My language

In her text, Sahar Reza describes the role of languages in her life as a refugee for almost 30 years. She describes her struggles to learn German and the reactions of German society towards people who do not speak perfect German.

Sahar Reza © private photo

My language

Language is the important part while living in a society but it also a hard and bitter truth that despite trying my best I still lack the proficiency and I get the negative and bad feeling from the German speakers, which is very depressive most of the times.

I am an Afghan girl. I have lived almost 30 years of my life as a refugee, in which the 17 years of my childhood in Paksitan and in between 5 years in India. From my childhood my parents tried to provide me and my siblings the opportunity so that we get educated and learn English language with which we would be able to solve our problems in the international world someday. And English is the language that I used to learn it from my very early classes in the school, I was also provided to join extra English language classes those times.

In Afghanistan we got 2 national languages which are Dari and Pashto. My mother tongue is Dari I can write and understand Paschtu as well but since It’s been long time, I have not talked so now I am struggling in it. In the family we all talk Dari but if come along situations where I won’t be able to explain some words in Dari I switch to English or Urdu. And since in my family almost everyone got a basic knowledge of English and Urdu so we don’t find it a big problem.

I can express myself very well in English and Dari since I am grown up with both language and then have done my higher studies as well. I don’t call myself a fluent English speaker but still it is the only language that I feel comfortable and confident with.

When I first came to Germany in the year 2015, I did not know a single German word. As Germany had never been in my mind that someday I may come and live here. My experience on the second day of living in Hamburg was that I went to buy something from a grocery store and there was not a price tag on the product that I wanted to buy. So, I went to the cash counter and asked the lady in the counter if she could tell me how much the specific product costed.

She started talking in German which I did not understood those times and I asked her again in English that I cannot talk German so if it would be possible for her to talk in English. Then she started again in German and got a rude face for herself then started pointing to the cash monitor so that I could see the price.

For me it was a difficult moment while entering a country without knowing a single word to communicate with the people while doing shopping or grocery, solving official problems or socialising with people. But then I came to the conclusion and committed with myself that since I am living here, I must learn the language at any cost.

I started to learn the German language from the mid 2017 onwards because my university was in English and only after getting over with the University, I was able to learn the German language. My focus since 2017 is to learn the language and I still am.

Learning a new language in your 30s is not easy and that also when the language is your 3rd foreign language. For me German is my 3rd foreign language that I have learned. When your new in a country there are many other aspects that keeps your mind busy while starting a new life such as job hunting, supporting family but any how it is never too late I would say to learn a new thing.

After I started learning German professionally, I always kept myself in the German speaking atmosphere, like cooking clubs, reading clubs, Tandem partner projects and gatherings so to learn the language quick. Although I don’t speak well German but still have tried my best not shift in to English while speaking and it was the part that my German friends pushed me always that even if I speak wrong but stick in to German and don’t switch to another language.

In the job we all talk in German. Almost 99% of the job interviews that I had and have been and are in German and in my current job as well my interview was in German and I do talk in German with my colleagues. Although most of the times I have been criticized or I would say got depressed because I don’t talk very well German to the proficiency that is needed and sometimes it is really offending as well but I don’t have any other option I do try my best to remain and stay in German speaking atmosphere but most of the times it does not help.

On the phase of job search I have also faced problems since the priority were and is always given to a German native speaker then to a person who is quite new and still struggling with the language. But that have never discouraged me from job search and I have also learned from this phase so to make myself better.

For me the language is the main part of our life in the society. Despite working and feeling myself participative in the society, I communicate with people outside the work atmosphere or in the work place, I take part and communicate with people in social and political events such as book reading events, cooking, or political events, Still I feel that lacking inside myself and on my life that I can never speak good enough like a German who got German as his or her mother tongue or like a foreigner who is born and raised up here.

So I would say is that we must keep on struggling so to get a positive result someday. And I believe that no one wants to get refugee and leave his or her country, people, life, home and language until forced to do so.

Sahar Reza was born in Kabul, Afghanistan and grew up in Pakistan. She studied political science and European law for her master’s degree in India and Hamburg. Sahar works in management and journalism. She has long been an advocate for human rights (especially women’s, children’s and refugee rights). Since 2017, Sahar has written several articles for the Hamburger Abendblatt and for kohero (formerly fugitive magazine).

As part of the project Flight – Exile – Participation: Citizen Science on Historical and Current Experiences of Flight as Participatory Educational Work, Sahar has written the essay “My language”.

The essay “My Language” was published for the first time as part of the project Flight – Exile – Participation: Citizen Science on historical and current refugee experiences as participatory educational work on the We Refugees Archive website (October 31, 2023).