Confessions of a recovering bi-illiterate

by Emily Dische-Becker

A few nights ago, I read a story I wrote for the launch of Block Magazin at a gallery in Berlin. As is customary to disclose, I informed the audience that the story had been translated from English – the language in which I write – into German. Afterwards, and certainly not for the first time, a man approached me and said that while he liked the story, he was irritated (“in the German sense of irritiert,” he qualified) that I had written in English, when I was so perfectly capable of reading in German.

What an inexplicable deficiency. Like being able to ice- but not roller skate.

I am admittedly irritated – in the English sense – by the frequency with which I field such queries, as if it were evidence of some embarrassing affectation or identity denial. I detect aggressive presumption, not curiosity in these questions. But isn’t German your mother tongue?Well no, actually it isn’t (and if I were to indulge my own presumptions: For reasons loosely pertaining to your Nazi grandfather, my mother was born and raised in New York…)

Until the age of sixteen, I lived in Berlin with my German father and American mother, and was raised and schooled in both languages. While I could certainly read English and German with ease, the bilingual school I attended in Berlin decided that, in lieu of disciplined dual language instruction, students would be reared in a parochial hybrid tongue whose utility did not extend beyond the campus grounds.

The John F. Kennedy Schule was established in the early 1960s during the Allied occupation as a flagship of bi-cultural good will. By the 1990s, when I was a student there, it was a lousy Cold War relic with a bloated bureaucracy resulting from the maintenance of dual German and American school administrations, despite an ever dwindling number of native English-speaking students. At JFK, you were free to write an exam in English, and if a word didn’t come to mind, simply insert its German equivalent. You could even apply German conjugations to English verbs! Subjects were taught haphazardly in either language, with instruction often switching each year. Phonetic approximations of words moseyed into my speech and writing; the resulting functional bi-illiteracy only further exacerbated by the limited vocabulary often favored by teenagers. This did not afflict me alone, but thousands of survivors of this institution.

When I left Berlin to move to Dublin, with no intention of ever returning, I began to read furiously in English in order to overcome my handicap, and purposefully neglected to do the same in German. Over many years – all the way through high school and well into college in the US – I struggled to rid my writing of grammatical Germanisms.

Having  recently moved back to Berlin some fifteen years later, I live in terror of a relapse. In German, I have the vocabulary of a sixteen-year old pot head. I consider it an act of consideration that I abstain from writing anything but emails in it.

The responses elicited by my stubborn refusal to write in German however beget other questions:

Why do the non-proficient choose to write in English, often on these very 60pages? Is fluent mastery of language subjective? Is International English, with its uninhibited disregard for grammatical conventions, such as correct preposition usage, a language in its own right? Freed from the rigors of German, is the experience of writing in English emancipatory? Does English perhaps in fact deserve to be bastardized, because it is the language of Empire, of globalized capital and culture?

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