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Linguistic culture

May 28, 2010

While a decade ago the sound of English in central Berlin still had a slight scent of the exotic about it, these days its flat vowels can be heard on pretty much any street corner - but less so in cinemas and theaters.

Scene in Berlin
Image: DW

Call it European, call it progress or call it money saved on a German phrasebook - it's a contemporary Berlin truth that you can get by on English.

Whereas once upon a time buying salami or ordering coffee in anything but perfect (and suitably gruff sounding) German would have elicited horrified exclamations of "wie bitte?", bi-lingual employees have now become a feature of the city's growing service industry.

And they aren't the only ones afraid to step outside the German language fold. Everywhere I go these days I see flyers advertising clubs and courses in everything from yoga and music to theater, reflexology and summer camp - all in English.

They cater in part to the 30,000 native English-speaking resident here, but also to linguistically ambitious locals. And of them, there are many, as a trip around the city's education circuit will prove.

Last week, when standing at the counter of a not so cosmopolitan shop, I saw three leaflets laid out side by side. One was for an English primary school, another was offering kids englische Nachhilfe or extra tutoring, and the third promised to verse German-born toddlers in the foreign lingo before they have even managed to wrap their tongues around their own.

I asked the shop owner if he was an Anglophile, but he assured me he was just being a good neighbor by letting local businesses advertise on his premises. He said the fact that the flyers were all English-related was purely coincidental.

Except it's not. It is very much a reflection of the desire among German parents to fit their kids for a global world in which English is indisputably the lingua franca. And who can blame them?

Imbalanced linguistic evolution

What strikes me, however, is that in and amongst this sea of englische schools, nurseries, clubs, shops and tearooms, the city's listings for original language theater and cinema are, relatively speaking, rather scant.

That decade ago when British banter on the U-Bahn was not as common as muck, the Babylon, Odeon, Hackescherhoefe and Central original version cinemas had all been up and running for years. And the eight screen Sony Center movie theater had also just opened for business.

While all said establishments are still on the map, they have not yet been joined by any serious competition. In short, of the 90 or so cinemas in the city, very few run flicks in the language in which they were shot. Good news for the dubbing industry, less so for purists.

Some independent minds have tried to meet a fraction of the demand for non-synchronized viewing by starting up film nights. One such venture was launched by Saint George's second-hand English bookshop in the Prenzlauerberg neighborhood. Every Tuesday evening for four years, cinephiles could come along, have a glass of wine and sit among the books watching two original language pictures for just a few euros.

A rights issue eventually forced them to strike the event from the weekly listings, but while it was running, its success was testimony to unfulfilled potential.

Mono-lingual thesps

The story is similar on the stage. The only place punters are guaranteed original language performances is the English Theatre Berlin, which celebrates its twentieth birthday this year. Since its inception, the ETB has seen audience numbers grow but has never felt the cold winds of serious competition. Lamentably.

"It would be good for us if there were a stronger basis of English language theaters in the city," founder and managing director Bern Hoffmeister told me.

But that trend doesn't seem to be waiting in the wings. Theaters say they can't suddenly put on Shakespeare in original because it would be unreasonable - and the results probably unprofessional - to expect their indigenous ensembles to perform in a foreign language.

And even if they did, there is a belief that Germans - including those intent on sending their children to bi-lingual schools - would not come to watch. Because what they really want from English is to understand the lingo of international media, technology, fashion and business. And that means they are quite content to listen to the Bard, if they listen at all, in translation.

So for the time being, the choice of original cinema and theater in Berlin is likely to remain restricted. But perhaps when all those infants currently taking lessons in Baa Baa Black Sheep have made it through school, they will inject a touch more linguistic variety onto the screens and stages of the German capital.

Tamsin Walker enjoys film and theater in both English and German in Berlin.

Editor: Kate Bowen