Johannes Brahms statue

Learning the language: someone’s got to give

Given the topic of this article, I should quickly explain the word play in the title. When you say “something’s got to give”, that can mean that there are two opposing interests or opinions and one person has to compromise, or just give in. Until yesterday, I thought this to be the case for the language issue.

The language issue?

Yes, the language issue. I mean this apparent paradox: people come to a foreign country, usually wanting to learn the language. But in order to survive here long enough to learn the language, they need to get up-and-running – getting a job, getting registered, finding a network of friends – without speaking German so that they can support themselves long enough to stay here and … learn the language.

So on the one hand, we shout at everyone here: “speak English!”

But everyone who has ever learnt a foreign language knows that you can’t learn a language without speaking it. So: “speak German to us!”.

I can imagine this gets confusing for the locals. They must think: “Can these people please make up their minds?”

German for beginners

Yesterday I interviewed Rebecca from the UK, who works near Johannes-Brahms-Platz (named after the world-famous composer who was born and lived a long time in Hamburg). The article will be appearing in the next couple of weeks – please be patient!

Rebecca came up with a great idea: how about events that are in German, but aimed at people who are non-native speakers? This makes expectations clear from the start of the event: everybody is there to speak German, including during the networking afterwards; it’s ok not to understand everything (and to say so); and you don’t have to worry that people will snap into English as soon as you look puzzled.

We’re in this together: someone’s got to give

Hence the word play in the title. Not “something’s got to give” because we’re all in this together. In return for help learning the language, we can provide immersive environments for non-native speakers. This is a big advantage for people who do business internationally. It’s also just nice.

By having events for English learners and German learners, and making expectations clear, I think we can make Hamburg a better place for international people, and do our bit to make our city more successful internationally. We’ve all got to give – and can only benefit by doing so.