On a recent Friday afternoon here in Berlin, the sun was shining and the temperature actually rose above freezing for once. It was enough to put Wendy and Elena and me into especially high spirits as we waited for the bus in well-heeled Zehlendorf, eating some treats from the nearby bakery. We talked about how the Germans have a talent not only for making good cake, but also for creating really healthy and tasty baked goods, like the sunflower-seed thing we were eating. As we were speaking amongst ourselves we were, naturally, speaking in English.
Apparently, that's an offensive act around these parts.
Also waiting for the bus was a lumbering woman, perhaps in her sixties, who looked as if she had eaten just a few too many cans of offal. She glared at us and, finally, as we were getting on the bus, she muttered to Wendy, in German: "When you are in Germany, you must speak German!"
"Entschuldigung?" Wendy asked. The Frau repeated herself more loudly. Before Wendy could react, we were hurried onto the bus and headed for the upper deck. The woman was physically incapable of making it up the steps, which is a good thing, because had she stayed near us, Wendy might just have decked her; she seethed for the rest of the day (as did I).
Don't get me wrong. No matter what country I'm in, I try to speak the native language when addressing shopkeepers, waiters or strangers, no matter how garbled my sentences are. I truly want to become bilingual, and have spent the last several months devoting my days to Deutsch classes, so that I can get through a meeting with a bureaucrat without my head imploding. But English is my mother tongue, and when I'm having a private conversation with my English-speaking family, even in a public place, I'm going to do it in English.
On the one hand, the grumpy woman's remark was probably nothing to get upset about: She was probably just having a bad day, upset that she had missed the special on 10 kilos of liverwurst -- and saw this happy American family as the perfect target for her bitterness. It was an isolated incident of rudeness, and one that we should just forget.
The problem is, it wasn't all that isolated.
Since the day we arrived in Berlin eight months ago, the language barrier has been more than just a matter of us speaking English while everyone else spoke German. The linguistic roadblock has been fortified by a sort of morality as well, an under and overtone of: Thou shalt speak German! It manifested itself in the immigration office, when the bureaucrats refused to acknowledge that they understood English (though it eventually became clear that they did). It even manifested itself when we were still in the U.S. When Wendy received her German citizenship (via a German law that gives citizenship to the descendants of those who were de-citizened by the Nazis), the secretary at the consulate in Denver was dumbfounded and clearly irritated by the fact that Wendy, now a German, didn't speak Deutsch. "Perhaps," we should have replied, "she would speak German had your grandparents not tried to exterminate hers." We held our tongues.
This linguistic bigotry isn't limited to us by any means. The big integration/multiculturalism/immigration debate in Germany and other parts of Europe, when it's not concerned with Muslim headscarves, is about outsiders learning and speaking the language. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech in Germany recently, he urged Turkish immigrants here to learn Turkish first, then German, throwing the native politicians into a rage. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle responded by saying that integration is impossible without learning German and: "Children who grow up in Germany must learn German as the very first thing." T-Mobile, the telecommunications giant, was even taken to task last summer for using English in its marketing campaigns.
Turn on the television here and you can watch almost any ten-year-old, washed up American sitcom you want; and the movie theaters show all the Hollywood hits and then some. But if you're hoping to hear Seinfeld's slightly irritating voice tossing zingers at his friends, you can forget it: Television and films are all dubbed into German. No, not subtitled, dubbed, like 1950s-Godzilla-movies-dubbed. I'ver heard all kinds of reasons for this -- Germans don't like to read (Ha!), the dubbing industry is huge in Germany and abandoning it would crush the economy, etc. But the real reason is that dubbing allows Germans to digest plenty of foreign pop culture without hearing too much of a foreign language.
Germans, in other words, don't want their language to be diluted by foreign influences. They are striving for linguistic purity. Think about it for a minute, and this linguistic nationalism, as I call it, starts sounding rather sinister, especially here in the Vaterland.
Let me be clear: Germany as a society is hypersensitive to its role in 20th Century history. The country is collectively conscious of the fact that it perpetrated one of the worst atrocities in human history, and did so not so long ago, and it has taken great pains to atone for those sins. Its constitution, its laws, and much of day-to-day life has been fashioned with that in mind: Just this week, a Canadian tourist was jailed after doing the heil Hitler salute in front of the Reichstag. Toleranz is not only a buzzword thrown around by lefties, but also a part of the official jargon, and most Germans I've met are not only very tolerant, compassionate people, but also are multilingual and like to speak in English.
Yet, linguistic Intoleranz not only thrives here, but is widely accepted. My German classes have been filled with smart, skilled, well-educated people from all over the world. They are in professional fields where business is either conducted in English, or language only plays a small part (technical fields, electronic engineering, etc). They have been denied jobs here because their German -- though they are perfectly capable of carrying on intelligent conversations -- wasn't quite good enough. An Iraqi economist, who has been in Germany for 10 years and worked eight of those as a bike mechanic in another German city, can't get a job as a bike mechanic in Berlin until he gets a German language certificate (though he can speak day-to-day German just fine). It seems not to matter how adept one is at overhauling a bottom bracket or adjusting a derailleur, he's not getting a job 'til he gets all his ders, dies, and dases in line. He's yet another skilled immigrant who's unemployed because of linguistic discrimination.
Indeed, linguistic bigotry is considered by some to be "among the last legal forms of discrimination left to Western employers." And when immigrants without acceptable German can't get jobs, it naturally causes unemployment to be higher among immigrants. Anti-immigration forces can then hold up those numbers as proof that immigration is poisoning Germany and threatens the culture and quality of life of the natives.
I write all of this from a place of relative privilege: English, of course, is spoken everywhere, even if the bureaucrats want to try to deny it. The world of consumerism and business is saturated with English words; radio stations play almost all English-language music, most of it American "classic rock." And no, it's not dubbed. In spite of that, I'm still looked down upon for speaking my native language. Imagine what it must be like then if your mother tongue is Arabic, or Farsi.
Germany's not the only place this happens. Many American states have established English as the "official language." While proponents of the movement try on the one hand to paint it as a way to unify a disparate nation, they turn around and use alarmist, nationalistic and bigoted language to rile up their supporters. Official language laws may pertain only to official business, but they are often used as justification to prohibit people from speaking their own languages, even amongst themselves. And, aside from discriminating against immigrants, such laws are a slap in the face to Native Americans who are struggling to save their own languages. Still, it's hard to imagine even an ignoramus in some backward state walking up to a family speaking amongst themselves in German and excoriating them for not speaking English. If they did, the southern Utah/northern Arizona tourist industry would die a quick death, dependent as it is on Europeans who do not necessarily leave their native languages at home when they visit.
It's time for Germany to accept that it is part of the global culture, just as it's part of the global economy. Döner kebaps and falafel are more popular than Currywurst, and that's okay. Berlin's identity lies not in its nordic roots, nor in properly conjugating German verbs, but in diversity and cosmopolitanism; it's not about getting the articles right, it's about sitting in the subway and hearing conversations in Polish, Turkish, Arabic and Spanish and German, all at the same time.
And our poor antagonist, the woman who just couldn't stand to hear us speaking amongst ourselves in English, was subjected to just that. Just after the bus started rolling, a group of men sitting around the woman started an animated, loud conversation, audible even to us way up in the top deck. They spoke in a Slavic language, not German. As for me, I'm going to keep studying German in the hope that someday, that woman will scold us again. Then, I'll be able to tell her exactly what I think, in a way even she'll understand.