Part 3 of a series of posts about Crossing boundaries by Julia Wilson
Over the years I came to learn German at school and studied it to A Level. This, mixed with listening to long conversations my mother had with relatives (we did get a phone eventually) and the occasional family visit to the UK helped me to understand the language, even if I didn’t feel so confident speaking it. People would ask me how it felt to have a ‘foreign’ mother, and how it felt to have a different language in the house. I used to think these questions were preposterous. First, my mother has never been ‘foreign’ and second, we live in Leicester! There are hundreds of languages in this city … even back then there was a variety of first and second tongues.
But one of the things I learned about peoples’ assumptions that has had the biggest impact on me is that language is a barrier. Yes, it’s a barrier to getting work and being understood out there in formal situations, but it isn’t a barrier to personal or less formal relationships, something that has been proven to me over and over during my years of growing up.
Is There A Language Barrier ?
For instance, I remember watching Boris Becker win Wimbledon in 1985 with my grandmother (Oma) during one of her yearly five week visits. I tried with the German I had and she tried with the English she had but we joined together in the wonderment of seeing this young pretender take the crown. And the visits from cousins were the same. Not being able to form the sentences verbally didn’t stop us communicating in other ways – with gestures, smiles, laughter. It was easy. The best examples of this, though, are from my mother herself. When I was allowed to accompany her and my dad on a holiday to Majorca in 1986 I saw how she could flip from English to German and back at the poolside as easy as 1-2-3. People would watch in awe as she turned to one couple and spoke in German and then to another and spoke in English. I was used to it, it was normal for me. And I loved how we would get better service in restaurants if we left the ordering to her.
Breaking the Language Barrier
But the best example of all came much later, when I was married and had children of my own. We went on an extended family holiday to Minorca with both sets of in-laws and some other friends. My mother used to be a champion swimmer so would enjoy a late dip with other, older hotel residents, all English. Along came two German boys one evening, aged about 12 or 13, who, upon seeing the gentle strokes being performed by the ‘old’ English people took great delight in dive-bombing them. Somehow thinking a language barrier gave them an excuse. Big mistake. After two evenings of this my mother had had enough and, to the amusement of her fellow swimmers and the shock of the boys (who had only heard her speak in English) stood up in the water as they approached and told them, in German, that they’d better behave this evening or she’d see their parents. They were off like rabbits, never to be seen again.