Language Salat(d)

by J-Me Photography
by J-Me Photography

Language salat(d) is commonly served up at our house. It’s colorful with heavily-accented English words thrown randomly into German sentences. Or in my case when an English word hides somewhere in the chaos of my brain, the German word steps in, covering for its English equivalent. Our general rule – Mama speaks English and Papa speaks German – guides us, but does not constrain us.

Patrick and my love language is German. It is the language that accompanied us through our courtship and early years of marriage when I spoke almost no English. And German is the language we return to now in conversation, even when recently this comfortable habit has elicited protests from the children.

            “Warum redest du immer Deutsch mit dem Papa und English mit uns?! Du kannst doch Deutsch!“
(Why do you always speak German with Papa and English with us?! You can speak German!”)

“What did you say? I didn’t understand you.”

“Ach Mama!”

Of course I understand them, a truth my children grasped from the beginning. And, I suspect, the reason my children all respond to my English with German. Early on I questioned our language tactic, wondering why other bilingual children we know always responded in the appropriate language, switching effortlessly from Mama to Papa. What were we doing wrong? But when a friend shared about a Spanish mother who refuses to respond to any language from her children but her own, I hesitated. Is that what it took to hear my children speak English?

I realized it was. And I also knew I did not have the tenacity to follow through with it. The interaction with my children – applauding their first attempts at forming words, no matter what language; allowing them to tell me their stories in German as they gasp for breath from running the whole way home from school; listening to the Bible stories they’ve learned in Sunday school – has priority and constantly playing a game of not understanding would get in the way.

And so I revel in those moments when the English word comes first, making our language salad even brighter. For example this sentence Alida said as she put her shoes away:

“Dann mache ich deet, deet on the shelf, ganz nicely.”

Of course, a sentence like this is hard to translate, but in essence she said when she puts her shoes together on the shelf it looks very nice (deet, deet is a Schmidt word with multiple meanings, in this case “together”).

Or this response from Fenja to my question “Fenja, why are you wearing my socks?!”:

“Immer, immer (always, but said with a heavyAmerican “R” on the end) sind meine in die Vesh! (combo word of the German Wäsche und English wash).

I can’t imagine speaking to my children in German because English is my heart-language, the one with which I still best express myself and the language I heard while being loved upon as a child. That matters. And I am convinced my children notice it too. When Fenja is bursting with love and exclaims, “Oh Mama, I love you so much!”, I know she’s comprehended on a deeper level the honesty of her mother’s tongue. It is those moments that fill me up and remind me it doesn’t matter if they speak fluent English; my kids can communicate in the language of my heart.

When we began this journey of bilingualism it seemed exciting and scary. While introducing ourselves at my first mother-baby-group with Fenja, I tacked on that I am an American and speak only English to her. Everyone “oooed” and “aahhed”, appreciating the advantage my child would have, but I felt more vulnerable than I had in years. It had become easy to merge imperceptibly with the Germans around me. Only by choice or after longer conversation was my Americanism revealed. And now I was “the American” in the group, no longer just another mama with her baby. Bilingualism demanded I become comfortable being different.

Sometimes it’s hard work too. In those first years switching between German and English left me exhausted. My brain was being pushed as it had been when I first came to Germany. Back then putting German words into a coherent sentence left me ragged. I would take hour-long naps on the tiny blue sofa hoping to give my brain time to recover, but even in sleep, it didn’t rest. I would dream of people trying to communicate, speaking the poor broken language I used. When I woke I felt tired and headachy.

After an hour of mama-baby-group I would nap with Fenja. It was joy to speak my mother-tongue with my baby, but a chore to look up and make other sounds come out of my mouth. Again I often felt tired and headachy. But as with anything, practice makes perfect and after almost nine years of practicing, my brain can now keep up.

