englishman abroad, language

I can’t speak French for merde

Well, I’m back.

I hadn’t been to France for any meaningful length of time for sixteen years and cannot speak French for crotte any longer. In short, my French is god awful and going to Bordeaux was a useful experience.

Useful? Yes, useful. Going to another country and having absolutely no idea how to function beyond the purchase of a croissant and a pointless school-French conversation about where you live and what you did for your work experience last summer is a humbling experience.

You see, I have been living in Germany non-stop for a few years now, and I’m just about able to get by despite making mistakes in every sentence. Clearly, I have been getting too big for my boots. Clearly, the powers that be looked upon my level of German competence and remarked

Did you hear that? They’re understanding what he says! Despite him repeatedly putting the accusative in the nominative and the dative in the genitive and the verb as a noun and saying “sie” instead of “ihnen”, and then “du” and then “ihnen” again.

He’s getting overconfident; I’ll send him a plague of frogs.

It’s quite an important experience, to go somewhere and be absolutely powerless. It’s especially important for adults to do this, to remember what it’s like for children. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve integrated somewhat into Germany and what an odd feeling this is. In so doing, I’ve moved past much of the everyday alienation and inaptitude that I had suffered when I first came to Germany, without any German, years back. It’s been good to have a fleeting, linguistically impotent trip to France to broaden my perspective and remember not to take things for granted.

As for the meeting itself, it was informative, well received and, mercifully, in English.

englishman abroad, work

New Opportunities

Oh, sweet it is in academic groves –
Or such retirement, friend, as we have known
Among the mountains by our Rotha’s stream,
Greta, or Derwent, or some nameless rill –
To ruminate, with interchange of talk,
On rational liberty and hope in man,
Justice and peace.

– William Wordsworth. Book 9, Residence in France, 400-406. The Prelude.

The MariLANG project has officially ended and with it my work producing test items for learners of Maritime English and seafarers. I joined the project fairly late into it, most of the work had already been done by people much more talented than me, but I learned a lot and produced a fair bit of work that I’m proud of. I also wrote a chapter of what will become the official book, so I’ll finally see my name in print! Albeit in a rather dry, academic tome. I also got to travel with the project, twice to Southampton and once to Kenilworth, to meet partners and receive training.

Next week I’ll be off again, this time to Bordeaux, to attend and contribute to the kick-off meeting of another EU project – The TRAILs project. Whereas MariLANG sought to make an ESP test for mariners, TRAILs is more concerned with the training of LSP teachers/practitioners (ESP included). I’ll be presenting my guidelines for the identification and analysis of LSP teacher training in the EHEA to other project partners and soliciting feedback, before finalising them and working with the other partners to implement them into our research. After that, it’s two years of research into best LSP teacher-training practices with a few trips abroad here and there for meetings. Ultimately there will be the provision of a summer school to operationalise the pedagogical concepts we’ll all have come up with, surely, by then.

But first thing’s first, off to Bordeaux. I’m getting thirsty just thinking about it…

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

Working freelance

When I first came to Germany it was due to a number of factors, some of which were economic.

I had finished my studies at Kingston University, London with a 2.1 and had noticed that the much-vaunted graduate schemes weren’t hiring. So I started working at a company selling properties, it went bust, and then a company selling advertising on the web, it had major redundancies, a restaurant which never opened, temp work that dried up or sometimes just didn’t pay! London is not a good place to be when the banks are in trouble.

I opened a newspaper one day and read about how Germany was no longer in recession. That was about seven years ago.

The best thing about working freelance is the opportunity to work for many companies at once and meet many interesting new people several times a week. In Dortmund I once had a client with a jamming problem which he solved by running the machine on a separate setting than stated in the manual (the manual was a Japanese translation and not very good, he explained).

A few weeks ago, here in Lower Saxony, I was teaching a client about how to describe cause and effect and solve problems in English:

“we have a problem in my department with the machines we use, they jam at fast speed.”

“really?” I said “what does the manual say?”

“it doesn’t help, it’s a very bad Japanese translation”

‘Gosh’, I thought, ‘this sounds familiar’

“can I see the manual?”

“it won’t help, it’s bad German and Japanese only!”

“please, let me see”

He shrugged his shoulders and showed it to me. Sure enough, it was the same line of machines that my old client in Dortmund had used.

“hmmm…. Yes…I think I’ve got it… have you tried running it on setting C? That’s what it says”

I came back this week and the machines work fine on setting C, the client thinks I’m some sort of language prodigy and all is good. I just hope he doesn’t ask for Japanese lessons…