The Joys of Learning a Language

“German words are alphabetical processions” – Mark Twain

My first major migration was to Vienna, Austria.

*My first migration was in Chile, from Valparaíso to Santiago.

It was a month after the February 27th earthquake in 2010,  a tremendous eruption of a volcano in Iceland Eyjafjallajökull, for those who remember, hahaha). Up to the week before airplane takeoff, I did not know if I even could. Many of the airports in Europe were closed due to excessive smoke and ash of the volcano and of course, in Chile, they were rebuilding the airport Pudahuel, which suffered serious structural damage after the February ‘shake’.

At that time, I had quit my job to spend a couple of weeks with my family and friends in my hometown Valparaiso gathering information about the imminent move and reading, and learning German.

German. That language that long before planning that trip to Vienna I had only known of in Falco songs, Rammstein and movies. I thought it was funny sounding and incredibly difficult. A few of my friends spoke German and I had met many Germans during my time as a volunteer at Hospitality Club. Yet how different it is to actually face the language at that first class.

It was another world. Another logic. Other muscles of the mouth are used to pronounce ö, ä, ü. There are words as complex as Nahrungsmittelunverträglichkeit (food intolerance) or Lebensverschicherungsgesellschaft (Life Insurance Company); words that need to be pronounced in one breath. There are even words with only one vowel: Herrschst (to govern, to rule); it was overwhelming. When I went to Vienna for the first time it was on vacation. During my vacation I sat in on a German course for a month, from Monday to Friday, three hours a day. With that, I assumed I would be able to communicate and ask for basic things like the time or where I could find the nearest subway stop. Other than asking to pay at the supermarket I didn’t really use it because I was accompanied by native Germans who also spoke Spanish.

But in 2010, two years after the intensive German course, I was serious about learning the language. I was going to live in Austria. I wanted to study for an Austrian psychology degree. I wanted to work and be independent like I was in Chile. And for that I needed to master the language.

It was incredibly hard. No words can truly convey how I suffered! How many hours I spent crying because I didn’t understand the grammar rules; how I worried because I couldn’t pronounce the words, people didn’t understand me or, even worse, the fact that I didn’t understand what was being said!

I found that when I spoke with older Austrians, I especially could not understand their words. I’d ask them to repeat what they’d said and in return, they would simply repeat the words the exact same way; still with poor pronunciation only now SHOUTING. It was awful. I rarely understood and they would often respond annoyed, making a rude gesture, rolling their eyes and grumbling under their breath.

Months went by. It continued to be difficult and I felt useless, dumb, and dependent upon others to translate and communicate for me. I wanted to be able to express myself in German as I do in Spanish: with ease. It was even more frustrating because language has always been my main medium of work and yet I could not reach even half the level I have in native language. I was angry at myself for not achieving it; there was so much fear of never getting it and on and on it went; sounds familiar?

It was a long and difficult process. Eighteen months later, I finally was able to have a “non-caveman” conversation in German. I studied a lot, read a lot, practiced a lot with native speakers. I watched movies, TV series, and news with German subtitles. I did everything the way I was supposed to. But there was one factor I didn’t think of or truly understand: time. As banal as it sounds, I had to let my brain assimilate to all this new information; create new synapses for comprehension. Just like bread dough I had to allow for everything I’d learned to ‘rest’ before moving forward. Looking back now I understand it and I find sense in it. But of course, at that moment the sentence ‘have patience’ did not help me at all.

So now I try to do the same with my readers. Those who are learning and struggling with a new language in the country of their choosing. Be patient. Practice. And find creative ways to keep learning. Keep doing everything you do but include patience. It takes time to learn a new language. It takes even more time to understand it well. And even more, until you feel completely safe to use it fully. But you are going to make it; just wait and see.

If you are struggling with learning and using this new language, let’s talk. You are not alone!