I see bilingualism as a great gift Patrick and I are able to offer our children, and perhaps a small recompense for “giving up” my own country. I am impressed when my children understand my English mutterings, even when fast and mumbled, and proud when I see their eyes light up at their own ability to express themselves in English. It’s fun to hear my kids translate for their visiting friends and amusing when at about age three they realized for the first time that their mama really does sound different from most everyone else. (“Most everyone” because we are blessed to be imbedded in a community where several native English speakers are friends, giving our children a place among others like them. They even get to have piano lessons in English – a great learning experience and fun for Mama!)

My kids do not speak fluent English, but I’m convinced it’s there, ready to make an appearance when needed. I no longer ask what we’re doing wrong. Instead when we do things at our house like “laufing” (laufen, German verb for “to run”, with the English –ing ending) and schlafing (schlafen, German verb for “to sleep”, with that English ending again) or when Liam asks for more bones at lunch, and I know he means green beans and a conversation like this takes place:

Alida: Was gibt’s zum Mittagessen? (What are we having for lunch?)

Mama: Something yummy! Spinach omelette with potatoes.

Alida: What for potatoes? Mashed potatoes? (looks concerned)

Mama: No, those little crushed potatoes. You like those!

Alida: Oh, I am glad because I love not mashed potatoes.

I know we are only adding to our lovely language salat(d).

 

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Heart Language

J-Me Photography http://www.etsy.com/shop/PhotographyByJme
J-Me Photography
http://www.etsy.com/shop/PhotographyByJme

When I’m at the soccer field cheering for Liam in English, it’s not unusual to hear other comments being yelled in Albanian, Dutch or Turkish. While skipping around the gym during our weekly mother and child fun exercise hour, I’m not the odd-ball out because I only speak to Alida in a language other than German. I overhear other mothers calling to their children in Portuguese, Hungarian, English or Thai. German is the language we parents use to communicate to each other, but often our heart language is a different one.

Raising bilingual kids has been an exciting and interesting journey. (I’ll write more about our personal experiences in a post soon!) But I’m glad Patrick and I aren’t the only parents running this experiment with their children. We’re lucky enough to represent a small piece within a large community of couples who are raising bilingual children. Patrick’s brother and his Japanese wife have been encouraging in their example of raising two kids, now teenagers who are fluent in German and Japanese and strong contenders in English and French (school subjects). Patrick has a teacher friend whose husband is French: their children switch effortlessly between French and German during their holidays in France. A dear teenage friend of ours speaks beautiful English with the kids and me, but alternates to German with Patrick. Thanks to her Canadian mother and German father, it’s easy.

We’re not alone and thankfully we have many parents around us who we first questioned thoroughly about the best way to do this bilingual thing and whom we now can ask when we’re unsure about a certain child’s language development, for example. It’s fun to compare and hear stories: one little girl developed her own language because obviously if her papa spoke one language and her mother a different one, then she too needed her own. Eventually it became too tricky for her to keep track of all three languages, so she ended up concentrating on the two her parents speak. Another bilingual child identified the language his mother spoke with women and the language his father spoke with men, meaning with all women (no matter if they understood or not!) he spoke his mother’s language and with men, his father’s.

Even when in our globalized world raising bilingual children is nothing extraordinary, it is still a gift. And being able to give our children two languages from the very beginning is a gift I am thankful to be able to give.

Over a year ago a mother of one of these bilingual families gave me a book to read:
Mit Zwei Sprachen Groß Werden, Mehrsprachige Erziehung in Familie, Kindergarten und Schule by Elke Montanari. (I was unable to find an English translation, although it doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but the English title might be something like “Growing Up with Two Languages; Multi-lingual Nurturing in the Family, Preschool and School”.) I just read a scathing comment about it on Amazon.de claiming the book is not “scientific enough”. That is exactly why I found the book to be so great. The author is encouraging in all matters of multilingualism; her main credo being if you have the opportunity to involve more than one language in your child’s life, do it, no matter how much or how little (and in an authentic way).

A disclaimer here: I (and I believe to speak for the author as well) do NOT encourage people running their small children all over kingdom-come to learn languages they have nothing to do with on a regular basis. I’ve seen shows about parents who send their nine-year-olds to another country for an “exchange” in order for the child to learn another language and wonder in the end why their relationship with their child had negatively changed.  I’ve heard of people hiring Chinese nannies so that their children will have an advantage in the “real world”. This is NOT what I am talking about. Forcing foreign languages in that way upon children is succumbing to the “What My Child Should Be Able to Do Perfectly by the Age of Ten” checklist and has nothing to do with authenticity.

