I moved to Innsbruck about two and a half years ago. It wasn’t long before I learnt that „native speaker“ means more here than „someone who can speak their own mother tongue“. Being a British immigrant to Tirol means something very different to being a Turk, Iraqi or African here: an inequality I despise.
It was not easy to learn German here – even now as I flirt with the idea of fluency I regularly meet people who simply drop into English as soon as they learn where I come from. However well-intentioned that might be, I find it arrogant and offensive. When Austrians speak English „for me“, whatever they are saying, I just hear the words: „Check out how great my English is, probably better than your German, let’s just speak English yeah? I am more than happy to ignore the fact that you’ve moved here, worked here, lived here and have spent years learning my language, I’d rather practice what I learnt in high school“.
(And at this point you’ll forgive me for writing this article in English – it’s just the type of people that I think need to read this are the type of people that will be attracted to reading something in English!)
The fact is Austrians fetishise the English language. When was the last time you casually dropped an English word into a German sentence and why do you think you did it? How often do you watch films or TV in English because the jokes on Two-And-a-Half-Men are funnier in the original? When was the last time you saw an advertisement begging you to „BI cool“ or something else similarly ridiculous?
I know why this is happening. I know why you’re doing it. You and everyone else in this country. It’s because you think it’s cool. English words have some kind of magical power. And yeah, given that the definition of „cool“ is perhaps more than anything else grounded in common opinion, maybe here in Austria using English words is cool. So really; well done. ??Unfortunately, here’s the bad news guys; and it’s going to be as hard for me to type this as it will for you to read it – it’s actually just embarrassing. And worst than that, I believe it’s damaging both of us. In other words: that’s totally uncool!
It’s not just the seeping of English words into German, which is leaving a horrible damp mark on the language like a slowly drying tea bag on a copy of Der Standard, it’s also the fact you’re all just too good at English. You’re studying in English, working in English and worst of all, sharing ideas and making art and music in English. And it’s not good for you and you need to stop!!
Ok, at this point, I guess I’ve got some explaining to do.
For example, the claim that English is important for the economy is nothing but a sad self-fulfilling prophecy. What English is good for is multi-national corporations buying shit in one part of the world, processing it in another and selling it in yet another all the while paying no tax in any of the places it’s operating. It’s increasingly clear that small-scale local initiatives, supporting local economies and sourcing food from the region is the key to moving towards a more sustainable future. Making it easy for us to communicate with the people who we buy our strawberries from in winter is not going to help us here. Being able to have a friendly conversation with the Farmer who lives at the end of your street however, just might.
Yes, we know how important tourism is here and we do love to go abroad, but while we keep an eye on what all those air miles are doing to our glaciers, it’s worth remembering that the ubiquity of English actually makes travelling less meaningful, not more. Yeah, great, go on holiday to Thailand and you can speak to the locals but you can’t tell me they wouldn’t have been even happier to have discovered you’d learnt a bit of Thai.
Young people from across Europe are at this very moment gathered in small clusters in youth hostels across the world speaking to each other in English. I’m sorry if I’ve never understood how such an experience of „backpacking“ opens one’s eyes more than, for example, visiting a country, learning the language and meeting people as a humble foreigner, eager and willing to fit in and learn about the host’s culture. The fact is, it doesn’t. Travelling in a world where we all speak English is to an adventure what a microwaveable lasagne is to an Italian grandmother’s cooking.
But how is this bad news for English? Surely we win right? Well, actually no. The average British child is lucky to leave school able to order a croissant, let alone complain about the butter on their bretzel. Modern foreign languages are not taken seriously in Britain because they don’t have to be. If the whole world is speaking English, why waste our time learning German? A rhetorical question that must be even more powerful if you’re 7000 kilometres away in the States. The logical decision: to not learn a second language, has far-reaching consequences for an individual’s world view and the culture it creates.
Speaking in another language changes who we are, it requires, for all but the most arrogant, an ability to accept you might be wrong. It requires an at least tacit acknowledgement of the difficulty in expressing ourselves through language and the limits that language has. This is something that many Europeans have but most British and American people do not. European proficiency in English pushes the anglophone world further away because it enables us to be lazy, it protects us from the humiliation of misinterpretation and allows the propagation of cultural myths unchallenged by contact with foreign ideas.
