language, soul, heart, bilingual, English, German, Goethe,

Your soul’s language

In my post about my ROW80 Goals, I said that I would try to write in both: my native language German, and my second language English.

That sparked a few comments about others wanting to write in another language as well or to be able to switch.

To me, switching back and forth between the two languages is something I have done most of my life. Obviously, having grown up and attended school in Germany, I learned German first. But I’ve always been interested in English, since I found out my godfather had moved to the States and was back for a visit. I was told he had to speak a different language where he lives and I demanded to know how I could say “How do you do” and “What time is it” and little things like that in order to speak to him as I truly believed he wouldn’t be able to understand me otherwise. I was five. And my godfather was duly impressed by my effort (even though he is German and understood me just fine).

Then at primary school I had an English classmate. She became one of my best friends, and every time I went to her house after school, her mum made us count to 100 in English before we were allowed to have lunch. I loved it, and asked to count by myself to see whether I got it right. I used to practice at home the night before I’d go to Susan’s after class, just to be prepared. Then I came across an after-school English class and joined. When it came to choosing a secondary school, I enrolled at Gymnasium Schwertstrasse,  the one grammar school in town that had just established a bilingual, “Anglo-German” unit. I was in one of the two first ever bilingual years, and stayed until I graduated nine years later.

From the start, we had more English lessons than the regular students. We had our History, Politics and Geography lessons in English instead of German, and gained a much wider vocabulary. In Year 6, after two years of English lessons, we were able to re-write the story of Robin Hood and perform it, as well as several short sketches including a Sherlock Holmes one.

By the time Year 7 came around, we were treated like native speakers. We were only allowed to switch to asking questions in German in case we really didn’t understand the explanation in English. We went to Canterbury, England, lived in host families for our class trip and did everything in English. Whenever we were out and about in town, our teachers would pick one of us to go up to strangers and ask for directions etc. so we would actually speak.

That same year I started reading The Hobbit, the first-ever English book I read voluntarily. I loved it so much, I went straight on to Lord of the Rings. In English. Aged 14. All of my copy of The Hobbit and most of The Fellowship of the Ring have several words highlighted on every page. I marked and looked up every word I didn’t know and my vocabulary got bigger and bigger. I later tested myself – to see whether I had really understood it all – by watching The Lord of the Rings which came out about a week after I finished with The Fellowship.

From then on, there was no stopping me. I watched videos in English, had my godfather send me some films and books. And sometimes, while I was explaining a book to my parents, I’d slip into English without noticing. I’d read it in English, so it only made sense that what I had stored in my mind in English I would relate to others the same way. My parents just let me finish, looked at me and said “could you repeat that in German? ”

When I was 16 I became an exchange student and spent a year living and studying in Auckland, New Zealand. Nobody there spoke German, so I had no choice but to speak English. And I loved every minute of it. I gained an authentic accent, a passable kiwi twang.  After my return to Germany, I started to struggle thinking of some German words. The English ones came more readily to mind.

In English class, we’d read and analyse Macbeth and Lord of the Flies just like we read and analysed  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust or Thomas Mann’s Die Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull (Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Manin German class.

Learn a new language and get a new soul. – Goethe

During class tests we always had to count words on our essay questions. The amount of mistakes in every 500 words determined our “mistake quotient”. Getting a 2.5 or better was rare and very respectable. The last one my teacher calculated for me was 0.3. An average of 0.3 mistakes in every 500 words I’d written. After that the teacher only wrote underneath “I won’t calculate it anymore. Your English is as good as it gets.”

From then on I knew I wanted to study, and do so somewhere where the language of instruction is English. If all else failed I was prepared to study English at a German university.

I’d come to love the language and in New Zealand, I had started to think and dream in English. On my first night there I was woken up by my host mum to come to dinner (jet lag got the better of me) and to this day I have no idea what I actually said, I just know it was in German and it sounded a lot like “piss off, I’m sleeping” – something my host mum will always remind me of when we talk about my stay. I heard somewhere that once you start dreaming in a language you have fully embraced it, as it is the dominant language in your mind.

I think you’ve fully assimilated the language when you tell your English-speaking partner off for passing wind in bed when you say “That was subtle!” without even waking up to do the telling off. And yes, that’s a real-life example from my not-so-distant past.

Eventually, I did a Gap Year (in English-speaking countries except for Ecuador, where I practised Spanish) and moved to the UK to study journalism and tourism management there. And I had more and more moments when I couldn’t remember a German word. I even started speaking German with a British accent. I picked up the British accent but I don’t think I’ve ever really spoken English with a German accent. I can imitate British accent (Cumbrian, Scouse, Scottish) but the one thing I can’t do is put on a fake German accent when I speak English. It just goes against my nature.

I recently came across an article on The New York Times blog, entitled “Born again in a Second Language.”  Costica Bradatan quotes Simone Weil who said that “for any man a change of religion is as dangerous a thing as a change of language is for a writer” and goes on to talk about Romanian author Emil Cioran and Irish author Samuel Beckett who both wrote in French.

I wouldn’t go as far as saying you are Born Again in a different language, but you gradually ease into it until you don’t see the blurred lines anymore.

