Sunday, June 26, 2005

Germany, the US and English

In response to my post on anti-Americanism, Monjo left the following comment:

The Beatles? I think they made it in Hamburg, then in Liverpool, and then finally in the US. Maybe British bands who make it in the US before Germany do so because the US is a much bigger market and it is English-speaking. If they arent good enough to crack the US it hardly is a surprise they flop in Germany... So I think your music example is pointless :P

I want to comment on this because it raises a very interesting point. Firstly, I'd argue that it's a lot harder to crack the US market than the German one, but that's a side issue. Many German bands choose to sing in English; whilst the actual comprehension of the lyrics sometimes leaves a lot to be desired (I find it especially funny when expletives are played loudly on German radio), singing in a different language is far from being a barrier to success in the German charts. Even the winners of their "Popstars" were called No Angels and sang in English.

One of the things that is certainly discernible from spending time in the German school system is that there is great credit that is achieved from speaking English. Whereas linguists over here are viewed as slightly strange, I remember talking to many Germans who would compliment their classmates by saying "he speaks really good English". When compared with attitudes towards language in France, there is a huge, huge gulf.

More interestingly still, there is a clear effort when teaching English to try and get Germans to speak American English. Not just in terms of phraseology and spelling, but in pronunciation as well. This explains why Germans will often get sounds that exist in their own language wrong when talking in English (especially the "a" sound in "magnificent").

Yet when he was in trouble in the 2002 election, Gerhard Schroeder wheeled out the base anti-Americanism that made me lose an awful lot of respect for the man. It's a huge paradox, and it's least explainable in terms of Germany in many ways. They've subsumed American culture almost wholesale in large swathes of their cultural life. Walk down the high streets of a number of German cities, and you really would be hard-pressed to identify it as anything other than American, in terms of the way people dress, for example. Maybe the trends of Ostalgie and the war in Iraq have lessened this. But I'm not so sure. It's a huge paradox.