A Linguistic Labyrinth: The Languages of Berlin

photoSusanne NilssonCC

As I was growing up, verbal interactions in any language other than Polish were a pretty rare occurrence in my town. So when in 2014 I got a chance to spend my summer vacations at my brother’s in California, I couldn’t contain my excitement at actually being able to use English on an everyday basis. But it wasn’t before I experienced Berlin that I really got to know an environment truly fitting for a cosmopolitan spirit; I’ve realized that my typical day in Berlin comes with more linguistic challenges than I’d face in an entire year had I not moved here.

It’s not only about English and German. Berlin’s linguistic vibe comprises all the various languages of its people.  Even my current WG represents three groups already with me being Polish, and my flatmates German and Turkish.

photoThomas QuineCC

How many people of the last descent I’d met in Berlin came as a bit of a surprise. I would have never predicted how many Turkish friends I’m going to have or just how ubiquitous kebab places are around here. Speaking of those – I was getting a döner once and the guy there must have assumed I’m Russian because of my accent (happens quite a lot if you’re a Pole and can’t help but roll your “r”) and very politely said “Do svidanija!” before I left.

photo: Alessio Maffeis / cc

Contrary to my buddies of the Turkish origin, many of my American and British friends in Berlin aren’t super fluent in German and don’t usually have any activities targeted at getting there at the top of their to-do lists. This is, of course, a mere generalisation. Many would find it unjustified, and even I myself know cases that prove quite the opposite. But still, I had to mention that there are only few things cuter than a handsome native English speaker staring quite helpless at any German text, and I do mean any: might be a cooking recipe just as well as a letter from Burgeramt.

Photo: sam chills / cc

I almost feel like resorting to this approach whenever I’m confronted with the good old ‘’Berlinisch’’. As a result, there’s a lot of “jut”, “wat”, “ick”, “dat”, which confuses me a lot and simply makes me blame standardized textbooks for my unrealistic German vocabulary expectations.

After these few paragraphs, you should get the idea of how varied the speakers are here. This means that communication becomes a hilarious challenge sometimes, and the fun can only be spoiled if you’re working as a waiter somewhere and you’d really like to get the order right from some elderly German lady who’s already a little annoyed by now with your constant requests if she could possibly repeat it.

But even then, I believe that breaking linguistic barriers at work is not only an effective way to learn the language, it’s also a good exercise for the soul. Constrained by the limits of your own knowledge, you feel quite humble and start using the language as a tool stricly for communication, rather than means of expressing your general frustration and discontent. You’re simply trying to get your message across and you get a great sense of accomplishment when you do – and that’s so refreshing after you’ve been used to come up with words just to complain with.

photo: Jacob Bøtter / CC

Realizing your own ignorance in confrontation with another language also makes you appreciate cultural diversity. I love strolling through Sonnenalle and looking at all the shop signs which meaning I could never fathom, just as I love overhearing conversations on the U-Bahn. I don’t care what their exact content is, I just smile back. That’s the language we all should get.

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<a href="https://www.iheartberlin.de/author/michalina/" target="_self">Michalina</a>