I knew I was in trouble when the neighbour started talking to me in slow, repeated, single words – with finger pointing – to help me understand the word fence and then the word painting, in Norwegian. The previous week I had had an enjoyable conversation with the same nice man, practically leaning on that same fence, congratulating him on his baby due later in the year, talking about the people moving in down the street and so on. That conversation was all in Norwegian too, in regular speed, complete sentences. One week later, I was making no sense to him whatsoever and he looked more than a little concerned, probably wondering if I has having a fit of some sort.
You see, German Granny, or Oma as the kids call her, had been with us for 7 days at this stage. Oma lives in Germany and had come to spend 9 days with us to see her much-loved grandkids, her son and the daughter-in-law, yours truly here. Germany being another country far away, we only get to see her in person once a year these days. Thanks to the wonders of technology, the absence is punctuated by weekly Skype chats every Sunday evening at 6pm, led by the husband in our house. I play a vital part in these calls but more as a supporting actor, feeding through some storylines on what the kids did that week. The kids are central characters, no question there.
Last week, when Oma was here, the lingua-francas in the house were German between the 3 grown-ups and English with the kids. Norwegian barely got a look-in except when interacting with the world outside the door. The problem is that while my German was reasonably good at some point, it’s gone away on semi-permanent retirement as I learned Norwegian. As in, it’s on a deck chair on a remote island in Hawaii somewhere, with only one-flight in or out a year. It’s practically comatose with relaxation – one can get too much sun, you know – so that’s not great when the German family comes to visit.
My husband and I have never used German to communicate with each together. We met in Dublin, lived in London – our world was always in English. The kids speak English and Norwegian and no German yet anyway, apart from a few words and phrases. Born in London, English was their first language, followed by Norwegian when we moved here. Despite great intentions, supported by the many German storybooks on the kid’s bookshelf, we never managed that practical progressive thing with each parent only speaking their own native language. People are frequently stunned by this but somehow life took over; keeping those bundles of joy alive and well, balanced with demanding jobs was our more immediate concern when the kids were born. We procrastinated on German and then suddenly we were living in Norway and German had to wait a bit longer.
Oma comes from East-Germany where Russian as a second language was much more useful, it’s fair to say more mandatory too, than English. While she doesn’t speak too much English, she understands a lot. She and the kids get by with a mixture of English and German, love, sign-language and body-language. It does make for a lot of hugs. If in doubt, HUG, it works every time to cross those language barriers.
However, I’m not so big on the hugging and my German last week was reasonably atrocious. I just couldn’t get it to come off that Hawaiian island this time. And even worse, when I thought I did, I was speaking this ridiculous mix of German and Norwegian that NOBODY understood. All week, when we were out and about, I was just stalling conversations as I made grand utterances and people stared at me with blank faces, wondering what on earth I had just said – the genius of it was that it was vaguely recognisable but totally incoherent at the same time.
Both coming from the same Germanic language group, Norwegian and German are frequently similar enough to identify words in a sentence but dissimilar enough to make any sense. In shops, restaurants, on boats and the Oslo hop-on hop-off tour bus (recommended by the way, as the nice lady on the head-phones speaks REAL German, much to our relief ), I was causing significant confusion and getting impressive blank stares all over the place. People didn’t know how to respond and normally, just didn’t, preferring to scuttle away or move me on. They clearly were not familiar with this new unique linguistic mergence we began to call ‘Germish’.
As is well known, language is a living thing and you really need to use it for it to flourish. I have great admiration for those who speak 10 languages and can switch language in reasonably complex conversation at the drop of a hat. Maybe it depends on the strength of your original knowledge and use of the language. I haven’t used my Irish language in years but it’s still there in the back of my brain somewhere. With German, I was academically fairly good at it at school and university but never used it enough to think in German or develop real cross-topic everyday fluency.
And call me slow but with all the stress of trying to communicate last week, I wasn’t aware half the time that I was muddling German and Norwegian until Oma looked aghast every now and again and said ‘Ich verstehe Norwegisch nicht‘ or I don’t understand Norwegian! Or when my helpful son contributed with a comment like ‘Why didn’t they understand you, what language was that!!”
Oma left on Sunday and so my German has slouched back onto the deck-chair in the sun. And taken the cousin Germish with it. I haven’t met the neighbour since but I’m hoping, as I’m sure he is, that order is restored on the Norwegian communication front.
And it wasn’t all bad, when a cold-caller came to the door at about 8 o’clock one evening last week trying to sell a new electricity plan, I unwittingly answered in my polished Germish that it wasn’t a good time as we were putting the kids to bed and so on. There was no sales technique in the world that he could call on to counter the familiar words but incomprehensible utterance that reached him so he closed his mouth, nodded and walked away. The poor guy didn’t stand a chance.