English native speakers grow up in a world that is built for them; why should we risk humiliating ourselves by being the foreigner who doesn’t understand when you are willing to build that into your schools, universities and culture itself? The ability to rely on others to speak our language, rather than bother to learn theirs, is thus fuel on the fire for that wonderful British-American sense of superiority.
While in Austria we think it’s cool to watch The Big Bang Theory or support the Swarco Raiders, to most English people this seems simply absurd. The English are far from innocent when it comes to consuming American culture but the situation in Austria just seems to be desperate. So why is it the exception rather than the rule that we hear a German song on the radio? That we see Austrian-made television or films? Are English-speaking artists just better? No, obviously not. Again, the problem lies with Austrians being so good at learning English and the false belief that the best ideas are somehow the most global.
As an English teacher I am all too familiar with the usefulness of teaching a language as rules. As a lover of literature I am all too aware of the need to break those rules to make progress. In learning another language we are placed in the mindset that a mistake is wrong, in our mother tongue we intrinsically know something is wrong but feel the freedom to play with language. In the obsession to speak perfect English we too often miss the point of the beauty of learning a new language – the idiosyncratic “mistakes” that emerge to form new words and ideas: the word plays and misunderstandings that in our own languages we use to our advantage but in another are perhaps too afraid to explore. In other words, we are more creative in our mother tongue, freed from the constraints of worrying about making a mistake.
When I hear foreign bands singing in English I tend to just find it sad. They are presumably attempting to emulate their heroes but achieve only a strange parody. The real heroes of creativity do what they want, they do something new and exciting. It says a lot about an artist’s mentality if the very words they use to express themselves are chosen because they are trying to be someone else. Perhaps they believe they couldn’t “make it” if they sang in German – what does that tell us about their need for self-fulfilment over their desire to express themselves.
The same applies in advertising: English words in the windows of shops selling the same clothes to people across Europe, all with the same misplaced aim: to be unique, to express individuality.
But who is really responsible for this? Education systems that, in large part to service the needs of big business and foreign tourists, put learning and working in English at their core have combined with young people’s greedy consumption of Anglo-American culture. A perfect storm exists in which we spin further and further into the cultural oblivion of English language invasion, forgetting to play and create in German and all the time ironically pushing the English-speaking world ever further away.
And yes, of course I’m responsible too. I am an English native speaker, teaching English to Austrian kids and writing commentary about how awful that is. But, as I like to imagine Obama perceives of his own simultaneous belief that all men are created equal and yet some of them you are allowed to kill with drone strikes: just because I’m a hypocrite doesn’t mean I’m wrong.
Globalisation has brought us together and we’ve learnt a lot, but it shouldn’t lead to the end of differences between us. Now, more than ever in the history of mankind we face challenges that are too great and too horrific to imagine: climate change, peak oil, forced migration, economic and political systems that have failed us.
As individuals we have the agency to change, to create new and beautiful things. This is a time that the world needs new stories, we can no longer afford to be afraid to create something new. It’s time to accept there are differences between us and that’s what makes us stronger. It’s time to stop pretending to be something we’re not and start to define the things that really matter and really make us who we are. English is damaging creativity and rather than bringing us together, it at best creates superficial relationships and at worst it actively pushes us apart.
It’s easy to blame young people in Austria for lapping up American culture but equally easy to understand why they do it. We live in a time of generations that have grown up learning about the terrible things their grandparents have done. The original sin of the horrors of the second world war is hard to escape and the cultural black hole that is created by the deletion of a decades long period of Austrian history leaves an unappealing choice: swallow American culture or hark back to the ridiculously outdated. The very fact that anyone ever wears Lederhosen shows us that not everyone is willing to give in. The fact they all look so stupid while they’re doing it is a call to arms for creatives to make something new.
And that’s where I stop being sad and start to feel optimistic. Here’s an opportunity for a country to define itself as it wishes, to be something more than 19th Century farmers or Superbowl fans: to create a new authentic culture, to decide what it means to be Austrian, or indeed Tyrolean, in the 21st Century. The choice is clear: another small country with a crush on America or somewhere more interesting and distinctive. You might sometimes forget this but as an outsider perhaps I can remind you: this is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Take another look at those mountains; I suggest we start there.