One point that stuck with me is how Montanari identified some languages as being seen as “good” or “desirable” (unfortunately I don’t remember her exact terminology), and others as the opposite. Of course which language is desirable has changed over the course of the centuries. At one time Latin was the diplomatic language, used for international relationships; in the 18th century French took over. Thanks to the colonization by the Brits in the 19th century and the United States’ rise to world power status in the 20th century, English is now the “in” language to speak.

In Germany they begin learning English at least in elementary school, if not even in preschool. English is the one language required across the board, no matter what type of school a kid attends. In some schools, especially in a university-track school (called Gymnasium) a pupil might choose to begin with a different language, maybe French or Latin, but it is almost impossible to end a high school career without some English schooling. Most of the German people speak some sort of English, even quite often pride themselves in their ability to communicate in the language. Even if you want to speak German in a rough-going beginner’s way, you can be hard-pressed to find Germans who won’t find it better to switch to English. But the point is it is defined as “good”; therefore, our children, according to comments made to me, are especially lucky to be learning such a fabulous world-worthy language.

I agree English happens to be a good language to know and to grow up hearing, but if I were Hungarian, my mother-tongue would be no less valuable. And passing it on to my children would not be less important. My children have a huge advantage because they are constantly told from others how lucky they are to be learning English. It has been and continues to be made clear to them that their second language is “desirable”. Of course this is an easy way to motivate, although being able to speak to Grandma and Grandpa also entices. Having several native English speakers in our community is an added bonus, which naturally encourages practicing English, and makes it more than just a strange Mom language.

Of course learning a more obscure second language can make it difficult for a child to see the necessity in it. They can’t see any immediate importance of knowing and speaking that language. Maybe the child never hears anyone other than family speaking it and wonder, “What’s the point?”

BUT, and I’m going to repeat myself here, it doesn’t make the language any less valuable. A mother tongue is a heart language, no matter if the world considers it to be “desirable” or not. It is Heimat (That word again! For more on it, see this post.); it is a mother’s whisper from long ago. Nowadays languages are often identified as “first” and “second” languages, depending on what language is stronger. My children’s first language is German because they live in a community where German serves them best, but English is more than just a “second language” to them. It is their “mother’s tongue” (a “father’s tongue” is no different) and expresses warm cuddles, loud laughter and softness; it lends identify across country borders. It is my heart language and with it, I communicate tenderness and love, and I am confident my children have heard it.

What breaks my heart is when I hear people in one breath praising our efforts at “teaching” our children English, while shaking their heads at Turkish families who continue to speak Turkish in the home. (In Germany there are many Turkish immigrants; often people speak negatively of that language, although I think it is no different in the States. Think Mexican immigrants and Spanish.) The usual argument goes something like this: These people live in Germany now, and so they need to learn the language here. They need to integrate. If they want to live here, they need to at least try to fit in!

How can I be praised for speaking my language at home and others are denounced for it? How can a person be denied his mother tongue, when without it he cannot fully express himself? The language that helps these individuals remember where they come from; the language that holds fast a connection to family members in the native country. All foreigners should proudly speak their language and obviously pass it along to their children. Yes, they live in another country now, and yes learning the language of this country will help them succeed here too. Most are more than willing to do this.

But I am convinced if Turkish parents – I’m going to continue with our Turkish friends as an example, but any other nonnative could be used interchangeably – would be encouraged to speak proper Turkish with their children, those children would go on to learn proper German when they come into kindergarten. How often have Turkish parents been told by Germans that their children must learn German? Obviously the parents begin to waver and want what’s best for their children and so renounce their own beginnings and speak German with their children. As I can attest, any learned language is rarely spoken from the heart. It is often riddled with mistakes, and is in a way, cold or without feeling. These children come into a school setting having learned neither proper German nor Turkish, the language that would have given them a place to spring from. And instead of being told how special they are because they can already speak two languages, they are made to feel ashamed because they can’t speak proper German. Do we really have to wonder why there are Turkish people who don’t feel welcome in this country?

