COUNTRY ROADS: Little pots have big ears

In the early years of my childhood home, my parents regularly conversed in Low German as did my grandparents and many other relatives. Their Low German was from East Friesland and in that dialect it is called “plat duuts.” (Pronounced “plot doots.”)

Neither of my parents spoke English until they started school but even after learning English they retained fluency in “plat.”

The language is still spoken in the northwestern corner of German, particularly by older folks in rural areas. However, there are efforts in the region to teach the language to the young people.

We moved from the farm into town when I was five and, looking back, that seems to be when English became the dominant language in our family.

My parents continued to speak “plat” when they didn’t want the younger kids to listen in.

There is a Low German maxim that says, “Leutje pott hebtt groot ohren.”

That means “little pots have big ears” and I was still a little pot with big ears in those days.

As I grew older, I fell out of touch with Low German but over the past 30 years or so have tried to get reacquainted with the language.

Late last year, I was invited to join a Facebook group for residents of Germany’s East Friesland and for people like me, descendants of East Friesians who had migrated to the U.S. and Canada.

The moderator of the Facebook group posts some items in English and others in standard (High) German.

Much of the discussion on the Facebook page is in standard German which is easily translated with Google Translate.

Occasionally, someone will post a statement in “plat.”

“Plat,” however, is not an option on Google Translate and that’s a problem.

I thought I had at least a basic understanding of “plat,” but I have struggled when something is posted on the Facebook page in “plat.”

In spite of some minor success, I have been embarrassed by how little of the written Low German language I can understand.

Part of the reason is that for the past 500 years, Low German has been a spoken language; very little has been written over those years.

I learned it orally.

I share all of this to make a point.

In recent years, I have heard and read of Americans who are upset when they hear someone speak in languages other than English.

I’ve heard it said, “It’s America, for pity’s sake, we speak English here.” Also, “It’s rude to speak another language around Americans.”

In a world where nearly half of the people are bilingual, we Americans are dismally behind the trend.

It is estimated that only one in five Americans can speak more than one language while more than half of Europeans are able to converse in more than one language.

Currently, 10 percent of Europeans can speak at least three or more languages.

I will be the first to admit that learning a new language is difficult. Despite efforts to learn standard German and Spanish, I would struggle to survive if I were dropped into the middle of Germany or Spain right now.

And what I have learned from the East Friesland Facebook page is that I would go hungry if I had to depend on my “plat duuts” skills.

My daughter graduated from Iowa State with a French language minor and has been to France several times.

Nearly 25 years later, she still works daily to retain her French skills.

On a recent visit to her home, I saw Post-It notes around the house with French words and phrases and their English equivalents to help keep her skills fresh.

My point is this: when you meet someone who speaks another language but attempts to speak English, even if it’s broken English, congratulate them. For those who didn’t grow up speaking English, it is a difficult language to learn and anyone who attempts to do so deserves our respect and admiration.

Meanwhile, it’s up to me to improve my Low German skills. As they say in East Friesland, “Wenn Du en Ei eten wullt, must Du eerst in d’ Höhnerstall gahn.” Translated: ”

If you want to eat an egg, you have to go to the chicken coop first.” More directly, if you want something done you must do it yourself.


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