Free Advice from a Novice Expert, Learning German

First Babbling, Then Talking

There are two ways to learn a foreign language. The first and most common way is in a classroom setting. You read one hundred books, memorize one thousand vocabulary words and one million grammar forms, listen to your teacher speak the language, and occasionally tongue-twist it for yourself.

The second way is through total immersion. Children learn their native language this way, and crazy people who move to other countries sometimes do the same. The second way is harder and scarier, but ultimately better. It’s only through total immersion that you’re forced to communicate in that language, regardless of whether or not you know the word for dog or potato or humiliation, and regardless of your understanding of the past perfect progressive tense.

The school I teach at uses the total immersion technique in its classes. Whether the students are complete beginners or have three black belts in English-kwando, I only speak English to them, and they only speak English to me. This method is an excellent idea in theory, but in practice it is terrifying. And here’s why: as humans, our greatest desire is to be understood. Language is our primary tool that we use for attempting to achieve this. We use language to communicate what’s going on inside our brains. And when you take away the biggest tool a person uses for explaining herself and the world, you expose an enormous and all-consuming fear of being misunderstood.

Most people grow up learning one language. As they get older, they learn about themselves and the world around them through the lens of that language. Their identity and worldview is shaped by language. This is known as linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

When you switch to a new language, you have to change that lens through which you see and understand yourself and the world. Raccoons are no longer raccoons; they are Wash Bears. You aren’t cold; it feels cold to you. And you don’t say “you’re welcome” when someone thanks you; you say “please.”

One of my advanced students is nearly fluent in English, but he confessed to me today that he sometimes has no idea how to formulate English sentences out of the thoughts in his head. Even though he is quite eloquent and has a vast vocabulary, he sometimes just can’t say what he means in English. I was immediately reminded of Vladimir Nabokov, one of the most brilliant writers in the English language, who described his experience with using a foreign language in the following way:

“My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.”

Learning and speaking a different language thus requires you to accept two things:

1. You cannot and will never be able to express yourself in that language in the same way you are able to in your native language.
2. You can still communicate important information and make yourself understood.

My knowledge of German is on the same level as a very small child, so I am not comparing myself to my student or to Nabokov. But I think the key to my progress in learning German is focusing less on the first point and more on the second. I cannot be like Goethe or Rilke or Schiller, but I can be like the little kid on the train who is memorizing her multiplication tables, or the toddler who tells his mom that he wants to take off his coat. I have to babble before I can talk.

“Everything that you can do, you learned through practice: first crawling, then walking, first babbling, then talking. By playing you learn something new every day.”


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