Bilingual children, and not just ones with “desirable” languages, need to be built up and encouraged. These children need to feel proud of the gift they have been given. They are not just learning another language, like later at school. With their mother and father tongues they receive a gift of belonging, of a beginning. And with it they are better prepared to continue their lives’ journeys. It is a gift that we cannot refuse them.

When we finally learn to embrace this gift of multilingualism, the mosaic of our communities can only become stronger and more colorful. On the surface the German language connects us, but looking closer we see each tiny piece that is a different language, each of which speaks from the heart.

 

Don’t forget to look for a post coming soon about our personal adventures in raising bilingual kids!

Replanted: Coming Home to a Foreign Place

Tree Reaching Up
Courtesy of J-Me Photography
http://www.etsy.com/shop/PhotographyByJme

Germany has been calling to me my whole life. It began with the stories of my aunt and uncles who had spent a year or more of their lives there, learning the language and eating “good German food”. As a child I imagined round cheery people with plates of potatoes covered in cream before them sitting around a wooden table, laughing. What did I know about “good German food” except the way my father chuckled with amusement as he remembered how shocked his family was when his sister returned from Europe? In the way only a brother of any age could say it, he said, “she was HUGE!”

I had questions – my aunt went with the Intermenno Trainee Program? What is that? My uncles were PAX-boys? Who were they? Does everyone come back fat from Germany? The Mennonites come from there? – and received only partial answers or explanations that made little sense to my young brain. But I had heard the call. The whisper in those beginnings murmured family and origins.

When I was in fourth grade, my brother’s girlfriend (now wife) left for then East Germany as part of her college schooling. Again the details were vague back then, but this immensely cool young woman whom I adored had chosen Germany. She wanted to learn the language and actually got to live there. I can almost hear my fourth-grade-self squealing “how cool!” And when that following year I sat riveted in front of the television, watching as individuals jumped over a wall shouting with joy, Germany took hold. I did not understand how two countries could suddenly become one and it was beyond me why exactly they celebrated with such release. But clearly this was history in the making, and in some weird way, I felt a part.

While almost everyone else was taking Spanish as their foreign language in high school, I sat with a tiny group of German diehards. One guy basically had no other choice because his mother was German; his best friend joined him. A girlfriend was there because her family had Dutch roots and German was the closest thing we had. Each of us had our reasons. Mine was to finally begin learning the language I already felt so attached to. Vividly I remember that first day of German class. I sat in the front row and before Frau could say anything at all, my hand shot up. “Why are all those words on the board capitalized? Those aren’t just new sentences. Are certain words always capitalized in German?” I’m not kidding. Frau was probably confused by my enthusiasm – was it genuine? It was, completely. It soon waned, however, as I realized learning a foreign language is tough and Frau and I butted heads. But I was proud of every phrase or word I learned.

Another memory: I’m a teenager at a friend’s cottage with my family. My cousin and her German husband are visiting from California. He wants to learn to water-ski, bobbing up and down in the water behind the boat. As my cousin yells instructions to him in German above the noise of the boat and the distance, words like water skis, hold, between knees ring out, and I understand. I understand.

treeSarah Cedeño (on her blog copyright 1982) writes in her post “Matters of Space” (find the link here), “I asked what had changed in all this time?  I urged them to consider how everything around us had changed.  How can we not explore the space we live in?  Even its past? … It’s probably the reason I’ve never left my hometown.  I take the word “roots” literally.” As my Oxford American Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus defines “roots”, “attachment, esp. to one’s place of origin,” Ms.Cedeño is right on with her logical consequence of staying in her hometown. Her town is where she began, her “place of origin”.

But is it possible to feel the tug of origin to a place we’ve never been? “Well, I’m on my way to Germany. My dream come true….my land of connection….my roots….the cause for me to about lose my lunch.” On May 28th, 1999 I obviously did. I had to leave my family, my mother tongue and country to find roots from before my time, but ones that seemed to call me home. I was not being up-rooted, but rather replanted.

