Speaking languages with ignorance, dilettantism, and by definition

I was born in Austria. In Austria, people speak various dialects. My parents’ was “Oststeirisch”, the dialect spoken in the eastern part of the province of Steiermark, also known as Styria. Here is an example for this dialect: The German word for soap is “Seife”. In my dialect, this turns to “Soaft”. Thus, when I entered primary school, I had to learn that “Soaft” is pronounced like “Seife” and gets spelled without ‘t’ at the end. As a matter of fact, my mother tongue could be called “Bad German”, but nobody dares to say so.

Meanwhile, I live in Sweden. Now I most often speak Bad Swedish. Really bad Swedish for the time being. If I do not know how to express myself in Swedish, I usually use English. To be precise: I use Bad English, the most commonly spoken language in the world. Thus, not counting my knowledge of Latin, my language skills add up to three badly spoken languages.

I started learning Bad English in grade 5 in school. For some odd reason, we restart counting years in school after 4 in Austria. Thus, it was grade 1 in the “Akademische Gymnasium” in Graz, the capital of Steiermark. Most of my fellow kids in my home town did not go to “Gymnasium”, they just continued with grade 5 of grammar school. They pitted me of being downgraded to grade 1. Moreover, they were neither forced to learn foreign languages nor to do math with such incomprehensible numbers like ‘a’, ‘b’, or ‘c’.

Learning English way back then was not meant to be an exercise to learn to speak and communicate, but rather to learn to translate texts. In addition, we got drilled in grammar – a very useful way of developing structural thinking, as my teachers said. Thus, I learned that ships are female in English, but I could not speak much more than “I am Pat” and “How are you?”. English was treated like Latin – like a dead language.

Despite not understanding English, I got heavily attracted by contemporary music with English lyrics. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Small Faces, Donovan, or Bob Dylan, to name just a few bands and artists. I did not understand much of what they were singing about. To be honest, I understood some parts of the lyrics of some songs. Like “I am an animal, I break your mind”, or “Wild thing, you make my heart sing”. But most often, I had no idea of what the lyrics were all about. Instead, I was making up a kind of personal English when I was humming the songs. Later, when singing these songs to my really basic guitar skills, I was using these imaginary incomprehensible lyrics. Luckily, nobody noticed since those listening could understand English either. I was quite happy with imitating English song texts with my kind of English sounding gibberish. When I became the bass player in a band at age 15, I noticed that we all did the same thing. For instance, when interpreting the song “Badge” by The Cream, I had no idea why this song was called “Badge”. The word did not even appear in the song’s lyrics. Only many years later I found the solution to this little question. It also took me years to understand that George Harrison was singing silly profane lines like “I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping” in his wonderful song “While my guitar gently weeps.”

In grade 10, that is grade 6 in Austria’s “Gymansium”, we got a guest teacher whose native language was English. His name was Mr. Gaisenhoff, and me and my class colleagues were proud of being chosen to have him as a teacher. To his disappointment, none of us could speak any useful English after having spent already five years learning English in school. Luckily, facing this miserable situation, he took the right approach, for me at least. He found out that I was really into contemporary pop music, and therefore asked me to copy song texts printed on record sleeves or published in music magazines for homework. This exercise was an eye opener. He helped me reading my homework loudly in class, and suddenly I understood the meaning of the lyrics of some of my favorite songs like “Lazy Sunday Afternoon” by The Small Faces, for instance. I still could not comprehend the lyrics of Bob Dylan songs like “All Along The Watchtower”. Even to this day, I cannot.

After school, while waiting for the train from the school town to my home town, we were usually visiting a coffee place where all the in-people were hanging out day in, day out. There was a jukebox and it asked for one Austrian Schilling to play a song. For some time, I usually chose “Lazy Sunday Afternoon” and I got really proud of finally understanding what the lyrics were all about. We were smoking some cigarettes, had a soft drink, and felt really cool by hanging out with the “important people”. These were usually guys who knew more guitar chords and could play more of the famous guitar riffs than I knew at that time.

Some years later — meanwhile living in the provincial capital and studying electrical engineering at university — I noticed that my English language skills were still inferior. Remembering the successes during my year with Mr. Gaisenhoff, I started translating song lyrics by my favorite musician at that time, Frank Zappa. This was another eye-opening experience. “Be a jerk, go to work” or “Bamboozled by love” and “The shit just hit the fan”. My English skills certainly started to developed in a strange direction. At that time, I was also working as a sound engineer for a band called “Magic”. We had several national number-one hits, and I seriously considered to start a carrier as professional sound engineer after finishing university. My dream was to become the sound engineer of Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention. But this is another story.

Let me finish this one with the following summary: I am ignorant in Swedish, I am a dilettante in English, and I call German my mother tongue; despite this, I take pleasure to try to speak all of these languages.


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