German has a couple more cases than in English, specifically the Dative and Genitive. But talking about time in German is much simpler than in English. The Germans tend to use the present perfect to talk about every past event. For example: ‘I have eaten’. Only very rarely do you hear ‘I ate’.

English constructions like: ‘I have been eating’, ‘I had eaten’ or ‘I had been eating’ confuse Germans greatly and are a nightmare to teach.

And let me lay another myth to rest: Germans do not have impossibly long words. Rather, they have compound words; here’s an example: Arbeitsunfähigkeitsbescheinigung. I know it looks long but bear with me, it means ‘Certificate of employment disability’.

Now look at this: Certificateofemploymentdisability. A compound word is simply several words stuck together. We don’t do it in English very often, but you can’t really call four different words a new word just by removing the spaces, surely!!

  1. Germans are rude

From stealing all the sun loungers on package holidays to telling people bluntly that their food is terrible, the Germans have a reputation for rudeness. Is this reputation deserved? First, let’s have a look at this classic advert from the early 90s

Those tricky Germans trying to snatch the sun loungers! But let’s be fair, they were up first! The early bird catches the worm! It’s a little silly to feel entitled to something you turned up late to, isn’t it? Germans tend to value productivity and get up early accordingly.

Secondly there’s the abruptness. Germans are honest and direct, it’s a cultural thing that they expect straightforwardness in most areas. The British are subtler and more ironic, we are less honest when you think about it. Here are some British phrases and their real meanings:

  1. ‘Well, it’s an interesting idea…’        – your idea is impractical and I don’t like it
  2. ‘This isn’t your best work’                 – this work is terrible!
  3. ‘Isn’t the weather awful?’                 – silence makes me feel uncomfortable…

In Germany, this is madness; it’s better to be honest for points one and two. As for point three, let me put it this way: many Germans genuinely think that the British are obsessed with the weather. Silence is not a stigma.

I’ll probably make another post like this one in the future because there’s so much to talk about. If you have an idea then leave a comment!