By now I have discovered many answers to those questions from my childhood. The Intermenno Trainee Program with which my aunt came to Germany so many years ago was (unfortunately it no longer exists) a Mennonite cultural exchange opportunity that brought young North Americans to Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands to become acquainted with some of the languages, cultures and lives of the Mennonite church in Europe. Its goal was to shape these young people into bridge builders between continents. Completely unaware of the coincident with my aunt, this was the program I chose to bring me to Germany. Years later when I found my aunt’s picture in the Intermenno archives, I felt a family root take hold.

When I first came to our little town, church members in their sixties would hear my maiden name and ask, “There was a PAX-boy here once with that name. Do you know him?” What a surprise – but really should I have been? – to learn it was my uncle whom I missed loving because of his early death. He was a PAX-boy, young North American men who were sent out all over the world as conscientious objectors in the 1950’s and ’60’s, who had helped build the Mennonite settlement in our town. My uncle had made an impact, especially because of his love and gift of music. And here, almost 25 years after his death, I feel I’ve come to know him a tiny bit and what’s more, been given the opportunity to carry on his legacy.

That call from long ago continues: seeing the farm where my mother’s ancestors lived and fled from because of their Anabaptist leanings; touching the memorial where another aunt’s father is remembered; discovering family lineage just up my German street to a French neighbor; beginning to understand the heritage of my Mennonite background.

When I arrived in Germany I came home. It was here that I needed to replant those roots I had been dragging about with me. It was certainly not my intention when I left my parents with my mother’s last bit of advice ringing in my ears, “Just don’t fall in love with a German!” The German certainly helped, but maybe I had already fallen in love with Germany.

tree

“Coming home” doesn’t happen without a price. There is another side to being replanted. Read about it in Part Two of Replanted: Coming Home to a Foreign Place, coming soon.

You Never Know

It’s impossible to live in Germany and NOT talk about the weather. Wherever you go and with whomever you speak, the first topic of conversation is always the weather, not because Germans like small talk (in fact most Germans are still wondering about the necessity of small talk at all), but because German weather forces us (those crazy enough to live here) through cycles of joy, frustration, madness and utter desperation on a weekly, if not daily, basis. It would be entirely unthinkable for me to live here and not write about the weather – probably more often than you would like to read, and I’ll go ahead and apologize now for it – because the weather really is just that dramatic.

flipflops I was all set to write about the positive way Germans deal with their bodies; they are comfortable in their own skin and allow others to see them that way too. As I was cooling off at the swimming pool last week in the 37 degree weather (that’s Celsius, of course, which is around 98 degrees Fahrenheit) admiring the various swimsuit styles, the topic seemed a very appropriate one. Alas that was last week and any images of Germans basking in the hot, summer sun have been washed away by the incessant rain falling from gray skies. This week I sit at the computer hovering over a cup of hot tea and wrapped in a sweatshirt, my brown skin the only reminder of those four days of summer. At 12 degrees Celsius (54 degrees Fahrenheit), it’s really no wonder.

Growing up in the Midwest, I knew to expect hot and humid in the summer and cold and wet in the winter. Of course there would be days in the summer that weren’t quite as hot as others, but I never wavered in my decision to pack away the long pants for the duration of those three to four months. In winter I would suffer through the bitter cold days with everyone else and play in the snow with my brother and be happily surprised in case the sun decided to shine. But the promise of that very hot summer always pulled me through those gray days of winter.

Ah, the glorified summer days of northwest Indiana. I have forgotten the over 80 % humidity that makes breathing difficult. The swarming mosquitoes that cover and bite as soon you step foot outside after dusk are only a vague recollection. Air-conditioning turned up so high you shiver when indoors has long been ignored. What remains in my memory are the warmth and the sunshine; what I savor most, however, is the Beständigkeit.

