Ahrensburg – A Portuguese who speaks Japanese: as if that’s not unusual. This is Miguel, 27, team assistant at Wieners+Wieners. A service team member with Lithuanian roots who feels at home in five different languages. This is Mažena, 32. We asked them both about the languages they use on a daily basis and the cultures in which they live.
Your language combinations are fascinating. When do you use which languages?
Miguel: I speak Portuguese at home with my family, but we often use a mishmash of Portuguese and German. You sometimes hear things like “o Schrank” for “the wardrobe”, or sentences such as “Dá-me a Gabel” when somebody wants you to pass them the fork. I speak Japanese in Japan as well as here in Germany. I play in a football team with a lot of Japanese people.
Mažena: At home in Lithuania, I speak Polish with my family and Lithuanian with my friends. And if someone comes along who doesn’t speak either language, we spontaneously switch to Russian. When I visit my sister in England and my boyfriend is there, we speak English – and then I interpret for my parents.
Why did you decide on these particular foreign languages?
Mažena: Love brought me to Germany. I just dove right in at the deep end: I signed up straight away for an intensive language course here because I didn’t speak a word of German, and then I enrolled at the university half a year later. At first I didn’t understand a lot there, but then things got better and better.
Miguel: I had decided during my time at school to go abroad and wanted to go as far away as possible. I wanted to go somewhere unusual. So I applied for a year in Japan, Brazil or the US, and I ended up going to Japan. I landed in the country with zero knowledge of Japanese and have never regretted it.
And how about German – how was learning the language?
Miguel: I was born here, so that was never an issue. But I know that the Japanese have difficulties with German. They have a perfect command of the grammar but have some trouble speaking. They don’t want to make mistakes and embarrass themselves.
Mažena: Yes, German is hard, if only because of all the exceptions. I used to envy small children who spoke German with their mothers. They could just prattle on effortlessly but, at the time, it was still a lot of work for me.
Tell me something peculiar about your native languages.
Miguel: Now, being Portuguese, I have four last names – two from my mother and two from my father. This can be really tedious during exams at university because I always have to sign my full name. I’ve already thought about having a stamp made for myself (laughs).
Mažena: Oh, I can think of a lot of things: in Lithuanian, you can use the endings of people’s last names to tell if they are a man or a woman, and whether or not they are married. If a man is called Zinkevičius, then his wife will be called Zinkevičienė, and their unmarried daughter Zinkevičiūtė. Although, there has been a tendency to neutralise the last names in recent times. In this case, the woman would go by the neutral last name Zinkevičė. First names, however, often have equivalents in nature. A friend of mine is called ‘spruce’, and her daughter ‘mint’ – Eglė and Mėta.
Miguel, what peculiarities are there in Japanese?
Miguel: I’d like to name one. In Japanese, there’s an unusual grammatical form: the “suffering passive”. If I am affected by something positive – or, in this case, negative – I can express that using the passive. If I get wet because it’s raining, I can say “I am rained upon”. This construction isn’t possible in German.
Which of your languages do you like the most?
Miguel: I like Japanese a lot, mainly because of its use of onomatopoeia. The Japanese word for “microwave”, for example, includes the component “ching”, which reminds you of the characteristic sound a microwave makes when it’s finished – “ching”.
Mažena: I like German a lot now. But when I have a Lithuanian book in my hands, then I’m transported back home. Lithuanian is my home.
What interesting experiences have you had in your other cultures?
Miguel: The stereotype of the unpunctual Portuguese keeps on being confirmed. My father once took some time off to coordinate some building work at our house in Portugal. Unfortunately, the contractors only turned up on his last day off. And he’s always very punctual himself because he hates it when people say “I’ll come by sometime between Monday and Tuesday”. So people often tell him that he’s like a German.
Mažena: Bus drivers in Lithuania are usually bad-tempered. Like all the other road users, Lithuanian bus drivers also want to be the fastest and the first to reach their destinations; they tailgate. That’s why a lot of Lithuanians say that German drivers are like ants: they drive in a very considerate and orderly fashion. The bus drivers here in Germany are very relaxed. You can even have a chat with them – absolutely unthinkable in Lithuania.
Miguel: If a Japanese person asks for directions, it can lead to problems. Many people will actually show them the right way. However, others, who have no idea, will send them in the wrong direction just to have said something. The important thing is that they gave an answer and were polite. There are some exceptions to this, of course.
How do your knowledge of languages and your cultural backgrounds help you in your day-to-day work at Wieners+Wieners?
Miguel: We can quickly provide help and information when dealing with customer queries regarding translations into and out of these languages.
Mažena: Yes, exactly. Language skills also help us a lot in terms of quality assurance.
Thank you both for the interview!
The in-house staff at Wieners+Wieners speak a total of 19 languages, Wieners+Wieners’ translators speak more than 70. In subsequent articles, we will introduce you to other fascinating people, languages and cultures.