It is true that most adult immigrants, refugees and migrants are not really able to learn a foreign language. Some of them learn it to some extent, some of them very well, but many learn it only to a very limited extent. The latest wave of refugees in Germany, mostly Arabic speakers, will find it horribly difficult to try to learn German because it is extremely difficult for most adults, especially uneducated adults, to learn a foreign language.
And there is now a million of newcomers from a very different cultural and linguistic background in Germany. How will such a relatively small country cope with this influx of foreigners?
When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s in a small Czech town called Český Krumlov, I remember that in some parts of the town I was surrounded by really nice but really funny old people that we kids called “Nĕmci” (Germans). Some of them could not speak any Czech at all, and some of those who did speak it spoke a funny, simplified version of the language that was full of comical mistakes. Czech has a very complicated system of declensions for nouns, conjugations for verbs and other treacherous traps for foreign speakers. Even natives get it wrong at times, especially uneducated natives.
Quite a few “lucky” Germans who were allowed to stay in the place where they were born and grew up after 1945. Most of them were expelled to Germany and Austria, in spite of the fact that their families had lived in what in German is called Sudetenland for many generations.
It was inexcusably wrong to expel them from their homes, but the reaction of people who were kicked out from what used to be their home first, by the same Germans who were later expelled too, was not unexpected.
When American friends express their shock to me at what was done to Germans in Sudetenland after the war, I say to them, imagine there was a war between Mexico and the United States, and that Mexico won the initial phase of the war and all “Anglos” who were not killed by Mexicans, and many would be killed, were expelled from California, Arizona, Mexico and Texas to the East Coat. What would Americans do in the end to people of Mexican origin living in those states once they did win the war? Let’s not forget what they did after the attack on Pearl Harbor to all people of Japanese origin, many who were US citizens, and none of them guilty of anything.
Wars tend to make a big mess of everything for decades and centuries instead of solving anything.
The first foreign word I tried to figure out when I was about seven years old was the German word “Familie” when I ventured with a bunch of kids my age to a large cemetery at the edge of the town where I lived. What I saw was a weird place with row after row of graves, often with photographs of people placed on the tombstones, with German names inscribed on them in golden script in a funny kind of alphabet that was difficult to decipher, and these names were sometimes followed by the word “Familie”. I tried to figure out what this word meant, but I was at a loss and none of the other kids knew what it meant either. Surely, it could not mean “family” because the Czech word “rodina” which means “family” is so different from that strange word “Familie” on the tombstones. Maybe they all had the same last name I reasoned as a monolingual seven-year-old. The cemetery made such a big impression on me that I saw it again, or what I think I remember of it, in my dreams recently.
The town where I grew up was about 70% German before the war, something that I only found out about my hometown when I was in my late twenties.
I remember one old man in particular, although I don’t remember his name. He loved children and always tried to talk to us in broken Czech, although we mostly just made fun of him by repeating his mistakes in Czech and laughing. But he just laughed with us; it made him happy to see children laughing, no matter that they were laughing at him. I wish there was a way to apologize to him for how cruel we were as stupid kids. Now that I am about the same age as he was then, I could even do it in German.
I had a good friend back then who used to come to my town every summer to spend two months with his grandparents who were German. His grandfather spoke both languages fluently, but his grandmother spoke only German. I never actually saw her outside their house. She probably stayed inside in a world that she could understand where there was always a radio station on in German when I rang the bell to ask if Vašek could come out to play.
My friend’s name was Vašek (a form of Václav), but his grandmother called him Vašku, which is the vocative case that should be used only when addressing someone. Because she did not understand what these damn cases meant, (and there are seven of them for Czech nouns, seven for singular and seven for plural, each with a different ending depending on the “class” of the noun), she would just say with the few Czech words that she did know, “No, Vašku is not home” instead of, “No, Vašek is not home”. But I did not make fun of her or try to correct her. Somehow I understood that it was not my place to do that.
During the two months that Vašek spent every year with his grandparents from an early age, he always learned enough German to communicate with his grandmother, but as he told me once over beer in a pub when we were about 16 or 17, he would then forget most of his German during the rest of the year, so that eventually he forgot all of it.
There were still many kids in my high school who were German, but we did not really perceive them as having a different nationality because they spoke perfect Czech without a foreign accent. The only visible difference was that their first names, like Elfi (for Elfriede), or Hedvika (for Hedwig), were kind of unusual, but once I was a teenager, those names sounded more exotic than funny to me. And the last names did not really matter that much because German last names are almost as plentiful in the Czech Republic (sometimes with simplified spelling to match a different language) as Czech names in a phone book in Austria, or Polish names in a phone book in Germany, assuming they still use phone books in these countries.
So based on my experience in post-war Europe, I believe that even if most “migrants” who eventually put down roots in a different country and different culture are not really able to learn the language very well, it simply doesn’t matter very much. The children of new immigrants always learn the language of the new country and after a few decades, the problem is that most of the children of new immigrants don’t bother to learn their parents’ language. Even if their parents try very hard to pass on their language to their children, the children of immigrants often speak the language of their parents like a third grader, if they speak it at all.
And this is true not only of the United States, but probably of many other countries as well.