Beständigkeit, what a wonderful German word! It means reliability, consistency, stability. A rough definition might be: if you are expecting something to happen because it has proven so in the past, then this expectation will be fulfilled. The summers in the Midwest will be hot and humid because they have always been hot and humid. And this word is so wonderful because it explains in perfect detail exactly what German weather is NOT. There is nothing – and by nothing, I mean absolutely no tiny part or detail – of German weather that could be considered beständig. The month of May was warm with the perfect amount of precipitation the last two years? Can we expect May this year to be similar? ABSOLUTELY NOT! According to the German Weather Service, May 2013 was the “the second wettest May since measurements first began in 1881”. Of course this could just be one of those freak incidents by which no definition can be made. But it seems to me freak incidents characterize German weather.

Boots Reflection My father-in-law attempted to explain this unbeständigkeit (another fun German lesson: add an un- to the beginning of many adjectives and it becomes the opposite!) to me one evening when I was again praising Indiana summers and desperate to understand why exactly the weather here always has to be so darn different all the time. According to him, Europe has a relatively small land mass, which gives the weather fronts (for example the cold and warm weather fronts) much more influence. These fronts develop over the ocean (to the west of Germany), over England and its surrounding bodies of water (to the north of Germany), over the southern European countries and Africa from which we often get our hot weather – love these! – (to the south of Germany) and over Russia from which we get our very cold weather – don’t love these – (to the east of Germany). These fronts are constantly moving and changing, resulting in weather that does the same. Apparently even our weather is heavily influenced by the European Union.

We’re getting geared up for our family reunion, this time in Germany. My brother asked for some advice as to what they should pack, weather-wise. Helplessly I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders.

“If I could tell you that I would be a millionaire,” I told him. He looked at me strangely. (It was over Skype, so maybe I misunderstood; everything looks a bit strange with Skype.) Perhaps it was an odd response, but you see, no one can forecast the weather here more than a few days in advance. It would be like foretelling the winning lottery number or properly prophesying the next Cub World Series win.

“The best advice I can give you,” I continued, “is to be prepared for everything. It could be incredibly hot; it could just as well be chilly and rainy. Most likely we won’t have snow, but around here, you never know.”

The Enigma of the German “Sie”

For anyone who has learned a foreign language, the sympathy will most likely be inevitable. You will recognize that feeling of having to make constant choices while speaking, not really sure if the one you just made was the best. You will know what it means to wait for social cues, for that very slight raise of the eyebrows, for the almost imperceptible turning of the mouth (either up or down), or the dreaded blank look.

I find the blank look by far the worst response to a, in my case, German faux pas. It is that moment when I say something in this language that has become my daily one and I notice it in the eyes of the person with whom I am speaking – the blankness. The sinking feeling in my stomach rises, as I backtrack quickly in my thoughts: what have I just said? Sometimes I realize my mistake, can laugh, make some joke and all is forgotten. But often enough I have stood searching my thoughts and the faces around me for some clue as to what mistake I have made. And then we stand there, the person I have in some way offended and I, awkwardly both trying to act like the mistake has not just happened.

The best example is the use of the formal “you” in German. English speakers should consider themselves lucky that they do not, on a daily basis, need to decide who needs to be addressed formally and whom informally. Many languages have a word system that differentiates between familiar persons, strangers and persons of respect. My Japanese sister-in-law has told me that there are about eight ways to address someone formally in the Japanese language, depending on what degree of respect that person deserves. Thankfully I only have to struggle with one. Trust me, it’s enough.

When learning German in school, the rules seemed easy enough. For family, friends or people your age, you use the informal “you” or “du” form. When addressing older individuals, strangers or acquaintances, remember to use the respectful form of “you”, that is “Sie”. Simple enough. And for school book exercises like, “Franz, woher kommst du?” (Franz, where are you from?” or Herr Schmidt, woher kommen Sie?” (Same question, but please note the changed form of the verb “kommen” and the use of “Sie”.), it is easy. When there is a “Herr” or “Frau” (Mr. or Mrs.) in front of a name, you use the formal.

