Thursday, 19 September 2013

On learning a foreign language...

I am privileged.  And no, I don't just mean in the obvious ways (white, middle-class, born in a first-world country)..  I mean I'm privileged as a native English speaker.

English is the second most widely-spoken language in the world.  As an English speaker, when travelling, I can almost definitely guarantee that people will be able to speak English to me.  In fact if I try to speak their language, they'll usually switch to English right away.  Millions of people around the globe learn English in school or list it as their country's official language.  So for the most part, we native English speakers have it easy.  We're fluent in a language that everyone else is trying to learn.

I can't even count the number of times I've rolled my eyes, got impatient, or even laughed at people as they struggle with my language.  How could they be so slow?  Why were they making such silly mistakes?  I've spoken English since I was small, and heard it every day since I was born.  Ever since I've been able to, I have read and written voraciously in English.  I couldn't understand how something that seemed so natural to me could be so difficult for other people.

Now I'm in Germany, and the shoe, as they say, is on the other foot.

...Oh.
Of course I know that it's hard to learn another language.  It's not like I think it's easy or anything.  I've studied French, Russian, Italian, and German at various points of my life, and I've seen how challenging it is.  But it wasn't until now that I fully appreciated the difficulty of functioning in another language every day.  And let me tell you, it is HARD.

When you're speaking a foreign language, your IQ dives down about 50 points.  Suddenly you feel very slow and stupid.  Things you take for granted disappear.  You can't express yourself eloquently, or even at all.  And you're always asking people to slow down or repeat themselves.

It's not just your intelligence that you lose.  You lose your sense of humour.  Your language is just not sophisticated enough for jokes.  In English I adore wordplay, and I'm always making people groan with my puns.  But in German?  Not a chance.  The only way I could make someone laugh or groan in German is by making a stupid mistake (although to be fair, that happens pretty often).

I can't understand jokes either.  I was in rehearsals in Stuttgart last week, and our conductor enjoyed telling us long elaborate stories.  These stories would always finish with everyone laughing uproariously - except me.  I looked around and chuckled politely, wondering what (apparently hilarious) details I had missed out on.

 
Losing your native language means losing social skills.  I'm not the most outgoing person in the world, but I'm not a shy little wallflower either.  In Germany I'm as shy as a mouse!  I find it extremely difficult to work up the nerve to make new friends.  The prospect of trying to make conversation with people in German makes me so nervous, I would rather avoid it completely.
 
You know how Spanish speakers like to hang out with other Spanish speakers, French speakers with other French speakers, and so on?  I never understood that until now.  I thought they were being clique-y and excluding other people.  But it has nothing to do with excluding people - it's just their way of relaxing.  The truth is, functioning all day in a foreign language is exhausting.  Speaking your own language with other native speakers is a huge relief.  It's like taking a warm bath after walking in the rain.

Hey, however you enjoy your bath is your own business.
Of course, speaking a foreign language doesn't actually make you stupid.  If anything you have to be very clever.  You may not understand everything someone is saying, but you can piece it together from what you do know - the context, the words you recognise, and other people's reactions.  And you may not know the most sophisticated way to say something, but you can figure out how to make yourself understood with the limited vocabulary you do have.  Every conversation is a bit like a puzzle.  You use what you know to figure out the rest.

Because of this, it's always, always easier to talk to someone in person.  When you're face-to-face, you have more non-verbal tools to rely on.  You can watch someone's facial expression, hand gestures, tone of voice, and of course...


Talking on the phone, on the other hand, is a total minefield.  All you have to go by is a disembodied voice.  And once you factor in bad reception and background noise, it can be practically impossible to know what's going on.  I get extremely nervous about talking on the phone in German.  Every time I dial a number, I'm sure it's going to end in disaster.


"Oh God!  Hallo, uh.. ich bin...."

Nevertheless.  I do feel that I'm making some progress on my German - way more progress than I ever would have elsewhere.  Living in Cologne forces me to practise constantly, every single day.  And while I do find opportunities to hang out with English-speaking friends, I try not to stay in my comfort zone too much.  I've found a fantastic website called Tandem Partners where I can find a German person who wants to improve their English and we can meet up and teach each other.  This way I can work on my German with a native speaker and I can fit our meetings around my schedule.  It also helps that my landlady doesn't speak English - I have no choice but to speak German with her.

Every time I manage to do another transaction in German, it feels like a small victory, and I gain a bit more confidence.  There are still days when I'm tired or confused or daydreaming, and when someone starts speaking German to me I just tune out.  And when people speak too quickly, it's like being attacked by a blast of words.  I get completely overwhelmed.

"Nnnneurghhh so.. much... German..."
However, bit by bit, I'm understanding more and getting braver about speaking.  Sometimes I really surprise myself with the progress I'm making.  When people first told me about "passive learning" I didn't think it could possibly be true.  That you could just sit back and let a language wash over you, and it would magically go into your brain?  Like some kind of language osmosis??  It just seemed too easy.  Surely I had to work hard and study actively if I wanted to learn a language!  But while studying does help, passive learning really works very well.  Just being exposed to German, hearing it on the TV every day, speaking it with salesmen and barristas and librarians and landladies, I am getting used to the vocabulary and sentence structure, and everything is becoming easier and more natural.

In the end, a lot of it comes down to confidence.  You have to fake it until you make it.  My friend often reminds me "you don't always have to worry about getting everything perfect".  And he's right.  I often get nervous about speaking to someone because I think I'll make mistakes in my grammar or get lost for words.  But if everyone worried about this when they tried to speak English to me, they would hardly speak at all!  The important thing is to be able to communicate, and trying is better than staying silent.  I find that if I have a clear intention and speak with conviction, I can usually get my point across - even if it isn't perfectly phrased.  If you believe you can speak the language, you can speak the language.

I still have a LOT to learn with my German.  It will take a long time for the rules of grammar to become automatic, and perhaps I'll never get over my fear of phones.  But Rome wasn't conquered in a day.  It's the small victories that count, and every day I'm learning new words and making more interactions "auf Deutsch".  Perhaps it will never feel completely natural.  But after years of playing on my home turf, I guess it's about time I felt uncomfortable.  Now I know how the rest of the world feels.


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