Hang in there language learner, don’t get discouraged

manfriedAs I write this post, I have spent the last two weeks in Europe.  First I attended a Business Communication conference in Antwerp, Belgium, and then I spent a week in Berlin with my brother Warren.  This has been Warren’s first trip to Germany, and it was great fun hanging out with him, showing him the sites around town, and especially the locations where our father used to live.

As to language learning, this trip was different for me in that I had to work through the feelings of discouragement that we often get as language learners.  If you have been a language learner, you know what I’m referring to.  It starts with the feeling that all of our efforts to learn a foreign language have not really paid off. First, there is the problem that after all our study and effort, we still don’t understand most of what people are saying around us.  When we read billboards and advertisements in the subway station we barely understand what they are saying.  Second, there is the realization that there are thousands of words that we still don’t understand.  There seems to be too many of them that just don’t stick on our brain.  And third, for us native speakers of English, there is a sense that everyone seems to speak English anyway, so why even bother with the foreign language.  And finally, in this instance, my brother doesn’t speak any German and he was having the same positive experience in Germany that I was.  It all left me with a sense of “my German sucks, and what does it matter?”

So how did I pull myself out of this mode of thinking?  I’d like to thank a man named Manfred who lives in Köln, and like us, was a tourist in Berlin. Warren and I were resting on a park bench on Peacock Island (SW of Berlin near Potsdam) when this elderly man walked by.  I said hello to him, and so he stopped to talk with us for a while.  It ended up being a delightful long chat, all in German. We talked about the island, the birds, nature, his family, our travels, our backgrounds, etc.  And since Peacock Island is pretty small, we then ran across him a few more times as we walked around the island.  The chat with Manfred was exactly what I needed, linguistically, to be reminded that I really can carry on a German conversation with non-English speakers.  It also reminded me, in terms of language learning, of the value of dialog, exchanging ideas, the give and take of conversations. And it also reminded me that we can work around vocabulary words that we don’t know.  (BTW, thanks to Manfred I now know that der specht is the German word for woodpecker.) And this conversation also reminded me of the type of experiences that we can have when we speak another language, even when proficiency is limited.

I’ll probably never see Manfred again, but I thank him for a great pick-me-up.  And while I’m at it, I thank the lady in the bakery in Lichtenberg, the family on the U-bahn, the church members in the Dahlem ward, and waiter at the sports bar during the Bayern Munich win over Stuttgart.  Thanks to all for keeping me motivated in my attempts to learn a new language.

The picture:  Warren and Manfred on Peacock Island.

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