19 July 2010

Man spricht Deutsch

It came as a big surprise to me, back in 2008 when I travelled to Montréal to be interviewed for what now is my job. I had expected to converse with my interlocutor in English, or perhaps in Québécois-tinted French. But I most certainly was not prepared for the cordial "Guten Tag" that came with a genuine Teutonic handshake.

As it turns out, a member of our team actually hails from Germany, but she happened to go on maternity leave the Friday before I started working there. Now, however, after taking advantage of Québec's generous job protection provisions for working mothers, as well as some pent up vacation, my Bavarian colleage is back to a cubicle near me, and it was with excitement that we embarked on our first joint project last week.

And then we noticed how awkward it felt. Logic dictates that two native (if I can consider myself as such) German speakers would use Goethe's language amongst themselves. But neither of us had ever done so within the office walls - we both very much think in English in this context. So when we sat down to discuss the project at hand, we both had to chuckle repeatedly as we struggled with finding the right words, or sentence structures, to express our thoughts in German. How do you say "key performance indicator" or "return on investment"? Realistically, given Germany's infatuation with anglicisms these days, you'd probably just call them KPI and ROI. ;-)

It's not just a matter of vocabulary, though. We also exchanged emails while my colleague was travelling. In order to write them in German, you need to have access to the Umlaut characters which are conveniently located on any German keyboard - but of course are nowhere to be found on a Canadian one. Fortunately, it is commonly accepted to replace an "ä" by typing ae, so we seemed to have successfully broken through this dam holding back the Neue Deutsche Welle.

There was one thing, though, which may have us reconsider our linguistic choices. As the project matured, it was necessary to involve a larger audience. Not thinking much, I took an email that had gone back and forth between my colleague and myself, added a quick "please see below for the latest development on this project" line on top of it and fowarded it to other departments. Suffice it to say that, while we primarily deal with air travel, our other colleagues only understood train station*!

* If this pun eludes you, then you know how the recipients of the email must have felt.

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