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Marianne Grier

German Lessons With Mrs. Cheese

skdesign / 123RF Stock Photo

At the feisty age of 16, I was given an opportunity to study in Switzerland to improve my French language skills. After committing, I found out that the only exchange spot was in Bern, the country’s German-speaking capital. My teenage determination told me I could learn the language quickly enough to complete my school year in German. How hard could it be?

Before I left, a dear German-speaking friend gave me basic language lessons and offered insight into Swiss culture. After teaching me my first words (der Apfel/the apple), he explained that while “high German” was a national language, people spoke the Swiss dialect except in formal situations. Had I understood just how different the dialect was, I may have felt more trepidation about my upcoming adventure.

In Bern, I started an intensive German course with a robust woman whose name translated to “Mrs. Cheese.” Understanding German came quickly. I armed myself with familiar books (like Winnie-the-Pooh) and read painstakingly, looking up every second word in my battered yellow dictionary. Speaking came more slowly. I was perceived as withdrawn. Only near the end of my year did my friends realize that I had something of substance to say.

The Swiss dialect challenged me, and it was everywhere. I faced resentment when I asked people to speak German, as I was asking them to shift from a place of comfort to a language that many felt was imposed upon them.

My time abroad coincided with the implementation of the German orthography reform in Switzerland. The reform introduced spelling and capitalization changes, and aimed to harmonize spelling across German-speaking countries. I overheard arguments about adjectives and compound verb capitalization. I eventually cobbled together a mix of dialect and pre- and post-reform German. Years later, I learned the real German words for “wallet” and “bicycle,” and realized just how bizarre my earlier language was.

Wrestling with a foreign language in odd circumstances fostered my admiration for peers who are learning English. German is difficult because of its cases, impossibly long words and verb-at-the-end sentence structure. But unlike English, there are explanations for everything. Monster words break down into understandable pieces, like a deconstructed puzzle. When I look at English through the eyes of a non-native speaker, I realize how nonsensical it is.

My experience has helped me value the editor’s craft. Not only do we need to feel confident enough in our language to express ourselves, but we have to trust our abilities to understand the words of others and clear away the chaff that prevents meaning from shining through. As that naïve school girl, I would have gladly turned over my Swiss lunch money in exchange for someone willing to give my thoughts clear expression. The ability to edit the words of others takes sensitivity and skill, and we should be honoured to be trusted with the words of those who can’t express their ideas as clearly as they wish.

~~~

Previous post from Marianne Grier: Eggplants and Aubergines.

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9 Comments on “German Lessons With Mrs. Cheese”

  • Margaret Shaw

    says:

    Marianne, what an interesting blog post, and I especially loved this, your last sentence: «The ability to edit the words of others takes sensitivity and skill, and we should be honoured to be trusted with the words of those who can’t express their ideas as clearly as they wish.»

    • Marianne Grier

      says:

      Thank you, Margaret! It strikes me sometimes just how important our job is.

  • Cherry-Ann

    says:

    Truly an insightful post, Marianne. Speaking from the perspective of someone from a developing country, we are always faced with editors from the international publishing houses erasing the essence of our communication by what they term to be «poor» grammar. So it really says a lot when editing is conducted with some sensitivity about the host language.

    • Marianne Grier

      says:

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Cherry-Ann. I know how frustrating I found it when I tried to express myself in German and felt like my words and personality weren’t clearly understood.

      It’s useful for all of us to be aware of sensitivities around translated or second language text when we work.

  • Frances Peck

    says:

    What a fascinating glimpse into the language fondue that is Swiss culture. You were a brave young woman to take on the challenge of a new country, a new language and then a new dialect within that language, all at the same time.

    I taught in Bern (twice) and loved the experience. But like you, I faced resentment when I tried to speak one of the country’s official languages. In my case it was French, which I had somehow assumed was spoken widely in Switzerland. Not so. Or at least, not willingly. I tried French elsewhere in the country too, and people’s typical reaction was to switch to English (granted, I seemed to hit only German and Romansh regions). Overall, I got the impression of people who hold tight to whichever official language they speak and are reluctant to accept the others. Did you find that? And would a visitor to Canada say the same thing about us?

    • Marianne Grier

      says:

      Hi Frances, I’d love to hear more about your time in Bern sometime.

      I also found that people were reluctant to speak the Swiss languages other than their own. My host mother fell in love with Italian, but would only ever travel to Italy to speak it rather than visiting Italian-speaking Switzerland.

      I’d be curious to hear what a visitor to Canada might say about us. Embarrassingly, I think I would struggle to respond in French if approached because my language is so rusty these days.

  • Emma

    says:

    Thanks for your post. I’m currently learning German in Berlin at https://www.sprachenatelier-berlin.de/en and I recently went to Austria, where I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to practice my German among some non-Berliners (who often just switch to English upon hearing my accent, which is really annoying!)
    I understood nothing! I thought my German was quite good- but obviously not! would love to visit Bern someday xx

    • Marianne Grier

      says:

      Thanks, Emma, for your comments. I also struggled when I visited Austria. Isn’t it funny how much the language varies from one country to another? It makes me wonder how the experience compares to trying to understand different English accents.

      Enjoy Berlin. I spent a year working there and my language really improved as a result. I used to love this movie theatre for films with German subtitles, which helped me learn!

      • Emma

        says:

        Thanks Marianne! I will definitely check that movie theatre out!

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