Most of the time here, I can crack out my German in shops and cafes and restaurants with aplomb, or in social settings, engage in a monolingual conversation that makes me feel both smug (look at me go) and embarrassed (did I just murder a case?) at the same time, a sensation peculiar to learning and speaking a foreign language … or is that just me. But there are other occasions were something else happens and it’s usually in a bar and usually with bright young things who grew up with American pop culture squawking loudly in one ear and an English teacher in the other, from around the age of six. On these occasions, the conversation becomes bilingual, but in reverse. Allow me to elaborate.
The other night, I met an English speaking colleague at a wine bar for a Friday night drink. When the time came to order, I became locked in a common stand off wherein I, the English speaker, spoke German and the German speaking waiter spoke English. Neither of us backed down. He wanted to practice his English and I wanted to practice my German, so the both of us defiantly assaulted the other’s ears with our thickly accented second languages.
‘Hallo, ich hatte gerne ein Sauvignon Blanc.’
‘No problem. Would you like something to eat?’
‘Nein danke, aber vielleicht später.’
‘Sure! I’ll just get your wine.’
And so on, so forth. Neither of us giving up, no one backing down. Me secretly thinking, ‘come on mate, throw me a bone. I am in the zone, I am about to sup the magic Language Enabler, after which I will be even more in the zone. Give me German.’ And him quite clearly thinking, ‘bäm, a native speaker with whom to practice English!’ And then me, thinking further, ‘I need this, don’t deny me.’ He will, over the course of the evening, pay exceptional attention to our table and we will continue our bilingual interaction until the final, slurred, ‘danke, tschüüüüüüüs.’
It happens a lot. I embark upon a German conversation with a German colleague, only to have it come back in English. (Indeed the lengthiest, most rewarding conversations I have in German are often with my English speaking colleagues, in which we tramp all over the grammar but delight in responding to the same language.) Or I have a sip of wine, find myself next to a German keen to work on their English and (due to the wine sip) confidently slip into my German only to be met with a wall of English. And so we crash on, me mixing up my articles and cases, them using the Present Perfect almost exclusively and doing wild things with countable and uncountable nouns. Neither of us willing to acquiesce, both determined to inch forward in our linguistic progress.
And at the close of conversation – battle – both of us stagger away, bruised and bloodied, our ears ringing from the destruction of two glorious languages that the two of us just partook in, but our linguistic match fitness just that little bit boosted. We tape our muscles with grammar exercises and Two and a Half Men (mine dubbed, theirs’ original version) and wait for the next round.