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.

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.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

On finding your own way...

Life after graduation.  The great beyond.  How do we visualise it?  And how does reality measure up?  If you're anything like me, as a young singer you pictured some kind of fairytale ending, where all of your hard work and diligence would be rewarded with a contract, an agent, or a coveted place in a prestigious young artist programme.  You thought that if you worked hard enough, did all the right things, auditioned for all the right people, eventually someone would hand you a career on a silver platter.

"Your career, ma'am - careful, it's piping hot"
As an undergrad student, I used to look at singers in the opera school with great reverence.  I heard their glorious voices and I expected great things of them.  I was often shocked and disappointed when they didn't live up to my expectations.  "What do you mean you're still living with your parents," I might say, "aren't you supposed to be singing at the Met by now?"  I remember seeing older singers, singers with masters degrees and years of training, singers with heaps of talent and ambition - and they were still struggling to survive.  Secretly I thought to myself, they must be doing something wrong.  That won't be me.

As the years rolled by, I lost some of my high hopes and naïveté.  I saw how competitive it was in the music world.  I learned that it took most people several years to build a career, and that even the most talented singer might struggle just to make a living.  And yet, in my heart of hearts, I still hoped that I would be different.  I would be special.

I think that deep down inside, I believed the world was a fair and logical place.  If you put in enough work, you reap the rewards - simple.  And so as I began my year at the opera studio, I didn't worry too much about the future.  I would audition for as many things as possible, and surely at one point someone would give me an obvious answer.  Someone would offer me an opportunity, and my future would be all mapped out.

"Follow me - your career goes that way!"
But the truth is, for most of us it's not so straightforward.  Yes, there are people who win contracts right out of school and transition smoothly into a singing career.  But those people are the exception to the rule.  Most of us finish school with a blank page and no idea how to fill it.  We have to find our own way.

It was around springtime this year when I realised that no one was going to offer me any easy answers.  I hadn't won a place in any young artist programmes, and no agents or opera companies had signed me on.  The future was a big blank.  I was all by myself.

My immediate reaction was panic and despair.  I couldn't believe that after all my hard work this year, all the progress I had made on my voice and my acting, nobody was going to scoop me up and take care of me.  How was I going to make a living?  Where was I going to live?  What was the next step?  How would I know if I was doing the right thing?

I'm not so good at making decisions.
Nonetheless, bit by bit, I started to ask myself some questions.  What kind of music did I want to sing?  Who did I want to sing it with?  What kind of life did I want to have?  And eventually the answer became clear to me.  In fact, it had been staring me in the face the whole time.  I wanted to move to Germany.

I have been thinking about moving to Germany for a long time.  And yet I've always been afraid to take the leap.  Perhaps because the prospect of a foreign language daunted me.  Perhaps because it seemed unoriginal - so many other young singers had done it before me.  Or perhaps because I had heard horror stories of singers arriving in Germany full of hopes and dreams, only to leave a few months later with an empty wallet and their tails between their legs.

But I had a few advantages over those singers in the horror stories.  First of all, I already knew some German.  Secondly - miraculously - one of my auditions this year had actually paid off, and I had some choir work lined up in Stuttgart.  It wasn't much, but it would pay the rent, which was a good start.

After ordering a refresher audio course online (I hadn't studied any German since undergrad, which was - *cringe* - almost 10 years ago) I started thinking about where exactly in Germany I would live.  Eventually I settled on Cologne.

Why Cologne?  It wasn't exactly a scientifically calculated choice.  I could have easily decided to move to any German city.  But I did consider a few factors in my decision: cost of living, accessibility, and proximity to Stuttgart.  Cologne is close to 3 major airports, and is only a few hours away from Stuttgart by train.  It's also pretty close to Gent, meaning it would be easy to come back to Belgium for work or visiting friends.  Compared to most major German cities, it's not an expensive place to live.  And, most helpful of all, I already had a couple of friends living there.  In other words, I wouldn't be completely alone when I arrived.

"Hello?..... Anybody there???"
It's a scary prospect, this move to Cologne.  I've moved country before (twice), but both times I was landing safe and sound in a postgraduate course, where I would have a readymade group of peers and a schedule of classes to follow.  This time, apart from the bit of choir work, I have no idea what will happen in the next few months.  My only plan is to find a flat, take German classes, and start auditioning.  The future is one big question mark.  Anything could happen.

And yet, there's something thrilling about this question mark.  It's a blank canvas which I have the power to fill however I like.  I don't have to follow someone else's path.  I can make a new one.  I'm my own boss, in control of my own destiny.

I know these next few months will be scary, difficult, confusing, and often lonely.  But they are also an opportunity to make my own career, in my own way, tailored to a shape and size that suits me.

"Yep, this career will fit my voice perfectly."
So often we singers are seduced by the career paths which have been prescribed to us.  We pressure ourselves to get into this opera school or that young artist programme, and we beat ourselves up when we don't.  We never seem to stop and think, is this really good for me, or is it just what I've been told is good for me?  What if other people's idea of success is not your true calling?  What if there are other ways, other paths, which might be better for you, which might ultimately make you happier?  You'll never find out unless you look.

I have many friends whose career paths don't fit into the preconceived notion of a budding young opera star.  They are successful freelance singers, and so much more.  They are educators, directors, administrators, writers, conductors, coaches, and founders of brand new ensembles and opera companies.  Are they living the life they envisioned for themselves?  No.  They are living something far more interesting than they ever could have imagined.

Life after graduation is hard.  Whatever our dreams are, however hard we work for them, most of us don't transfer seamlessly into our ideal career.  But what we do achieve can be so much more exciting.  With creativity, determination, resourcefulness and vision, we forge ahead.  We find our own path, and we're often delighted to discover where it leads.

Here I am, foot poised, about to start out on my own path.  And I can't wait to find out what comes next.