More about Erving Goffman and my German Language Problems

As I wrote before I am living in Germany and learning German.  On Tuesday and Thursday mornings I spend 2.5 hours with ten strangers from all over the world. We have little in common except that we are foreigners living in Germany struggling to integrate. Our conversations with each other are in German, and inevitably about such topics as why it is so difficult to remember how to get the right ending on a comparative adjective (is it –e, -en, -er, -em, -es, etc.?). Not really the stuff that great friendships are made of; particularly when you do not share fluency in a common language. But nevertheless, Cordula our teacher assures us that this is all necessary for our life in Germany. So grumpy or not we all push along, collectively sharing an unspoken dream of proving Germans wrong about the idea that multiple adjectival endings are important to anyone’s life.

All of us have tried to explain to Cordula at some point why German does not make sense. She just smiles nicely, and notes that “it’s irregular,” which is the language teacher’s way of saying “it is logicval only when I say it is logical, otherwise it is illogical.” And so we are stumped since after all, how can you ever say that my language is “more logical” than German unless you get the proper ending onto the adjective (something along the lines of “my language is more logikalerere than German because the der-die-das komparativ so much easier is”). You don’t have to believe me on this issue, of course. Mark Twain wrote “The Awful German Language”
after killing two or three German teachers—they died of heart failure—in the 1880s during his attempts to master German grammar. Fortunately, Cordula, has both a better sense of humor and stronger heart than Twain’s teachers, is still alive, but more about her below.

But this blog is not about the nature of German language, but about my classmates who are what sociologist Erving Goffman called my “own” because we share the stigma of being linguistically impaired in Friedrichshafen. There are ten of us, and except with the young English-speaking Kenyan woman who works at a local nursing home, my conversations with the others are in German. We all speak enough to know something about each other. There are two music teachers (one from Russia and one Kazakhstan) both married to German men. There are two from Belarus in the class, one a computer engineer at a local company, and the other a language student. Two Italians work at local restaurants, and Daniel from France who recently retired here. The most fluent German speaker is a Hungarian-speaker from Romania who we all secretly admire greatly. In short, we have little in common, except that we ended up in Friedrichshafen somehow, we are all foreigners, we share a classroom twice a week, and believe in Cordula’s capacity to transform our German verb forms.

And yet we also share that unspoken and special bond described by Goffman in his book Stigma. We are each others’ “own” with respect to the vast numbers of Germans around us who are the “normals.” Some of the best classroom conversations have been about how the normal Germans do things to us which are odd to us. Among the things we notice are that Germans are insurance-crazy, carry little reflective triangles in their cars (in case their car breaks down, and their warning blinkers don’t work), and do not like hugging as much as Italians, Russians, and French. We have all compared notes about German immigration law as a result of time spent securing permits in the local immigration office.

We have also endured at some level an attitude that foreigners should just get with it and learn German—integration is the key (gee thanks for the advice Mr. Normal German—when was the last time you tried to memorize and use 48 Kazakh articles?). As with normals everywhere, they do not easily understand what it is like to be on the outside looking in. Believe me, we all want to “integrate” and achieve linguistic anonymity–were it only so easy! So integration from a normal is the last thing any of us wants to hear after hours spent wrestling with the weird German vowels like Ö Ä Ü, unpronounceable even to Mötley Krüe, or worse yet distinguishing between the sound of a sharp s (ß) and a double ss.

And so we help each other out in class with whispered answers when we are stuck, awkwardly trade news about planned vacations and family, and have a special bond when we encounter each other in the city. Daniel especially, has become helpful in slipping us all study guides, and one of the Italians picked up the tab for me and my family when we were at his restaurant. Cordula of course is our shared hero—she is what Goffman called one of the “wise.” She is a “normal” German, but as a result of years teaching German, she instinctively understands and sympathizes with our tribulations. She points out my “typical English mistakes,” and I can even laugh when she does this. She also knows more about the rapidly changing German immigration laws than do most Germans—a wisdom she gained through years of interacting with foreign German learners.

Among Cordula’s more appreciated tales are about the strong local dialect known as Swabian German. Somehow it takes the edge off of things, realizing that all those “normal” Swabians also use the “wrong” article with the word for “butter” routinely, and butcher any word having a st consonant combination. Those of us imagining ourselves at the bottom of Friedrichshafen’s linguistic heap enjoy the chance to snicker at the problems of our presumed tormentors!


Originally posted December 18, 2007 at