I am the complete opposite of a spontaneous person. Once I become settled into a routine, I don’t want to change it at all. Sometimes I’ve become quite frustrated when that routine is disrupted without a few days notice. My routine is familiar to me; so you could say that I have a comfort zone and I really don’t like to leave it!
Enter trying to speak German: You have to understand that for the last 18 months I have primarily spent my time listening and reading; I’ve only recently started to write more frequently. Truthfully, I don’t have much of an opportunity to speak it. When I was a student I really couldn’t speak well, and now it’s just hard to find people without being rude. I’m not exactly one to just go up to a group of German speakers and insert myself into their conversation!
Of course, all of that changed this past week when a German speaking friend came to town! So of course I enjoy having the opportunity to speak this language that I absolutely love, especially with someone who is also a language learner, and enjoys learning languages, and at the same time, it’s a complete step out of my “safe zone.”
Here are a couple of things that happen when you go 18 months with hardly speaking a language, and suddenly you’re able to do so: word order problems, picking one default gender and sticking to it even if it isn’t correct, forgetting which tense to use (though surprisingly cases are okay now!), incorrect conjugations, and the ever so awkward attempt at saying one of the basic greeting words (hello, bye, yes, no, etc.) that end up being a mix between German and English. So I think I’ll just say that only listening and reading did not help me learn to speak! Or at least, it didn’t help me to learn spontaneous conversation, where you can’t always anticipate what will be said to you. Now, delivering a presentation, or writing an e-mail…that’s a little different! My introverted self isn’t too bad at those activities! Of course though, the spontaneous conversation is the best part.
I always find it amusing when people will say that any language is “easy” to learn. Really, it’s quite humbling to start speaking and know that it probably won’t come out perfectly. I really do believe that part of the reason my speaking ability is so noticeably below my other abilities is because I refused to speak. I was too afraid of making a mistake, or sounding like an American tourist, that I just couldn’t do it. Of course, as soon as I started speaking, all of my fears about sounding “too American” went away, and the only focus was on using the language. By the way, I also think that in some ways, speaking has made more of my passive vocabulary “stick.” I don’t know if my mind just works that way, or if maybe by speaking, I suddenly have this motivation that I never had before to remember all of the vocabulary I’ve been learning.
I think at some point in language learning, it gets to a point where things need to change. I think I’ve had enough experiences now to know that just reading a newspaper everyday won’t be enough to get me where I want to be. That’s exactly why I’ve written a few entries here in German, and will continue to do so. I’ve deliberately left them up unedited for a few reasons: so that maybe my progress will be more evident, that others will realize that it takes time before a language is truly part of you, and so that I can finally be able to use the massive amounts of German in me. It can become extremely easy to stay in the comfort of doing something that is familiar. But I’m quickly coming to realize that without stepping outside of the safety net, the ability will never improve as quickly as it could.
And on the speaking front: I’m definitely going to keep speaking it!