Have you ever hesitated to call anything you know by its real name? Not as in knowing its name and just not coming up with it for a second – but as in not knowing it at all? It is even stranger to recognize what you see and to know its name in your mother tongue, but not in the foreign language that you use every day. Or even not to know what you are seeing and trying to find its correct name. That is what linguistically different immigrants deal with on a constant basis in their chosen new home country.
It can be hilarious, especially for those people who are not aware that even a fairly fluent speaker as I runs into such a ditch every once in a while. Often enough, it’s that I recognize the word as soon as somebody else gives it to the object whose name I have been looking for. You call that passive language skills, and every avid reader probably has an abundance of this. My English is a strange mix of British and American words – which probably accounts for bewildering quite a few people once I open my mouth or let my fingers type my thoughts.
One case that I remember especially vividly happened in the early fall of 2012. My husband still teases me about it every once in a while. We were gardening together, and I desperately needed an implement that he had used before, but was nowhere to be seen around anymore. I racked my brain, and finally came up with a solution. Description of an object’s looks sometimes helps another person fathom what you mean. So, I asked my husband for the “garden fork” (not knowing that there is, indeed, a tool that goes by this name). As we were about to see to fallen leaves, he quickly grasped that I meant a “rake”. It’s certainly not the only term that I had stowed away somewhere in my brain, but that didn’t want to come to my tongue that day in this foreign language.
Another case involves a cute furry animal from the Mt. Rainier area that I discovered one summer day in my very first year here. How frustrating to know what I was seeing – a “Murmeltier” (pronounce ‘moor-ml-teer) – but not the name it went by in English. My husband told me its name, and, for the rest of that summer, I kept messing it up with the brand of a British food item of quite similar pronunciations. May the marmot forgive me.
What strikes me as even more disturbing to this day is my ignorance about a lot of natural beings which I cannot name simply because I don’t even know what they are. And it’s a tough one to find out about every single one of them. One of my first Washington summer mornings, I looked out onto our patio and suddenly saw something bright blue alight and vanish. Something bright blue that doesn’t occur in more subtly colored Germany. It took me days to figure what the bird looked like in detail, as it was quite shy at first. Then I started to google. “Blue bird, black tuft” or something similar ended me up with an appropriate “Steller’s jay”. It was way more difficult to find the name for another blue bird without the tuft, the “Californian thrush jay”. You get the picture.
I was pretty good at naming animals and plants in Germany. My grandmother and my mother had made it a given that, wherever we went, we children were given the identifying clues to discern trees, flowers, bushes, birds … As a child I found it incredibly tedious. But today, I’m grateful that they somehow made me listen and learn after all.
Speaking English as a foreign language means to be detached from this implicitness that comes most natural to a native speaker – naming those natural objects that are inherent here. An Alaskan friend of mine taught me what a salmon berry looks like. A gardening one told me the name for German “Schachtelhalm” (pronounce ‘shuh-tl-hulm), that I very vaguely remembered from the Black Forest and which grew in abundance in the yard of our first home over here – horsetail. A befriended couple was aware of my deep frustration of not knowing birds of the Pacific Northwest and even sent me a book on ornithology – finally I know the names of Northern flickers, chickadees, robins, or red breasted nuthatches at our backyard feeder. My husband added further books on birds and plants in the region. I am doing my best to learn about whatever I discover here. But there is no doubt that in some aspects I will always stay an immigrant from another part of this world.