When I write – and this blog is a perfect example – I do so in English. Because the words come easier to me in English than in German. I can’t even fully explain it. Whenever I write creatively, it’s in English. When I leave myself notes, they’re likely in English, unless I write down meeting places or words I’m too used to in German. My weekly planner is a curious mix of “Sort out XYZ” and “Geburtstagsparty Anne” (Anne’s birthday party). Though the latter will change to English should the person who’s getting older be an English-speaker or in an English-speaking country.

I am a trained journalist and I do write for German publications, but those are articles that follow strict guidelines. Very limited word counts mean I have to be precise and can’t waste words. In its own way, German is a beautiful language as we can take any nouns, put them together and create new words just like that. And beautiful contraptions like “Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän” are possible. It means “Captain of the Blue Danube Steam Boat Cruise Society” and it’s not even the longest word there is (that would be Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft – 1996 Guinness World Record as the longest German word). But it’s a language I find myself writing in less and less.

Most of my books are English, as are my DVDs. I don’t turn on German TV shows and I hate synchronisations into German. You can tell it’s been dubbed, and it never sounds natural.

My NaNoWriMo projects were all written in English. Mainly because I know how to express myself in that language. I know exactly what I want to say, and German sounds wrong to me.

My family hasn’t read my 103k word 2013 NaNoWriMo-winning novel The Bravery of the Soldier yet, because it’s in English. My sister is now giving it a try but she needs a dictionary. I’ve been asked to do a reading this month and read out two scenes from the book – in German! That means I had to translate parts and I really struggled with that. I used the wrong German words sometimes. They looked right at first sight but the correct one was slightly different. I knew what I said in English and how I wanted the scene to feel and I just couldn’t find the German words to recreate that feeling. Even after editing, I still think it sounds weird. I ended up looking up more German translations in seven pages than I did English translations in 360 pages of the original.

I’m slowly losing my native language, and I’ve noticed the same phenomenon in a French friend who emigrated to Britain. She now speaks French with a British accent and struggles to find the correct French words.

I do believe that not all of us are born in the country we belong in. This is most obvious in people who travel far and wide and who emigrate to a different country and culture because they’ve always felt drawn there. But the same can happen with language. For the last 22 years I’ve felt that pull that English has on me and it feels like I can be myself and express myself properly when I use English. I’ll always be German, but I now consider English to be my second native language. To me, it feels like a more creative language, despite Germany, historically, being the “Land der Dichter und Denker” (Country of poets and thinkers) and German the language that connected authors, philosophers, scientists and musicians like Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Freud, Marx, Planck, Einstein and Beethoven.

German is a creative language and I can read and understand all the different and complex ideas and creations the men listed above have brought forward and expressed in my native language. However, it is not my language to be creative in. I’ll leave that to the scholars.

When I sit down with pen and paper, I think in English and dream up a story, which I will then write. I’ll write things down and then look at them and think “I wouldn’t even know how to properly say that in German.”

I’ve once heard the expression that we each have a language of the soul, the one language – be it our native language or not – that we feel most comfortable in. It’s the language that our heart and soul tells us is right for us, the one we switch to without thinking. The language in which we can express ourselves fully and the one that comes to mind when we’re half-asleep and not even thinking about the words. And I have to agree with that.

To have another language is to possess a second soul. – Charlemagne


9 thoughts on “Your soul’s language”

  1. This was incredibly engaging. I’m studying linguistics at university at the moment and one of my subjects looks at the impact of English in European countries. Its so interesting to read a first hand account of attitudes to language identity rather than academic papers on studies conducted years and years ago. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Linguistics is a fascinating subject! English is compulsory in German schools, and they start teaching it in primary schools these days, Year 3 I think. Just colours and days and “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” but it’s a start.

    When I was at school, you started learning English in Year 5, as soon as you started secondary school. I think having that bilingual emphasis on my education really helped.

    I did have 4 years of French lessons as well at school (mainly because I didn’t want to do Latin), and I can still read and understand the language, but I can’t put a decent sentence together fast enough when I speak. I recently took an A1/A2 French refresher course and the teacher told me I should be in a C1 conversation course, because I do have the words, I just lack the practice, but at school, I only ever passed the DELF A1 (Diplome d’etudes en langue francaise) basic language test despite having read the first Harry Potter in French. A girl in the other French class passed her DALF at the same time, the French equivalent of the TOEFL.

    After 4 years of learning English, my classmates and I were given sample exercises from the APIEL test (Advanced Placement International English Language – the granddaddy of the IELTS / TOEFL) – we would have passed! In Year 9! A test designed for school leavers wishing to go on to English-speaking universities. However, many of my classmates forgot a lot of their English once school was over, and they never spoke without a German accent.

    In Germany, English is all around us. We have English loan words or replaced the original German with English. Just like English took words from German like “Kindergarten”, “Poltergeist”, “Schadenfreude” we use English words all the time. In France they have whole institutes devoted to keeping the French language free of English, but I think it’s way too late for that in Germany.


  3. This is a beautiful post. I’m always jealous of people who have learned other languages. I’ve never had the ability to grasp the words I’m learning. I know some words in some languages, but the idea of speaking the actual language itself makes me go “Hmmm. . . not likely” since I feel like the words would slip from my mind as some thoughts do on occasion in my own language. That you connected so much to English, and consider it your second native language, is a powerful thing. I do like the idea that one can have a language that is tied to their soul, and I think it makes total sense that you can be born in the wrong place just as some feel they were born in the wrong time or born the wrong gender. So many things are more fluid than our restrictive societal beliefs would like us to believe.


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