Sprechen Sie Deutsch, du Arsch?

Another day, another expat writing about her inability to fit in in Europe. If she were a Mexican writing in Spanish but living in the U.S., there would be an uproar. If she were Tunisian writing in Arabic but living in Germany, there would be people calling for her to go “home.”

Because this immigrant on a spousal visa in The Netherlands speaks English as her first language, however, she regards herself as “cute” and her readers — worldwide but for a website based in New York — see her life as exotic, unique. It’s not.

It’s not cute to not be able to speak the language of the people around you. These people whose lifestyle you’re proud to be adapting to are not exotic. You are not unique. Your life is not enviable.

I know because I’ve been there, been through all the stages of being a foreigner in a country I’d always fantasized about living in. I thought I was cute. I thought Germany was exotic, my life unique. It wasn’t. It isn’t.

Unlike many “expat” women, I did not come here for love and have the great German-language-speaking husband waiting for me here to handle the bureaucracy. I am not a traveling spouse. I did not get a shit ton of money and offers of language courses because my (ex-)husband had made some brilliant career back home and a three-year stint abroad was the most logical next step in a globalized world.

Although we arrived in Germany right after the integration courses became mandatory for immigrants, I somehow managed to talk my way out of them (likely because I spoke mediocre German, studying for a year before I arrived). By nature of his German citizenship, my ex wasn’t allowed to attend them, although he knew less about the country than I did and could barely order in a restaurant when we arrived.

I’m saying this because the opportunities for language learning were not handed to us in the way that they are to many English-speaking immigrants and yet both of us managed to become fluent in German. We managed to learn not only how to speak but also how the culture and society works and though some things — like the necessity of wearing slippers indoors and keeping your kidneys covered at all times — still baffle, it broke down a lot of barriers here. Barriers in our own minds.

I’m saying this because the level of willfulness that many English speaking immigrants who come here willingly show in their refusal to integrate has reached its peak and its getting frustrating to read.

Despite having a load of German journalists on hand in the country, the Wall Street Journal has its English-language correspondent tweeting about an inability to understand the concept of airing out your apartment. EVERYBODY IN GERMANY UNDERSTANDS LUFTING, JUST ASK A GERMAN. Their expat blog published a bit on the Sunday quiet rules. THIS SHIT HAS BEEN COVERED ALREADY, THANKS.

Get out of your expat bubble. Take a German course. Talk to a German. Stop bragging about your inability to speak the language and therefore fit in.

I’m not saying don’t keep up with your English. I’m not saying don’t hang out with the other ladies from the American Women’s Club nor am I telling you to stop watching your movies in English. Some things need to stay as they are, and we all know the dubbing in those movies is terrible. But at least fucking try. Enroll yourself in one of those ueber-cheap, over-filled classes at the VHS. Get yourself a tandem partner. If you have kids, have them teach you the language they can more easily pick up. Stop telling yourself that you are “genetically unable to learn a second language.” There is no such thing.

And for heaven’s sake, stop assuming that just because everybody speaks English to you that they don’t think you’re an asshole. It’s cute when you’re a tourist but not a permanent fixture.


19 thoughts on “Sprechen Sie Deutsch, du Arsch?

  1. Rachel_Munich March 31, 2015 / 3:24 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree. She can’t learn another language because of genetics? Gah.

    She refuses to integrate and expects people to find this endearing. Her whole article has made me rage.

    • Milly March 31, 2015 / 8:38 pm

      Glad to know I wasn’t the only one left seething…

  2. AmiFaultier March 31, 2015 / 3:30 pm

    I just finished my Integration Course (literally, yesterday was the last day) and I felt so grateful that English was my native language because it made language learning much easier for me than for my colleagues who came in with non-Germanic mother tongues. I’m a bit worried that my German will backslide now that the class is over and I work as an English teacher. Once my work is steadier, I plan on looking into further courses. I also made a friend in the class, and while we both speak English, we converse primarily in German. I don’t like the “i’m too old” or “it’s just genetics” excuse. Yes, the older you are the harder it will be, and some people take to new languages faster than others. But terrible (insert language here) is better than nothing and you can’t get better if you never try to speak it.

    • Milly March 31, 2015 / 8:37 pm

      Just making an effort is something…. we’ve all been all that backsliding/imperfect phase but this woman seems to have given up without even trying, which is an unfortunate lesson for her kids.

  3. Dan March 31, 2015 / 4:08 pm

    ‘Doomed by genetics…’ so she basically admits being too dumb to learn. *shrugs*

    A problem I reckon is the likeliness of Europeans to speak at least a rudimentary level of English. English speaking foreigners are simply not forced as much as say a Greek person would be.

    However, I get angry at the downright refusal of some people to learn the tongue of their adopted country. A question might be when one should go about it. Does it really make sense to cram Malaysian into your head for a half year stint? But then, shouldn’t half a year justify some basic phrases?

    In the end, you cannot really force people to do this, but the ones who do learn so much more about the culture. Well, and they are perceived different.

    • Milly March 31, 2015 / 8:37 pm

      I really just can’t imagine living in the bubble that not speaking a language entails for a long period of time. I get the whole reluctance if you’re here on a short-term but that woman is clearly not, and thinks it’s cute enough to brag about it, which is what pisses me off. I’ve never worked in German (though I get more jobs because I can speak it) but this woman seems to be consciously repeatedly deciding to remain an outsider and though that’s her choice, it’s not one that should be applauded, as the xojane commenters are doing. I think it’s hugely disrespectful of her.

