Most of us in the English-speaking world do not learn foreign languages. After all, why should we? We can get by almost everywhere in the world with English and most foreigners, the younger generation at least, have a basic grasp of the language. There is a well-known statistic that there are more people in China learning English than there are people in the USA who actually speak English, and while it is almost impossible to prove the truth of this statement, the point still stands. People want to learn English because it is the lingua franca of trade, industry and business; because it is the international language of tourism and because they want to watch their favourite Hollywood stars perform in the original form. Foreign language learning in British and American high schools and universities is becoming less popular every year, and it is very easy to imagine a future world where, despite the superior number of people with Mandarin and Spanish as their mother-tongue, English has become a second-language for almost the entire world.
Not bothering to learn foreign languages, we native speakers use convenient short-hand to describe the alien languages we occasionally encounter. French has become the language of love. We perceive Spanish as an expressive, emotional language, suitable for telenovelas and screaming at each other. Scandinavian languages, meanwhile, are clipped, formal and to-the-point and just right for solving murders and repressing emotions. And as for German, the language the I will focus on here, the stereotypes about this language are, to say the least, colourful.
Regardless of how fluent one is in German, all this ach-ing and extremely long words can sound a little harsh to a native English-speaker. Even those of us who try our best to defend German as a beautiful language of poetry and music must feel our hearts sink when confronted with words like Schweinefleisch (pork or, literally, pig-flesh) and Freundschaftsbezeugung (demonstrations of friendship). The English equivalents for these have relatively innocent or even positive connotations and yet can sound and look somewhat aggressive in Teutonic hands. There are a couple of possible reasons for this: one is the profligacy of consonants in German and the way that all compound words become one long word. Thus, the unassuming English integer 7,254 can become the rather intimidating Siebentausendzweihundertvierundfünfzig. Consonant combinations like dzw and nfz make the untrained English mind boggle.
A second reason often bandied about for the reason German sounds so harsh is somewhat darker. As the language associated with the Nazis, there are certain German phrases that are rarely translated into English and retain to English ears a very specific connotation. Lebensraum, for example, sounds relatively innocent in German, meaning “living space” and sometimes used in advertisements for roomy flats or tourist areas with lots of space to spare. To an English-speaker, however, the word may allude to Nazi ideals of exterminating “inferior races” in eastern Europe to create living space for the Aryan master-race. Similarly, the Endlösung der Judenfrage or “Final Solution to the Jewish question” is a combination of rather ordinary words that are still used commonly in German. My biggest shock personally was when I heard a bus-driver referred to as the Führer. This day-to-day German word meaning “leader” or “driver” refers of course, in English, to only one person.
Nevertheless, I do believe that this perception of German is an untrue one. In the right hands, the German language can sound beautiful and warm. At this time of year, I am looking forward to visiting Weihnachtmärkte where I will be sure to get my fill of hot Maronen and delicious Glühwein. I will wonder past the Tannenbaum, wondering which Geschenke I can expect from the Weihnachtsmann. Such terms make me feel cosy and warm, or to give a German word with no proper English translation, gemütlich. I couldn’t imagine the same in another language, and as such I am extremely happy that I am devoting some time to learning a foreign language. Even one where a simple pen can become a rather ferocious-sounding Kugelschreiber.