German, my new religion

Let’s not lie to ourselves. It’s hard to learn a language. No matter how many Rosetta Stone levels you download illegally, no matter how many foreign films you try to absorb while reading the subtitles, you cannot just pick up a language. I speak Spanish fluently and am not so bad at Portuguese, so I’ve been told many times over the past few years that I have a gift with languages, that I can pick them up so easily. Maybe that’s true to a certain extent. But I don’t buy that any more. Now when people ask me how I speak Spanish so well, I no longer shrug as if some language angel has come and touched me on the shoulder. I tell them the truth. I’ve been learning Spanish for ten years. I had better speak it well! And during those years I wasn’t just staring at the books on my shelf or occasionally visiting the local Mexican restaurant (although great queso dip!) with hopes of someday knowing it. It took hours of tedious study. But more than that, it took thousands and thousands of really embarrassing situations. And it took a perfectionism that drove me to never stop listening to the language’s nuances. It took a lot of effort, patience, and courage. Why, then, did I think that learning German would be any easier? It’s not even a Romance language. I mean, if you’re in a pinch, you can throw in a French word and if you’re really lucky, it will be one that German has borrowed. Saying English words with a German accent is utterly fruitless (although we all still try it!). So why did I think I could just let German “happen to me”? If you haven’t guessed already, I’ll tell you: It’s not “happening”. In nearly every sentence I speak, there is a key word for which I do not know the translation. Extremely frustrating. But I just keep going to class expecting it to hit me one day. “What am I doing wrong?” I think. I’m not doing the three things I mentioned that are essential for learning a language: 1) a ridiculous amount of self-study of grammar and vocabulary, 2) putting oneself in as many over-ones-head conversations as possible, and 3) active listening, which involves full attention to pronunciation and syntax details and a willingness to retain and later look up the meaning of new words. This evening I was blessed with an over-my-head conversation. A guy from Yemen, who lives on my floor, sat down to have tea with me and spoke with me in German about our goals, our tastes in food, our understandings of religion, etc. His German was much better that mine, so he corrected me a lot, and it was so helpful! What is the best thing to do when you’re grunting senseless pieces of forgotten vocabulary to a native/proficient German speaker? Be humble, smile, and say, “danke” when corrected. You have to do it now. You’ll have to do it ten years from now. You earn a language over time and never fully. Sometimes I think a language requires even more devotion than a religion does. But on the bright side you see your progress much more quickly. : )


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