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Mar 2011 Journal

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For the love of English

English is not my first language, not my mother tongue, not even the second language I heard at home when my parents said something to each other I wasn’t supposed to understand: Pas devant les enfants. Most of the people in our narrow circle of relatives and friends in Vienna could speak French more or less; it was considered to be an essential part of ‘being cultured’. My mother said the sound of French was like music and pointed out all the French words in common use in German, and added a few more.

My father revered and literally devoured the German language. He could recite whole scenes of Faust and Nathan der Weise. It seemed to me as a child that he knew by heart all Heine had ever written and I was particularly struck by his rendering of the longer Schiller poems. I would ask him time and again to recite Die Kranyche des Ibikus or Die Bürgschaft. These dramatic performances thrilled me - but it was the dark, threatening narrative I lapped up, not the harsh, poetic language. I was probably addicted to impending disaster in somewhat the same way as my grandchildren are glued to Star Wars. I shared neither my mother’s nor my father’s love affair with words in German or French.

However, I did develop an early affection for English. My father was a prisoner-of-war in Siberia from the early days of the First World War until the Russian Revolution in 1917. He used the time to teach himself ‘perfect English’ from a Berlitz manual he found in the camp. And, to take their minds off hunger and cold, he taught the other prisoners. When they were set free by the Red Army, they were left to find their own way home, which, in my father’s case, took nearly two years. He made his way across China, was found half-starved by a community of Chinese Jews, and earned his keep and transport home by teaching English. This was my favourite story, and English, rather than my father’s amazing resilience, aroused my curiosity and won my allegiance.

After the Anschluss in March 1938, my family immediately attempted to emigrate. There was never a question of ‘Should we?’ only of ‘Where to, and who will have us?’ As we applied and waited for a variety of visas and affidavits, and while my father spent many nights scrubbing Viennese streets and lavatories, England became our hope of sanctuary. And with England came English. So I was sent to learn English while my mother learned how to be a parlour maid and my father learned how to be a valet and a butler – the only jobs that would be open to them if we ever got there.

My English class was made up of children whose families, like mine, were only waiting for final exit and entry papers. More and more children joined but very few left. When they did, they disappeared without warning or celebration. We, who remained, saw it as a hopeful sign that any one of us could be next. Our teacher was also waiting; he was hoping to get to America, where he had relatives, and he liked to explain how American was not the same as English. Seventy years later I can hear his voice whenever I come across a word or a phrase that is not ‘English’.

With the class constantly changing, it would have been useless to follow a structured teaching programme, and most of us were probably too distracted to concentrate. So our teacher decided we would learn the language by doing a play. And what better than Goldilocks and the Three Bears? The story was new to us – very unlike the Grimm fairy tales we knew - there was lots of lovely repetition, we could take turns to act and listen, and, if children left, they could be replaced and new arrivals could join in easily.

For some reason, in spite of my dark pigtails, I was cast as Goldilocks, and I remained Goldilocks while little, medium and large bears came and went.

Very soon I knew all the parts by heart. I loved the rhythms and the soft sounds of the words; the reality of English met all my expectations. I didn’t even wonder how ‘This porridge is too hot, this bed is too hard’ or ‘This chair is just right’ would enable me to communicate anything other than just that. English had rescued my father and it would rescue me. For my tenth birthday, exactly a week before we left Austria for England, I was given a pocket English-German dictionary.

The first of many shocks to come was hearing people speak on the train journey from Dover to London and not being able to understand a single word. My father’s ‘perfect English’ didn’t serve him much better. That was not how the natives spoke.

I started school robbed of all confidence in my ability to speak. I was reluctant to try because my strange pronunciation and mistakes caused too much mirth. So I remained silent but surprised myself by quickly learning to read the new language and enjoying it in a way I had never enjoyed reading German in spite of my parents’ example. In fact, the only two German books I had ever finished were Himmel, wo sind meine Schuhe and Friedel und die vier Spatzen. (I wonder whether any other aged refugee remembers either of these books.) But now I began to read whatever was available. I caught up with all the children’s classics, tore through a heap of schoolgirl stories, discovered poetry, and finally joined my classmates in singing the words of beautiful traditional songs like Barbara Allen and The Ash Grove – songs that still move me although I rarely hear them now.

By the end of my first year at school in England, which was also my last year in ‘elementary school’, I came top in English and I had fallen permanently in love with the language. If I spoke with a faint foreign intonation, it was soon overlaid by a mild Midlands accent. In secondary school I took the annual prizes for English literature, verse and prose speaking and for the short story competition. My English teachers became my heroes; I couldn’t get enough of what they could give. In the sixth form I learned long passages from Shakespeare in preference to Faust, which I was reluctantly studying for ‘A’ Levels.

We never spoke English at home when I was a child - a deliberate policy of my wise parents so that I would not pick up their Viennese accents or quaint turns of phrase. And their accents and phrasing were, and always remained, rich: my mother learned a colloquial kind of language quite unlike the ‘High German’ she used to speak. And when she died after 40 years in the country, longer than she had spent in Austria, she still referred to ‘Spencer and Marks’ or ‘Jones and Dickens’, much to her grandchildren’s amusement. But she could chat to neighbours and shopkeepers with ease, which my father could not. He always strove for that ‘Perfect English’, while the flow of the speech eluded him. He commanded a vast and erudite vocabulary that lacked the common touch and led to farce on at least one occasion. When he was in the Pioneer Corps and I had barely started school, my father came home on leave to find that I had been taught a whole string of new words by the boys in my class - English words unknown to him! He couldn’t find them in the dictionary – perhaps I wasn’t saying them right – so back in the barracks he asked his English sergeant, who introduced him to sexual slang. When I next saw my father I was shocked by his anger: I was never to use these words again! It made me very uncertain about what was and was not rude. For a long time I entertained the notion that perhaps ‘district nurse’ was not quite acceptable.

I didn’t go to university to study English as expected – I went to drama school instead and wallowed in the spoken language until children and family claimed more and more of my attention. Introducing two daughters and three grandchildren to the joys of English literature was then also my joy. Now I write a bit, but most of my time is spent editing the work of other authors. I like that. I like tuning in to each writer’s unique style and rhythms and finding a way to work together. It’s a job I do for the love of English.

Hedi Argent Schnabl

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