Unfortunately for me real life use of the “Sie” in Germany is much more complicated. In fact Germans are often incapable of saying exactly when it is appropriate or not. When I first came to Enkenbach I assumed in a church congregation, as we are all “brothers and sisters in Christ”, that I could in good conscience address everyone with “du”. And that is exactly what I did. No one made a fuss about it because Germans are very forgiving when it comes to foreigners speaking their language. It wasn’t until I was married to a German from the community and who has known most of these people his entire life that I noticed something seemed a bit strange. Individuals whom I freely addressed as “du”, Patrick often wouldn’t. It’s not that he immediately said “Sie, Herr so and so”, but he certainly would not say, “Du, Franz…”.

“Patrick,” I asked, “why aren’t you saying “du” to them? It’s weird if I’m calling them by their first names and you aren’t, especially because you’ve known them since you were a kid!”

“Yeah, it is strange, but I can’t just say “du” to them. When I was a kid, we always said “Sie” to the adults, and I can’t just change now.”

“But Patrick, you’re an adult too. Why not?”

“Because you just don’t do that.”

Huh? This was not exactly the clear-cut answer I was used to from my German school books.

And then he added, “They’ve never offered me the “du”.

Ah yes, the ceremonial offering of the “du”, like a sacrifice offered up to the formality gods. As I have discovered over the years, this can be done by simply offering a hand and saying something like, “Patrick, you’re an adult now, why don’t you call me Franz,” which would automatically mean that the “du” comes along with it. Sometimes this offering is literally done in a ceremonious way, called “drinking brotherhood”. Both individuals have a glass in his right hand (usually filled with something alcoholic, this is however not an absolute requirement). This hand is then wrapped around the arm of the other individual so that both parties take a drink out of her own glass, but uncomfortably as if while playing Twister. And with that drink, both individuals can officially call each other by their first names and say “du”.

By now, you would think, after being almost thirteen years in Germany, I have got this informal/formal “you” thing down pat. With my many years of formal German training, along with years of daily experience, I am capable of saying in all situations what the appropriate form of address is. Let me give you a few examples of true situations I have found myself in:

  • We have a lovely vegetable / fruit store in our little town run by a family that is from Enkenbach. Although our children are not together in any school classes, the woman from the store (and mother of these gorgeous children) and I see each other regularly as the store, yes, but also at our children’s swim practices, on the way to kindergarten (pre-school) or elsewhere. On this particular day in question, the sun was shining, I was feeling confident, the vegetables looked scrumptious, and so I asked “Du have another little girl at home, right?” Immediately I felt my mistake. The awkward pause, the twitching of the eyebrows. “Um yes.” She was very polite, but I became instantly aware that I overstepped some boundary. For me she was “just” another mom around town, which made the informal seem acceptable. But to her I was a customer to be treated with respect. She was acting appropriately; I obviously had not. We finished our exchange, I bought those lovely vegetables, and I left, aware that the sun was no longer shining as brightly as before. I made a vow to myself, never to make the same mistake again. No matter if mother or not, store people are to be addressed with the formal “Sie”!
  • That same week I was at the local farmer’s store where I am always giddy because of his self-grown products for sale. The woman that works there in the morning I am familiar with because she is a friend of a friend, but on this particular morning, I reminded myself of my vow and knew I would not make the same mistake again. “Hallo! Sie are working this morning! How are you (Sie) doing?” And there it was – the blank look. She looked at me with such a question mark stamped across her face, I could not help but realize that yet again, I had made a mistake. She was obviously (and understandably) perturbed and went about her business now with a colder pretence. My stomach dropped and my shoulders sagged as I meekly finished my shopping, hoping I hadn’t ruined all my future trips back to the store.

After taking a survey of many German friends and family members how exactly they deal with the question of when to use the formal or informal, I have come to the conclusion that I am not alone in my quest to solve this enigma. It seems no one really understands the rules. When I asked a good friend and excellent orator his thoughts on the matter, he chuckled loudly, shook his head and said, ” Ah yes, the German Sie.” And left it at that.

I guess there isn’t much left to say, except to ask,

“Was denken Sie?” or “Was denkst du?” (What do you think?)