Sorry, I Don't Speak Your Language

A few months ago - I had just moved back to Berlin - I went to a coffeeshop in my neighbourhood. For those of you who aren't that good at geography: Berlin is in Germany and the only official language in Germany is German. Many people don't even speak any foreign language. So I was pretty surprised when the waitress couldn't understand my order and simply replied: "Sorry, I don't speak German. Could you repeat that in English?". After spending some time in Berlin, I realised that there are actually quite a few hip cafes that are run in English.


You might say "So what?". But to be honest, I think how you deal with languages has a profound political power. I'm not only talking about English-speaking cafes in Berlin, but about a variety of scenarios that I have experienced in different countries. Let's look at a few examples to illustrate what I mean.


My first example is Majorca, a Spanish island. There are heaps of German and British tourists there and the restaurants have adapted to them. The menus are in German / English and you would often hear tourist use their mother tongue straightaway without even attempting to order in Spanish. My second example are French restaurants in non-French speaking countries. It seems to be a default that they print their menus mainly in French, although it is obvious that Brits, Americans and Germans aren't particularly good at French. The third and last example are  Indians within India that don't use the local languages, but English for their personal conversations.


The common pattern that I see in all of those examples is that language is used to emphasise power relationships. In the case of the tourists, using their mother tongue instead of the local language is a sign that they don't even need to adapt. The tourists bring money and they want convenience. In this case, forcing the waitresses to speak German or English is part of the holiday convenience. The French restaurants use French to create in-groups and out-groups. You don't understand what artichauts à la barigoule or vol en vent means? Well, looks like you're not a true connoisseur of good food. And in the example of English-speaking Indians their use of English is a clear status symbol. Mainly private (boarding) schools teach their students in English. In order to feel comfortable enough to substitute their local language with English, they must have visited one of these upperclass schools or have spent some time abroad - which is also more an upperclass thing to do.


In the bottom line, I think the political power of language is often overlooked. I think the examples above show that languages can easily establish master-servant like relationships, discourage people from culinary experiences and reinforce social status. What is more, many people might not reflect about the impact of their choice of language. As long as you're not the disadvantaged party, you might not even realise that there is any harm going on.


And in the case of hipster cafes... Well, I think it is yet another example of the double standards in the German attitude towards expats versus immigrants. If you're an "expat" from the US or other English-speaking countries, you get a lot of freedom to do whatever you want to do. But would Germans accept if immigrants  from other countries (e.g. China or Turkey) decided to run their cafes in their own mother tongue? I doubt it. Probably there would be a major anti-immigrant outcry in BILD (a German tabloid) against those stubborn immigrants. And that's the injustice I realised when I thought about English-speaking cafes and that made me reflect on this topic.



Comments: 6 (Discussion closed)
  • #1

    Bronte (Monday, 06 July 2015 10:26)

    Hi ,

    Interesting article. I feel I should point out that English is the international language. The cafes don't choose to run in English to please the English speaking expats, rather to be internationally friendly. I am not sure comparing it then with a cafe that ran only in another foreign language, or deeming it an 'injustice' is appropriate.

    On the tourist issue, with the technology available to us these days I really don't think there is any excuse not to learn how to say a few basic words in the country you will be visiting. For example, hello, please and thank you.

    Thanks for the read!

  • #2

    Tanja (Monday, 06 July 2015 11:49)

    Hi Bronte,

    Thanks for your feedback! I agree that English is an international language and that it makes sense to use it. But what about the Germans who don't speak English (they do exist, even my own mum doesn't speak English)? Just imagine going to a cafe in your home country and not being able to understand the menu. I think from that perspective, English-only cafes are quite an insult and may even seem oppressive to those Germans who don't speak English.

    But anyways, I'm happy to hear any views and thoughts about the blog!


  • #3

    Kia (Monday, 06 July 2015 12:27)

    This is a really interesting article. I think the difference between a Turkish runned Café and an English one, is that English is an international language and more people will understand it. Still, I find ir weird to work in the service industry without speaking the countries language. Whether English or any other.

    Still, due to globalization more and more people live abroad. I am German, but in Berlin I sometimes speak more English than German as so many of my friends are international. I like this a lot, still it is somehow scary. Are languages become extinct at some point? If we all start to use English more and more, what about all the other great languages?

