Tom-AY-toe, To-MAW-toe, Po-TAY-toe, Po-TAW-toe

Tomatoes and Potatoes

Tomatoes and Potatoes by John Crosley (

I’m learning German.  I think I will always be learning German.  It is a difficult language to learn in your 40’s.  I doubt I will ever sound like a local.  My daughter was fluent in 6 months; at three years old her little brain was ripe for multi-lingualism.  My husband didn’t speak English until he went to Kindergarten.  He lived his whole life in the United States hearing English at the grocery store, on the television, but he only spoke to people who spoke German until he was 5.  And both of them make fun of me when I attempt to say “kuchen” (cake).   My daughter also apologizes to people who don’t understand me. “Meine Mama’s Deutsch ist nicht sehr gut.”

What makes learning German particularly difficult here in Southern Germany is the accent.  I live in Swabia.  And German here sounds like a garbled mess.  I know, some of you reading this will disagree.  You hear the beauty of a dialect. You hear the subtle –le added at the end of every other word and think it is artistic.  You love the down home feel of the language with its bis-le of French thrown in.  I just want these people to spit the marbles out of their mouths and “Sprech Deutsch!”  It is this for this very reason that Schwabs get a bad rap, their speech makes them seem like simple country folk.

When we travel to Hamburg things are very different.  My husband relaxes even though it is a bustling crazy city.  He understands everyone, even when they throw in Plattdeutsch.  I can pick up most of what is said, for this is the place where people speak “Hochdeutsch”, the type of German most people learn at school.  This is the dialect that the newscasters speak.

You have to be careful though, your accent sets you apart.  Its says you are one of us, a local, or its says “Yer not from these them there parts, son.”  When in Swabia my husband is an outsider, in Hamburg he is a local.  But this isn’t just a German thing is it.

As with most things I discover living abroad, that in spite of all the differences, human nature is the same.  We judge people by how they talk.  Being from the Pacific Northwest of the United States, I speak perfect American English, unlike those people in the south who speak with a strong accent.  Sound familiar?  I’m sure my southern friends will say that I am the one who talks funny.  But I know that if I moved to N’orlins (New Orleans) I would never quite fit in with my Yankee talk.

It is the same for my Spanish friend.  Being from Andalusia she is often judged by her accent.  When she meets another Spanish person on the train or around town she is careful to use a neutral accent.  When the Castilian or the Catalan asks where she is from, she often gets the “Oh, really?  Nice talking to you.”  She is from the middle of nowhere Spain, and even though she has lived abroad and traveled to far off places, she is still a “hick” to them.

Another friend who is Bosnian was put in a sticky situation due to his dialect.  He had escaped Bosnia, during the war, when he was 16 and immigrated to Canada.  Recently he took his wife and children to a family run resort in Croatia.  The woman owner welcomed him with open arms.  She was so happy to speak to this man who had been so far from home for so long.   Then my friend used a certain word in conversation.  Her hospitality ended, she looked angry and confused.  My friend asked “What is the matter?  Are you alright?”  She explained that he was obviously one of the them, since he used “that” word.

My friend had no idea what word this woman was talking about.  But during the war in the Balkans you were always worried about the enemy.  Who was a Serb?  Who was a Muslim?  Who was trying to steal your house?  Would your father be taken?  And certain dialects, certain words, classified which side you were on.

It is difficult not to judge people by how they talk.  It is ingrained in our upbringing to classify people in various ways:  dress, speech, eating habits.   Whether we like it or not we prejudge people by these things, intentionally or unintentionally.

So what is my responsibility as an educator in an international school to make sure that my students speak English correctly?  Some of my German colleagues will try to banish the Swabisch talk.  They want the children to sound properly educated.  If the child says Ish instead of Eeeeek (Ich) they are asked to repeat themselves until they get it right.  Is it Ssssstoot-gart? Oder Schtutt-gart?  My own husband refuses to allow my daughter to use the Schwaben word “Gell” which is a filler word like “like”.

I hope that I am able to create an environment in my class that embraces different dialects and different language speakers.  I want them to be proud of their accents.  I want them to take joy in their dialects’ musicality even though their musicality makes it difficult for me to understand them.  Yet when needed, I hope I am able to coach them into proper pronunciations, with kindness and respect, so that they will not have to face the embarrassment of saying something like “The A-penis (Apennines) Mountains stretch the length of the Italian Peninsula.”

How do you deal with accents in your class?  Can’t a child be properly educated but still sound different from me?  Does your school empower the language learner?  Or do your 2nd language learners struggle to fit in?

Check out this recent collection of maps that shows the diversity of words we use throughout the US on the Business Insider.

2 replies

  1. As a American travelling to Freiburg whom was educated in “Hochdeutsch”, I’m definitely in for an interesting experience. Your post was fantastic! Thanks.

    • Good luck, I’m sure you will be fine. Within a city, you shouldn’t have any problems. It is when to venture out into the countryside that things might sound a bit different.

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