Language Learning Langsam

I arrived in Germany on July 14. That was exactly four months ago.

Mein Deutsch ist nicht gut.

Granted, I spent my six weeks in Germany preoccupied by my social work licensing examination. I returned to the US for two weeks. My German course only began on September 26.

But still, shouldn’t I know more by now?

About two weeks ago, I began to assess my language learning barriers. The most obvious culprit is my course. While I enjoy the nonthreatening environment it provides to practice speaking, the course is painfully slow. With eleven languages, students who have never been students, students who play multiple roles outside the classroom (mother, worker, caretaker, etc.), and students who are perfectly happy to speak anything except German every moment they are outside the classroom, so much class time is spent repeating material that could easily be drilled at home or practiced in the community. Considering that we are in the classroom fifteen hours per week, I feel that we have learned far too little.

However, I know that I cannot place the burden of blame simply on my course. V. takes a course that meets even less frequently, but he is progressing quite well. He has put many hours of time studying on his own. We both began the computer program Rosetta Stone, but he is much further along than I am. He also approaches the endeavor differently, carefully studying the lessons and seeking answers to parts he does not understand fully. Since realizing this, I have recommitted myself to the program and I already notice that my knowledge is growing. I also keep my dictionary near and when I think of any word that is important to me I look it up, knowing that this vocabulary will help in future conversation and writing.

V. also goes to work, thereby having the whole day to encounter the language. I, on the other hand, typically come home from school and immediately reach for my computer. Here, I can read any news I desire in English. I work on my website, which is in English. I long for social connection and I can instant message, e-mail, or Skype with any of my English-speaking family and friends. Before this era of connectivity, I would have been faced with stumbling through German much more often if I wanted to remain the socially curious individual that I am. My new remedy to this is actively getting out of my house. I noticed that when I go grocery shopping alone, it forces me to speak German and encounter it in signage, so I know I must actively seek out similar experiences. Through my town’s international society, I have been linked to two area college students for language exchange. I also started to attend yoga class, which is an excellent method to hear the repetition of German words very slowly. I am trying to read the community newspaper more. V. and I are even spending some time at home speaking to one another.

It is also difficult to get practice in because many people love to speak English. When I started to meet with my language exchange buddies, for example, it would be quite easy to spend our hour simply speaking in English. They are both excited to learn about the United States. Their English is already quite good, but they want to know more about the subtleties and slang of conversational English. Honestly, I would love to spend the hour speaking about all of these things with them, but I’ve told them that I really must practice my German. Additionally, the friends we have made are primarily through V.’s job, and they are primarily young and educated, which means that they also speak English. It is so easy to default to English speaking because there is just so little that I can convey in German right now. I cannot have an animated conversation in German about politics or feminism, so I excitedly turn to English during every social encounter and our friends don’t seem to mind.

Perhaps I could title this post Language Learning with a Weak Ego. When I assess my difficulties honestly, I know that my lack of confidence is a major contributor in my slow acquisition of the German language. Ever a perfectionist, I prefer to use sentences that I have carefully crafted and confirmed as grammatically correct rather than generating sentences spontaneously. However, German sentence structure is odd and changing, and there is simply no way I can memorize the variety of sentences. I know I must experiment. I must ask my conversation partner to slow down (langsam bitte) or repeat her sentences (Kannst du es nochmal wiederholen?). I must trip over my words and listen to the constructive criticism of my audience. Most of all, I must remember that in any new learning endeavor, we all begin as a beginner. Ich muss es einfach akzeptieren is my new mantra. It essentially means I just have to accept it.

Die schönen Wälder von Baden-Württemberg - Oktober 2011

In my German class, there is a 75-year-old man from the Ukraine. He is obviously outgoing and joyful, but he speaks no English so our interactions are extremely limited. One day, he passed a note to me. “Ihr seid Elstern.” He pointed toward me and my classmate, a woman from Taiwan with whom I sit and share notes and laughs throughout the daily class duration. I reached for my German-English dictionary. Elstern means magpie. He was calling us birds because of our chatting and giggling! We crafted our response: Du bist unartig! He followed our lead, grabbing his German-Russian dictionary, wide-eyed as he noticed the meaning of unartig: naughty or wicked. Warum? (Why?), he wrote back. Ihr seid nicht Elstern! (We are not birds!), we retorted. He concluded, Ich bin lustig (I am funny) and sealed it with a smiley face.

Language presents the opportunity to connect with others. With the help of our dictionaries, I was able to laugh and get to know someone from a completely different place, with a very different life from my own or others with whom I am intimate. Imagine the stories he could share and the conversations we could have if we both knew more. This is my motivation.

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