  • #4

    Ly (Monday, 06 July 2015 12:52)

    thanks for the article and I found it interesting to get another point of view on language use. Well, I am from Berlin and I also lived 4 years in Vietnam as an "expat" I am aware that all my statements are based on personal experience and subjective observation and I'd say that Berlin is a very (not only) "English-Speaking-City". I have a very fiew friends who grew up monolingual. When I think about that, its impressive that most of them at least speak 2-3 language and use them as well.Well I speak 5 languages and one of them is Vietnamese. I had to learn Vietnamese in Vietnam, because the education system in Vietnam includes crappy forein-language-aquisition approaches!! So people their do not have an appropriate condition to socialize with the tourists nor the expats- they tried really, they tried with gestures and everything you can imagine to interact with me for the sake of having a nice talk or for me bying something.What so ever- there I did not come far with English, German, French and Arabic- so finally I automatically learned the language cause I believe human beings are forced to create meaning!! And in case you do not hang out only with other expats- you just simply learn the language of the natives, right?That language is used to emphasise power relationships is an interesting thought and I might bring it up in a seminar at University- besides being a teacher of German as second and foreign language I am studying linguistics, in that scientific field you will find other explainations for language use, performance and language frequency.....I often wonder why the heck we have to read this difficult lingusitic articles, texts and so on in English?? Well I do not believe our profs have a power issue on us. The research is open to everybody, so scientists use the international language!I think in some cases I'd agree with you on master-servant like relationships, but I believe your examples are not well chosen to express your idea. I think a lot of restaurants and shopping centres like Dong xuan are run in foreign languages like turkish or chinese or arabic restaurants are mostly managed in other languages than German. Whenever I be a guest at these places I do not understand when the waiters talk to other waiters and so on, but they code-switch when they address me- so they use the target language -German. Code-Switching also takes place when you observe youngers with migration background. When I teach them they talk German to me and when I make a group or pair-work they switch to their languages sometimes. An also quiet interesting aspect is the language-contact-phenomenon- thats a phenomenon where at least 2 languages influence themselves in syntactic struktures like verb conjugations and the use of foreign grammatical suffix- short: languages melt together. You can find that a lot when you listen to young people talking in German- lots of Egnlish vocabulary is integrated in that language but is also adapted to German grammar. That same example appears in an official recognized dialect of Berlin Youngsters: "Kiez-Deutsch"- That dialect includes different pronounciation, a different use of prepositions, turkish and arabic vocabulary and so on.And still, even when I think that Berliners have a big english knowledge there are still people who just leanred English at school and never practice it outside, because of different social environments... so they feel not confident to use their little English skills. It also comes to a problem when a native English speaker addresses these kinda people cause the native english simply sounds different from that you know from school or so. Its hard to understand and its hard to quickly switch to a foreign langualge you barely use, 'cause the brain is used to one dominant it might be that the waitress simply was to slow to react or too shy to answer in the tourist or expat-target language (and not wnat to be reduced on her L2-Knowledge) or she just simply doesnt speak english because she had a different or bad school education, or she even comes from another country where foreign language aquisition is still developed in the education system- or she wanted to demonstrate that you might be the one who should try to make an efford to get close to the dominant "culture (what ever that may be in Berlin??) by socializing in the target language to make a step closer and signal that you do not only live in a bubble, next to the people of Berlin but also live with them. So in that case she might have tried to emphase a kinda power realtionship with u?Thanks for the read

  • #5

    Ravi (Monday, 06 July 2015 15:49)

    Immigrants ;) Mumbai specially and Maharashtra has experienced this phenomenon. though the official language is Marathi, only Hindi is spoken in Mumbai. So much so, even two Marathi guys who don't know each other will start in Hindi (not knowing they can speak in Marathi). English indeed is learnt as a status symbol, the erstwhile Brits ensured they gave it a status symbol / recognition, through rewards.

    But menu cards in Goa are in Russian :P. So what you say is right. Soon two Germans who don't know each other will start speaking in English, in Berlin, a few years down the line. :)

    For me, language is just means to communicate.

    Cheerio. :)


    PS : And while we are on languages, you may want to read this :

  • #6

    Tanja (Monday, 06 July 2015 16:08)

    Beautiful transition to yoga, Ravi :-)