Sunday, February 7, 2016

Fluent, Except When I'm Trying to Gut Someone

I probably shared at some point that my teen mom unceremoniously ripped me from the bosom of my birth land when I was a mere two years old. I was one of many Pier 21 immigrants. With a wooden trunk made from leftover coffin wood (I'm not sure whose), and the clothes on our backs, we travelled across the sea. We left a town where the dialect can only be described as the Newfie of Germany (no disrespect intended toward either my hometown or the most magnificent of Canadian provinces).

Some would argue that the language you learn first, stays with you. I would argue, nonsense. In my younger years, I remembered a few words of questionable accuracy and even more disturbing taste. These were often interspersed with what soon became my main language, English. My family's one visit to Germany when I was a child, did nothing to help me regain any confidence in the lost language.

For various reasons over the past decade and a half, I have visited Deutschland almost every other year. (Note my Germanic "Deutschland". Impressive eh?) . At first, I was nervous about attempting to converse with anyone in the public sector, never certain whether I was using correct terminology or a corrupted, even rude version of a word. I often asked if they spoke English first, before struggling to assemble a thought in German. When I was forced to make the effort, it usually sounded pretty good. Then, I'd be sure to fish for compliments by explaining that I don't really speak the lingo. Eventually, and fairly quickly, I became what I would describe as fairly fluent.

I decided that perhaps the language you learn first, doesn't necessarily stay with you, but is familiar and sitting in the hidden recesses of the brain. The sounds, the intonations, the phrasing may be ingrained during your formative language development years, and even though they're not used, can be retrieved when needed.

I found it curious that some of my relatives, all of which had now moved away from the original hometown, had developed different dialects. Each one spoke in a unique way, and yet we all laughed over certain words, and phrases we remembered from the past. What made it even funnier was that their children and grandchildren had no idea what we were talking about much of the time. So the peculiar words from my childhood weren't so terrible after all.

In return for their hospitality, I liked to treat people to a restaurant meal during my visits. The last time I was there, my cousin's wife was finally brave enough to take me aside and speak to me. She made me aware that a phrase I had used on every trip up to now, was not quite acceptable and clearly didn't translate as I had imagined. At that moment, I discovered that it's not only Google translator that comes up with ridiculous offerings when I use their function. I also learned that it's not always a good thing to try to translate a word or phrase verbatim.

Who knew that when I offered to "take people out" in German, it had a different, more disturbing meaning? Not only that, it's not even what you might think. Apparently, I was offering to eviscerate, clean out, or fleece people. Wow, I had choices...each one worse than the last. The only choice I didn't have was to treat them to dinner.

Hopefully, I'll remember this small linguistic detail on my next visit. Who knows, perhaps someone will even clarify some of my other awkward turns of phrase. On the other hand, maybe they'll just compliment me on what surely can be considered almost fluent German. 

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