Learning a New Language

I started hearing German when I was very young. My mom would use words like Geradeaus and Vorsicht on my brother and me when we were wearing on her nerves. There is nothing like hearing Kommst du rein in the middle of a crowded grocery store to know your mom means business. Over time German commands faded out of our conversations, but it left me with bits and pieces of the language lurking in the back of my mind and an ability to mimic German pronunciation better than most Kansans. In High School, I had the chance to explore this partially remembered language from my childhood, and when my teacher praised my pronunciation on the first day, I had visions of myself cheerfully chattering in German in the near future. Two years and a million vocabulary tests later I couldn’t have said much more than preliminary pleasantries or compliment your “Superklasse moped”. In defense of my teacher I didn’t strain myself to practice outside of the classroom or find new ways learn, I had just kind of assumed that I was learning what I needed. Spoiler - this will not be the last time that I make this assumption.

In college I make the mistake of telling a professor “why yes I do speak a little German” and when he rattled off several sentences in said language I could only stare in horror as I realized how little I actually knew. Correctly interpreting the look on my face he gave me some good advice; read the headlines of German news articles, not the whole article, just the headline to build up some practical vocabulary. Then find someone to practice with and start using what you’ve learned.

Did I do that? No. I told myself it was hard to find German speakers where I was.

Fast forward six years later.

I am living with my husband in Oklahoma. By coincidence, he also has been learning German off and on since he was young, but we don’t practice, and we don’t speak German with each other besides the odd - and usually incorrect - phrase. Sure we sporadically fire up Duolingo or look through a German news article trying to parse out meaning, and that was the extent of our effort. For me, part of my lack of enthusiasm was due to frustration for how much I didn’t know, all the words in the articles that I could not work out on my own and the Duolingo lessons that I could not remember. It felt like I just could not get it. Then something changed. Something big and disruptive. We decided to leave our community, our comfort, and move to Germany itself. As our departure date inched closer and closer, I threw myself into trying to learn during my free time the best way I knew. I bought a German For Beginners audio practice course, I spent hours doing Duolingo lessons, I subscribed to Babbel and practiced every beginners lesson. Before we left I worked on more than learning the German language; I read blogs about life here, watched videos on the social cues, and tracked down every Instagram hashtag about German Life that I could find. I was feeling confident and ready to take this big step outside of my comfort zone. We landed.

I was completely and utterly unprepared.

I thought I had really progressed with my language learning and on paper, I had gotten better. I had finished every DuoLingo level for goodness sake, I had finished THREE beginners courses on Babbel. An employee at the airport asked us something in German and I understood "Hallo" - everything else just melded together into an unintelligible tangle of umlauts and fricatives. Granted we had been traveling for about two days with four giant suitcases on our way to set up a new life in a new country so I wasn't entirely confident that I could tell you my full name, but I still couldn't believe how little help all of my diligent practice in language learning would be. I would go to the grocery store and when the clerks would ask me a question I would get that same panicked look on my face that I had six years earlier when my university professor tried to speak to me in German. People in line would ask me something, the panic would set in, and I would completely miss most of what they asked. This feeling of panic went on and on and on. I live in a fascinating city with so many diversions, during one of the most beautiful summers of the past decade, and there were days when I couldn't leave the apartment. I was too intimidated to go to cafes or explore libraries or find a job.

Slowly but surely I made my way out into the world, I met people. Most people that I have met here speak more than one language, but only a few of them learned the additional languages in school. Almost everyone that I have gotten to know has lived in another country at some point in their lives and they all talk about how difficult it was to acclimate to a new country when they didn’t understand the language well. I am not alone! The great thing about now living in a country full of people that learned new languages after their school days were over is the benefit of their advice and the social programs in place are generally effective. My German speaking French neighbor insists that using and hearing German as much as possible has the most benefit - so she has completely stopped speaking to me in English and to my surprise my German is quite good when I talk to her. She doesn’t expect it to be perfect and can help me if I get stuck. This is a common practice here, called “tandem”, where you have conversations with a fluent speaker and do your best to hold a conversation.

A year in and I am still working to improve my language skills, but it gets better every day. I am signing up for an adult language class in January, I watch Babylon Berlin, I translate signs that I see when I am out, and I have tea with my neighbor. There have been some setbacks, but now all of the German that I don’t understand looms before me like a mountain in front of a hiker, a goal, instead of a closed door that won’t open.


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Madi Lousch is a curious mind living and traveling in Germany, originally from Kansas. Until she finds a job in her new country she wanders, exploring green spaces and art ideas, an avid collector of secondhand books, wildflowers, and kitchen supplies. In the United States she worked variously in community mental health, non profit education programs, and with an Oklahoma Native American tribe - while making pottery on the side. She dreams of working with books. Bookbinder? Librarian? Who knows! 

Chelsea Francis