by Matt Potter
Years ago I read an article on the English actress Jacqueline Bisset – you know, English-born, speaks fluent French, works in America and France and oh, lots of places, was once voted the most beautiful woman working in cinema – and I have never forgotten how in the article she spoke about being a different person when she speaks French.
You can see it on the screen.
Acting in English, she is often formal and stiff and even remote. No one could ever accuse her of being an old ham. And to be honest, I have never found her that appealing when she acts in English: she can act, she’s just not very warm.
But watch her acting in French – in Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), or more correctly La nuit américaine, even when it’s dubbed into English, or more amazingly Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie (1995) – and she’s a completely different person, warm and fluid and open and even, given that she is supposed to be acting, happy. I was blown away watching Bisset in La Cérémonie. This is the woman she should always have been! Where had she been hiding?
Perhaps Bisset was helped by having Isabelle Huppert, surely one of the world’s most-celebrated non-emoters, playing one of the leads in La Cérémonie. But that’s another story.
(I once asked a Polish friend, whom I thought was actually American when we first met in Berlin, if she was a different person in English. And she said simply, “Yes.”)
When I am back living / staying / killing time / enjoying southern summer in Australia, and not living in Berlin, I miss speaking German (oder Deutsch). I compensate for this by talking about speaking German and German words and living in Germany (particularly Berlin) and the German influence on English, through the Angles and the Saxons, and perhaps the Jutes too, though the Jutes always seem to be forgotten. I do this endlessly, and I do this mostly when I am teaching English. So many English words derive from Old German, so the practice is endless. And connecting for me. And perhaps a shade dull for my students … though still I persist.
Actually speaking German in Germany – Schuldigung, aber mein Deutsch ist bisschen – can be a trial. It makes me nervous and sometimes irritable, but boy it’s wonderful – fast unglaublich – when Germans respond in German and we converse – actually have a conversation – without any English. It makes me feel almost international.
Speak quickly, using words or phrases you know are correct and have practiced often, and with a good accent, and native-speakers may even think you are a native speaker too. Well, vielleicht.
I know when speaking, I am generally quieter, meeker, softer, more careful auf Deutsch. Though I think my fluency accounts for this. If I had better German, then I would be more myself when speaking it.
Mostly though, when speaking German, I love getting my tongue around the words, attempting to sound as authentic as possible. It’s a performance, I know this, and I must confess that I find embarrassing those non-native German speakers (usually native English speakers) who seem to make no attempt at speaking Deutsch with an even faintly convincing accent. Listen to how you sound! I want to say. I don’t, of course, for fear that I, in fact, sound just as bad.
But it’s wonderfully affirming to be told you have a good accent in another language, and I have been lucky to have been praised, on a few occasions, for my good German accent, and this by native German speakers. I have taken these as rare compliments!
One friend, an English-into-German translator and subtitler, once said I did not have an accent at all when I spoke German. This seemed incredible to me. I even said to her, “But I must have an accent – surely an Australian accent – when I speak Deutsch.” She said again I didn’t. Where lies the truth?
German is a great language for sounding angry, though. The guttural mouth-twisting it often requires can be empowering and can make anyone easily sound not to be trifled with. I admit to using this well, even with my bad German.
“Ich habe DAS!” I said to a Rewe supermarket check-out Frau, thrusting in front of her a fistful of coins when, following six attempts to pay for my shopping with change, she was still unhappy with the combination I was giving her. Challenge many Germans (particularly Berliners) with even greater rudeness, in their own language, and they go to water … oder Wasser.
So perhaps speaking German and expressing anger in it, connects with the inner grump – or outer grump – in me. Annoy me long enough and I snarl equally well in either language.
But this doesn’t work for everyone.
While recently back living / staying / killing time / enjoying northern summer in Berlin, a friend – Michael, also an English language teacher – complained about the unwillingness of his students to pay him any attention when he was teaching them. He said he had even become very annoyed and admonished the class in German.
Michael talked about this during a private German language class we had every Saturday with Torsten, a German language tutor. Torsten asked Michael what he had said in admonishment. I cannot recall exactly what Michael’s words were, but despite their correctness, they sounded quite unconvincing. And Torsten – so German! – told Michael this.
To me, while Michael showed clear annoyance when he spoke, he did lack moral authority.
Torsten then asked him to say the same thing again, but in English. Michael obliged, and again he was unconvincing.
Laughing, Torsten said he would have laughed along with the other students, whatever language.
I then said the same admonishment Michael had made, only in English, but deep and purposeful and resonating. And then in German too.
And Torsten said, “Ah, you I would take notice of.”
“Oh, that’s just acting,” I assured Michael. And to them both I said, “I’m just an old ham.”
“You’re a what?” Torsten asked.
And thus began my explanation of the meaning of ‘old ham’.