Sunday, 29 March 2015

On learning a foreign language (Part 2)

It's been a year and a half now since I last wrote about learning a foreign language.  A lot has changed since then.  I'm starting to get the hang of this German business now, and for the most part I get by.  I'm certainly nowhere close to being fluent, but somehow I am managing to function every day auf Deutsch.

Of course, it does help that I finally sucked it up and hit the books.  Last spring I signed up for an intensive B1 course at the Volkshochschule in Cologne.  (For those of you not in the know, the Volkshochschule is a German institute for adult education: a much more affordable route for learning German than Berlitz or the Goethe Institute, although you won't get any official accreditation).  The course gave my German skills a major boost.  The biggest difference I noticed was my grammar.  Before taking the course I would often just throw random words together into a sentence, and pray it made some kind of sense.  Now I'm much more conscious of things like cases and word order.  The rules haven't yet become automatic, but at least now I think about them and try to correct myself.

I have progressed.  Really, I have.  And people are noticing.  But no matter how good my German gets, it never feels real.  The truth is, most days I feel like a big fat fraud.  It's like I'm putting on an act for everyone.  I don't really speak German – I'm just playing the role of someone who does.  I'm constantly acting, pretending, struggling to "pass" – and hoping that people won't see right through me.

There are days I'm so sure that someone will turn around and call my bluff.  "YOU don’t belong here!" they'll say.  "You don't REALLY speak German!"

"RAUS, du Lügner!!!"

I always knew learning a new language would be an intellectual challenge.  What I wasn't prepared for was the emotional challenge.  The feeling that you never really fit in, and you never really know what's going on.  The frustration that comes with being unable to express yourself fully or accurately.  The intense homesickness of missing your native language.  The loneliness and isolation that comes with realising you're the only person in the room who speaks it.

All of the feels.

When I first moved to Germany, I used to play it safe.  Surround myself with English speakers, and only speak German when it was absolutely necessary.  It was like I had this safe little English bubble to float around in.

Lalalala.... bubbling around...

But I couldn't stay in this bubble forever.  After all, I wouldn't always have English-speaking colleagues around.  More and more, I began to find myself in situations where nobody else spoke English.  It was overwhelming, and it scared me half to death.  But it left me with no choice.  I had to sink or swim.  If I wanted to survive, I would have to do it auf Deutsch.

How can I explain the discomfort of constantly speaking a language which isn't your own?  It's like an extra layer of challenge has been added to every single part of your day.  Imagine if you could never see things clearly, but instead had to peer through a screen all the time.  You never get a full picture of reality.  You're always squinting and craning your neck, trying to piece together what on earth is going on from what you can – just barely – see.  That's what it feels like speaking German every day.  Some days the screen obscures a lot, and sometimes it's more transparent.  But make no mistake, the screen is always there.

"It looks like... they're saying something.. about..... a bicycle?"

Perhaps the most difficult thing is that, in German, I can't really be myself.  I'm far too self-conscious and slow on the uptake.  I must seem like the most boring person in the world in German.  I hardly say a word aside from "ja" or "stimmt".  Usually by the time I've understood someone and formulated a response, they've moved on to another subject entirely.

One-on-one conversations are fine, because my conversation partner can always slow to my pace.  But group situations are the absolute worst.  As the talk gets lively, everyone starts talking a mile a minute and interrupting each other.  Meanwhile I'm sitting in silence, looking for all the world like a dull and humourless idiot.  It probably seems like I have no thoughts or ideas in my head at all.  The truth is that my head couldn't be busier!  While everyone else is nattering on, I'm making a bunch of complicated linguistic calculations and mental back-flips just to get a basic grasp of what they're talking about.

So much.... translating....

Any friend of mine can attest to the instant transformation I undergo when I switch from German to English.  As I move to my native tongue, all hesitations fall away, and my true self emerges.  One minute I'm dull as dishwater, and the next minute I'm the life of the party.  Hey, who knew it?  Turns out this girl actually has a personality!

For this reason, I still socialise a lot in English.  Most of my friends are other native English speakers, or Germans with very good English (there's a lot of those).  I may be able to make small talk and friendly chat in German, but this always comes with a certain level of awkwardness, and a lingering feeling that I'm doing my math homework.  It's one thing to go through this effort when I'm on the clock, but why would I want it in my down-time?  Only in English can I truly relax.  Only in English can I feel natural, and be myself without worrying about whether I just used the right pronoun.

"Ahhhh.... this is the life."

And so a real dichotomy has developed.  German is my work language, and English is my leisure language.  It's like I put on a German hat to go to work, and take it off as soon as I get home.

I often wonder when this language will become second nature.  When will I be truly fluent?  When will I speak German with bravado and ease?  When will I form a sentence without thinking, is it der, die, or das?

Years later, Joe still wonders if it was "die Birne" after all

One sure sign will be the day I have a real German friend.  I'm not talking about a German friend who speaks English with me.  I'm not talking about a friend-ly German, who speaks simple German with me so we can make superficial chitchat.  I'm talking about a German who speaks to me in German consistently, using sophisticated language, and discusses deep and important issues.  I'm talking about someone who can be real with me in their language, and not have to constantly worry about dumbing things down.  If I can reach that level of understanding with a native German speaker, I'll know I've really made it.

But I have to be patient.  Learning another language is a slow process, and nobody becomes fluent overnight.  It takes years of repetition, immersion, and trial and error.  Sometimes your progress can be so slow it's imperceptible – and other times you'll make a huge leap and completely surprise yourself.  It will be years before I can feel completely comfortable in German.  In the meantime I'll have to be kind to myself, and trust that I'm moving forward.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi, Brynne! How is it going with your German language study? Learning a foreign language could be really challenging. You will experience a lot of awkward misunderstandings with some people, but that is all part of the learning process. German language could be difficult to learn, but I'm sure you'll be able to speak like a native soon enough. Good luck!

    Israel Oliver @ Atlas-Translations

  3. Hey Lady,

    I'm going to challenge you and leave my comment in German (don't worry I'm not a native speaker either, just a girl who learned the language while living in Germany).

    Erstens, dieser Beitrag ist sehr lustig! Ich habe gelacht als ich den gelesen habe. Wieso? Ich weiß, ganz genau wie du dich fühlst und wie es ist in Deutschland zu wohnen; dein Deutsch ist gut genug, um alles hinzukriegen aber nicht gut genug, dass man fließend Deutsch spricht. Crazy, oder? Naja, ich mag's hoffen, dass dein Deutsch hat sich bisher verbessert. Hoffentlich lese ich noch einen neuen Beitrag von dir?

    Zweitens...Where are you anyway? Are you still in Germany?


    La Deutsche Diva — The Denglisch Blog

    1. Hi! Danke, ich habe alles verstanden :)
      Ich habe in Juli ein weiteren Deutschkurs gemacht, und jetzt merken viele, dass mein Deutsch sich verbessert hat.
      Ich bin momentan in Deutschland, aber mache bald einen Umzug nach Österreich. Da habe ich einen Job im Opernchor.
      Thanks for your comment! I'm glad you enjoyed the blog :)

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  4. Without a doubt, I agree with you that learning another language is a quite slow process, and, of course, nobody becomes fluent overnight. You're welcome to read one great post on this topic. It's available at! Good luck to you!