The first time I was truly challenged by a language I couldn’t grasp or understand was when I landed in Vienna, Austria in early 2011.
It was tough, but I thought I was up to the challenge. German? Conquerable!
Born in Canada and growing up in North Carolina, we spoke French and English at home. In school, I advanced to the highest level of Spanish and took pride in speaking it during my jobs in the service industry. I thought language was my thing.
At 18, I made a conscious and deliberate move to Montreal to pursue my university studies. I chose to only associate with French Canadians so I could perfect my French, learn to write, speak, date, and express myself in my (literal) mother tongue. You see, I only learned English at five years old, powering through a few awkward months in kindergarten in my hometown of Concord. But I did it.
Before my semester in Vienna, German was familiar to me, but only familiar in the sense that I liked to watched German-language movies, knew a handful of German songs, and saw some German books in my grandfather’s house. Trying to speak anything more than simple phrases seemed impossible to me.
The next six months, from winter to summer of 2011, I lived in Vienna as an exchange student, mostly associating with other French Canadians and learning small quips in the Viennese dialect. Nothing impressive.
Meeting the German-speaking friends and family of my then-girlfriend (and now fiancée) proved very challenging and frustrating. I considered myself a good talker, a rhetorician! Now I was in circumstances where I was the obvious linguistic minority. I couldn’t express all the feelings and thoughts I had swirling in my mind. I was criticized by a friend for not putting in more effort to learn the language around me, and they weren’t wrong.
A few moves, jobs, states, and years later, I’m again living in Vienna. It’ll be five years in February. I couldn’t be happier, but I’m still not where I’d like to be in German. I took a course a few years ago, but since try my hand with friends or in family situations.
As a expat in a foreign country, one deals with a host of situations they don’t fully understand nor comprehend. In German, there are a lot of casual phrases and sentence structures that still seem frankly impossible to master. The verb goes at the very end of a terribly long sentence. How do you know when to stop?
Learning German is a challenge that I’ve committed myself to, but the shame of not perfecting it is a feeling I can’t often share with others. How can I? People tell me all the time how easy it is to learn a language.
Each time I return to the U.S. or Canada, people always tell me they “know” another language.
For most people, this translates into saying rudimentary things like “hello” or “thank you”. Maybe even a small, “Where are the bathrooms?”. I call it “Cafe Talk”.
By that logic, owing to my extensive travel schedule and life, my Cafe Talk is easily 10 languages deep by this point. But that’s not “knowing” a language. I would never claim it.
Knowing a language means you’ve accepted the challenge to speak it, understand it, and formulate it to express your thoughts. You understand the culture and the beauties of it. You’re not just repeating what someone has taught you. I’m a great repeater and impressionist, I have no problem there. It’s why I love karaoke.
Someone like my mother knows that distinction well.
At 33 years old, she moved with her husband and three children to North Carolina. Mastering English in her young years growing up in and around Montreal, Quebec was the furthest thing from her mind. Now, she has a successful life in English with many friends, she’s worked and volunteered in the community, and built up an impressive reputation. It was tough and I couldn’t imagine what it was like. She’s always been my hero.
The sacrifice my mother and father made in moving to North Carolina was huge. For my mother, it represented a complete change of context, scenery, and understanding. She went from a life where she could so easily express her love, desires, and talents in her native language to a foreign country with nothing she’d known before. Her kids took to the language well and made it their own.
That she was able to raise us so well, instill in us values from her culture, and do it while trying to still speak to us in French while learning English was likely the largest feat anyone could have performed in her state.
And, thus, I use that spirit to try to better myself in my situation.
I know I will be no expert of the German language, but I will try as much as I can. I’ll make many mistakes, but hopefully I will improve upon them.
It’s what I want to promise not only my fiancée and her family, but also to myself and my grandfather. He was, himself, an immigrant to a new country. He uprooted his own life once the great European war ravaged his. He abandoned German to learn English in the new world, and succeeded a million times over by doing that. That’s also the spirit I want to internalize.
While it may be the most challenging part of my life, even all these years later in Vienna, I know it’s worth it.
It’s a fulfilling challenge, and I hope I can someday reap enough benefit from that to pass on that spirit to any who will listen, whether that’s in French, English, or natürlich, auf Deutsch. Here’s to the challenge of a lifetime.