What do you call somebody who knows two languages very well?
What do you call somebody who speaks only one language?
As a topic of conversation, people often ask me what languages I know. I proudly respond that I know English (of course), know German pretty well, at least to the conversational level, know Japanese to a much more puny level. My ability in Japanese is impressive enough only to impress people who have never learned Japanese, and impressive enough for the Japanese to realize that an American can say more than 大丈夫です "Daijoobu desu," but not really much more than that. The grammar is OK, but I lack sufficient vocabulary after a point, where I am reduced to pointing and grunting. My knowledge of French consists mostly of pointing and grunting in the caféteria at the office. Boeuf, s’il vous plaît.
As I have mentioned before, I'm also taking some tutorials for Bernese German, locally known as "Bärndütsch" That funny "ä" character is pronounced closely to the American accent of the 'a', like in 'fan' -- not like how a British person would pronounce it. Phonologists would describe the monophthong as a central rounded vowel. The ü is pronounced like a sound that does not exist in English. But something close to it would be somebody emphasizing the 'e' in true. With a weird accent.
This evening, I was working on my Bärndütsch homework. The lesson is to convert sentences from the present tense into the past perfect tense. This dialect doesn't have a past tense, like "I ran to the store," you would have to say "I have run to the store." Kooky.
So let me share my homework with you so you can feel my pain. Note that this should not be a representative of actual Bärndütsch, but a pathetic attempt by a frustrated American trying to figure out this dialect.
The course is taught based on a book called, well... "Bärndütsch" by Ursula Pinhero-Weber, (ISBN 3-7225-0010-9). This book is written in High German, and really seems to expect the audience to a native German speaker, for example coming to Switzerland from Austria or Germany. There are many new words that I don't even know in German, which are making this kind of difficult for me. It is clear to me that it is probably quite rare for an English speaker (much less an American) to actually wish to comprehend this dialect, because there seem to be very few books on this subject. In other words, there probably isn't a market large enough to justify Rosetta Stone in making a Swiss German version of their software.
Stacy bought a book for me a while back, which also doesn't seem to be filling my need well: Hoi! Your Swiss German Survival Guide. What I really need is some spoken Bärndütsch spoken slowly with Hochdeutsch subtitles and maybe also the phonetic subtitles for Bärndütsch. Since my office is all English, and I work in the French sector of Switzerland, our neighbors all talk to us in English, and all the signs are in Hochdeutsch, I am feeling pretty hopeless that this is going to be anything other than an intellectual exercise.
The only glimmer of hope of learning this was last week, when I was speaking with a local. The conversation turned to Bärndütsch, and I said one or two of the sentences I learned from my tutorials. The local laughed and was impressed that a foreigner, much less an American, would even attempt such a feat. Well, laughter is at least a first step, isn't it?
As mentioned before, my goal is really to understand WTH people are talking about in the flying club; maybe also on the train so I won't feel so isolated. Speaking this dialect isn't important to me, but I understand that in order to understand, speaking it might make it all easier. Anybody else know any English speakers in this situation? Success stories? I feel like I'm the first American in Bern ever to do this, as the Americans I have met here so far can hardly muster ordering a beer in Hochdeutsch.