The Bountiful Struggles of Language Learning

The Bountiful Struggles

Real talk: I am passably mediocre in a several languages.

My ten years of Spanish instruction left me with a constant desire to roll my r’s but an unshakeable insecurity about my knowledge of more varied communicative abilities. I can sing Latin feminine noun declensions to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and can assert my constant desire to marry Brazilian sertanejo singer Lucas Lucco in Portuguese.

At present, my German is the best of any of these, which is fairly convenient and timely, given the whole being-in-Berlin-thing. I have studied German for the past few years, actively enjoy studying it, and have tried to practice as much as I can so far.

Despite this, language learning is—shockingly—very hard.

The combination of an inundation of new vocabulary, complicated sentence structures, and problems with proper pronunciation can sometimes make actually communicating in your target language seem like an impossible feat. These impossibilities become harder as you live in the environment you are trying to learn more about because, if you’re me, you tend to rationalize ordering a coffee from a café in the morning as sufficient language practice for the whole day, and instead spend your language learning time browsing through your almost only-English language Facebook feed.

However, gaining the courage to actually extend language learning outside of myself by venturing out into the city I love so much already is something that I still struggling with. Simple acts, like riding the bus or going through the checkout lane at a grocery store, fill me with more anxiety than they need to, as every potential interaction also carries within it the possibility of me saying something incorrectly or misunderstanding what someone else is saying.

In these moments of struggling, it can seem easy to shut down and cease all attempts at trying, resorting instead to the English that so many people here speak so well, the English with sounds that remind me of home. (For instance, I am currently not studying for my German test and am writing about it instead.)

However, in my typical annoying tendency of trying to be positive in moments of struggle, there is also a great deal of loveliness in the pursuit of greater language understanding.

To study a language that is not your native language requires training your mind and heart to seek meaning in new places, to hear beauty in the different sounds and smells and places that make up a place new to you and old to others. It means humbly reimagining yourself as a child, and accepting a lack of understanding of language and social norms. It demands that my perfectionist self let go of the desire to always be correct and in control. I must adjust to a worldview based on the idea of learning as a daily process of small successes and failures instead of an endless pursuit of perfection.

While I certainly aim on becoming better and more comfortable with German over the course of the next few months, I am happy—mostly—to be struggling with it.

Liebe Gruße,

Jenna

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