      • Dan March 31, 2015 / 9:51 pm

        What really is annoying how she clearly wants kudos for being so bold and move abroad without the effort. Pretty posh.

  4. AmiFaultier March 31, 2015 / 8:46 pm

    Also airing out an apartment is a German thing? We air out our apartment when the weather is nice or if it is humid inside, but I never thought of it as being humid. My parents’ house in America doesn’t get humid in the winter because they use a hot air system, but as soon as the weather gets warm enough, my mom starts opening all of the windows.

    • Milly March 31, 2015 / 10:40 pm

      Honestly, it’s one of those things that every immigrant talks about but which, because I have never really lived with a German, I have no idea if it’s true that it’s a German thing. I certainly don’t bother opening my windows in the dead of winter. I’m from Wisconsin. A move like that would illicit “What’re you born in a born or something” comments from my dad.

      • AmiFaultier March 31, 2015 / 10:44 pm

        We have digital thermometers in most of our rooms that monitor humidity, and we’ll open the window in a room for 10-20 minutes to get rid of excess moisture when it got humid, but it is in no way routine. My German instructor was big on airing out the classroom during breaks, but I’m not sure if that means it’s a German thing because his family is Polish.

  5. BerLinda April 1, 2015 / 10:37 am

    Grr, that article made me mad – surely having kids who speak the language should be the biggest motivator. It’s actually downright embarrassing and that’s how she should feel! Not cute in any way! I’m mid-way through my intensive German course now and I absolutely love it – I can now take the piss out of my English friends who’ve been here for years and still don’t speak the language – oh, how the Germans laugh! 🙂 But obviously that’s not the only reason I’m doing the course! 😉 Great post – thanks!

  6. Sara April 1, 2015 / 1:21 pm

    I’m at that point where 90% of stuff written by other expats starts to annoy me. Usually it reeks of unacknowledged privilege. However, I feel equally annoyed by people who don’t understand the barriers that can keep people from integrating. Like I’ve moved four times in the seven years I lived in Germany and I’ve spent over half my time in villages. I get really annoyed when people as me why I don’t have more friends or feel more integrated. Expat experiences are very different, and it’s usually not so nice to compare yourself too much with others. You can’t put someone down for having a German spouse, or being a trailing spouse or being in the military or even for living a comfortable life.

    • Milly April 1, 2015 / 3:27 pm

      I agree that expat experiences are all very different and I don’t mean to insult everyone… it was in particular written to this one woman who very clearly wanted to grab attention for something that I think she should instead be publicly shamed for. Integration is one thing but willfully choosing to remain an outsider and being proud of that fact is another.

  7. beerandbratwurst April 1, 2015 / 2:31 pm

    Link didn´t work to xo Jane. But yes, if one more person writes about lufting and/or recycling and/or quiet hours I am going to scream.

    • Milly April 1, 2015 / 3:30 pm

      The WSJ Expat blog is the worst for that. And don’t get me started on the matador article titled “German friends vs. normal friends.” Because you know, Germans aren’t normal.

  8. Meg April 3, 2015 / 5:40 pm

    Let me add my voice to the chorus of people here that are more than slightly annoyed by this article. Yes, learning another language is hard and yes it is hard when you try learning your first foreign language at an older age (I was 36), but it isn’t impossible. What is this woman’s excuse for not trying to learn Dutch??

    I’m actually annoyed that I haven’t had to take the integration course or got my language courses covered by the government. As someone who came over here not attached I was told by the Ausländerbehörde that I would have no problems integrating since I had a job. That job was entirely in English by the way. I may never speak German fluently or without a very noticeable accent but I can make myself understood and even argue with public servants.Yes, it’s hard but you get nowhere in life without trying.

    • Milly April 6, 2015 / 3:53 pm

      I’ll never speak German fluently and without a noticeable accent but I felt a lot less like an asshole than if I’d expected everyone around me to speak English because I’m too lazy to bother to learn it. A lot of trailing spouses/moms who come through here don’t bother to learn the language because they see Germany as a stepping stone on their husband’s career path, which, I guess I can understand. That they sit around drinking tea and whining about the cold Germans and how hard it is to make friends and/or understand their children is something else entirely. You come temporarily, fine, but the woman writing this article exemplifies everything I dislike about the expat mentality: “look at me, i’m so cool living abroad but can’t understand why i still feel like an outsider, poor me.”

      Good on you for taking the initiative. I still have really hard days with speaking German and still speak English to about half my friends half the time, but I wouldn’t speak it at all if I didn’t bother to try. Which is my point. At least make an effort.

  9. Tobi May 15, 2015 / 10:51 am

    I like your comment about this “genetically impossible” thing. A lot of Brits / Americans tend to make fun of themselves as a lame excuse: “we are so rubbish at learning foreign languages”. That’s because you don’t fucking try! Yes, it’s hard. Especially learning German is ridiculously hard. But the benefit you get from learning any foreign language is enormous – you gain the ability to be polite by not expecting everyone around you to adapt to your needs, you don’t just add another skill to your CV in the easiest way possible, you learn a lot about different cultures and mentalities, you train your brain and so on.

    And you are also right about the privilege thing there. It’s possible to get by if you are a blonde girl from New York who speaks English in Amsterdam, it’s quite a different experience if you are a dark guy from Tunisia doing exactly the same thing (although that’s the same with a foreign accent or making mistakes).

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