by Emma Gilpin
Shifting from one language to another feels strange. It feels almost like I have more than one personality, as if there is a strange sort of discord between my English and German speaking selves. I have always loved words, which is why I chose to study languages in the first place. But, almost paradoxically, it is that love of words which brings me frustration when speaking in languages that aren’t my mother tongue. I know now why they call it a mother tongue; it is comforting and warm and makes an indelible mark on the way you think and behave from infancy.
In English, I am effortlessly talkative, occasionally witty and sometimes even wise. My vocabulary, rich from years of reading literature and newspapers and the occasional copy of Heat, is like a bowl overflowing with ripened grapes. I select each word carefully, rolling it around on my tongue to check it’s exactly the correct one for that moment. It’s so easy to jump into conversations even if I have nothing in particular to say on the matter, by chipping in with the kind of stock phrases that Flaubert believed were the marker of the pretentious middle classes (sorry Flaubert). When I do have something I want to say, I can generally express my feelings effortlessly, unless I’ve had a couple of glasses of wine and have managed to get myself into a political debate with someone who I don’t really know.
Conversely, I sometimes worry that the people I meet in German will think I am shy, or boring, or even rude. It is strange and troubling to have that easiness, that effortlessness, that familiarity of the mother tongue taken away. To suddenly be left with a couple of old raisins where you once had such variety. You over-chew the same old words for lack of anything better to hand, coughing and spluttering as they go down the wrong way and your cheeks turn red as you realise, halfway through a sentence, that you have no idea what you want to say. It’s no longer effortless to nudge your way into a conversation at a party, or to make a joke with the smiley old lady stood next to you at the tram stop on a freezing cold day. You worry people are going to think the only word you know is ‘schön’ (you are starting to think it might be, too.)
Although I’ve never been the most outgoing person in the world, and especially not at Oriel College, my time in Germany is teaching me what it feels like to be shy. I suppose a main reason that I’ve never been shy is that I’ve always been in the middle of things. I am privileged enough to have never really experienced what it is like to be an outsider, and I now have even more respect for those who move to another country with no knowledge of the language. When I phone my parents, or am tapping away at messages to a group chat we made back when we were Freshers, I shift back into my easy-going English world, where I don’t have to try as hard to express my personality, the one that is weaved out of sarcasm and long stories and questionable advice and the strangely specific intonations that my friends have come to associate with me.
The bilingual people who I have met in the past month seem not so much to shift, but to glide from one language into another and then back again. There is a perfect cohesion between their English and German speaking selves, one that allows them to tell a story in German with the occasional English joke thrown in. This inspires me, along with the moments where I find I am understanding a story someone is telling without even really concentrating, or when I am chatting away in German and start to feel like this really is a language that is, or one day could be, mine. Sometimes, the shift is barely perceptible as the teacher in one of my English classes starts telling the class something in German and I forget that the language being spoken is not my own. That is how I know that the shift will soon stop being so jarring, that I will soon be able to go from a phone call home to a chat with my housemate without spending a second or two feeling slightly disoriented. I think my German speaking self will always be slightly less spontaneous (that word order though) and probably less funny, but the chasm between these two languages is slowly closing, the shift becoming less of a leap of faith.