Some thoughts about language learning


1. It’s difficult.

Learning a new language has a certain romantic appeal – like, for example, living abroad. But the dreaminess disappears quickly.

I have dedicated a part of every day for the last eight months to language learning (and have committed over 1200 German words to memory), and today at the hair salon I could not say, “longer on top, shorter on the sides.” My stylist simply smiled and then gave me the haircut she thought I needed.

2. Immersion is probably the way to go.

Before leaving the U.S. I asked a brother in law who teaches German literature at a state university for his opinion about the best way to learn German, and he said, “Take a 2-3 week immersion class, and you’ll be speaking passable German by the time you’re finished.” (He was actually thinking, “You wouldn’t get a passing grade from me, but you would know how to get a haircut.”)

My once-per-week language class, supplemented by an online course, the car radio, and a daily German-language newspaper (the tabloid most Swiss do not admit to reading), are not enough. I have clearly chosen the longer, more difficult route.

3. The locals do not help.

There are really two issues here. One is that as soon as my American identity becomes clear – usually in the first three seconds after meeting someone – the Swiss person I’m talking to will switch immediately to flawless English. And so ends my opportunity to practice.

The other issue is that the Swiss really prefer to speak Swiss German, not the more widely known German language I am learning. I have listened to conversations on the train, expecting to understand a little of what is being said, only to realize that the conversation is not actually in German. This other dialect is the tribal tongue of the Swiss, and it’s one way to maintain an identity distinct from the Germans to the north who – how do I put this? – are not held in high regard.

4. In spite of #3, the Swiss really like it that I am trying to learn.

Maybe it gives them pleasure to see an American struggle. I’m sure that’s part of it. But mostly I think they value the attempt I am making to integrate within Swiss culture. Members of my church regularly tell me – in English – how glad they are that I am learning the language.

5. Spiritually speaking, language learning is an exercise in humility.

And I thought I was humble enough before I started.

(Photo: I’ve never had so many options for walking the dog.)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.


7 Responses to Some thoughts about language learning

  1. Steve Stimpson September 22, 2014 at 7:04 am #

    Good morning, Doug,
    It sounds like the Swiss are very German. In my experience trying to practice German with Germans they too switched to flawless English within a syllable or two of my flawed Gerrman. That happens here in the USA also. The German Breadhaus on E Commercial no longer has a German speaker at the till. (I learned that the hard way by ordering three different loaves dunn- und dicke-geschnitt one day.) I envy you living in a language lab none the less.
    Auf Weiderhoren,
    Steve Stimpson

    • Doug September 22, 2014 at 8:20 am #

      Good to hear from you as always, Steve. Even though you’ve demonstrated your German knowledge previously, I don’t think I realized just how much you’ve studied. Did you do your in-flight announcements (“This is Captain Stimpson on the flight deck…”) in multiple languages?

      • Steve Stimpson September 22, 2014 at 10:03 am #

        Unfortunately no in-flight announcements were made in German; one because I never had the privilege of commanding a flight into Germany, and two, unless a Captain was extremely proficient, es war verbotten zu sprechen eine Gesprache als das Englisch. I have to laugh an the rigidity of the AAL routine. I remember one routine announcement, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Please remain seated with your seat belts fastened just a few moments longer until the Seat Belt Sign is extinguished.” A Check Captain riding in the back counseled me that “extinguish” was not in the Flight Manual Part One script. I should use the words “turned off.” Sometimes you just want to be a deviant. I think you know what I mean. My formal German included 35 Quarter Hours at Auburn in a curriculum in which a minor consisted of 30 hours. I enjoyed it very much and learned infinitely more English grammar studying German than triple the years of my public schooling in English Grammar. I have Mark Twain’s “Leben auf dem Mississippi” und “Reise um die Welt” and John Steinbeck’s “Jenseits von Eden” und “Von Mausen und Menschen.” My German Profs said those American authors had the best German-language translations of their respective original English texts. I am not as proficient as the above may sound. I haven’t read more than ten pages in any of the above in German. I completed a U.S. Army German Level I course and part of Level II back in the late 1970’s. There are on-line courses via the BBC that are good refreshers. I think I mentioned the Rosetta Stone program to you before. It is great, but everything takes time and focus. Being retired now I am finding less and less time and focus than I envisioned. FPC and the antics of General Assembly are getting too little and at the same time too much of my time and focus. Give my regards to Frau Susan, Steve. P.S. There are umlauts missing in the above. Have forgotten how to include them.

        • Doug September 22, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

          It’s unsettling when airline captains depart from the script. Same goes for pastors!

  2. Lizzy Brouwer September 22, 2014 at 1:36 pm #

    “Dürfen wir bitte Converse auf Deutsch? Ich möchte meine Sprachkenntnisse zu üben.”

  3. Doug September 22, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

    Easy for you to say.

  4. mary ninow-thomaere (@maryninow) September 23, 2014 at 5:43 am #

    I lived in Zurich & attended IPC for two years without having to speak a lick of German. In June we were transferred to Germany where everyone expects you to speak German. Thanks for your insight; its time to take the plunge! I think I’ll take the intensive course route.

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