How (Not) To Learn A Foreign Language

My most commonly made mistakes made while trying to learn a foreign language.

“So… do you speak German yet?” This well meaning yet grating question has been uttered to me over and over again since the ink was dry on my expat contract. Most of the time it’s asked by somebody who does not themselves speak a foreign language, which makes the vaguely confused and judgmental looks on their faces when I say, “nein”, all the more irritating.

Most adults do not pick up a foreign language via osmosis, and it is especially difficult to do so when you’re working full time in your native tongue.  I was hired for my fluency in English, but working in an English speaking bubble gives me very few opportunities to get out there and practice my German, thus leaving me feeling insulated and helpless sometimes. A lot of English speaking expats can find themselves in a similar pickle. When I first moved to Switzerland I didn’t speak a lick of German. Now I speak, well… several licks. My entree into the German language hasn’t exactly been a swift or smooth one, but I refuse to give up on it. And you, dear reader, can benefit from my trials! Here are the top mistakes I’ve made getting started in a foreign language and a few lessons I’ve learned along the way:

Mistake # 1: Listen to others when they tell you it’s not worth it:

You don’t need German to survive in Switzerland! Everybody speaks English! I’ve heard this time and time again, and from many people who’ve lived here much longer than I have. To a certain extent it’s true. Most educated people here speak at least a little bit of English, and when they don’t you can usually fuss your way through.

Lesson Learned: 

Except when you can’t. I’ve found that the times when I feel like the need to communicate with a stranger most urgently (medical emergencies!) is when I’m most likely to come up against a wall. In those times when I feel helpless and frustrated, I don’t want to have to rely on somebody else to interpret. I just want to get what I need.

To me though, learning German is more about getting my basic needs met, it’s also about being happy. I’ve mentioned before how a lot of expats complain that Swiss people aren’t, “nice”. It wasn’t until I started learning more German that I realized that every time I went out in public, people around me were saying really, really nice things to me. I just didn’t understand them. The world seems like a much less scary, grumpy, unpleasant place when what people are saying to you isn’t meaningless babble. I’ll say it to you straight up, of all the expats I know, the ones who haven’t bothered to learn the language are the least happy. Why would you cut off your nose to spite you face like that?

Mistake #2: Take a class. And only a class:

Sign up for your beginner’s German class! Buy all the books. Sit there for a couple hours a week studiously taking notes. Then don’t attempt to speak, read or write German outside of class. Why would you? You’re a beginner! You barely know how to say hello for crap’s sake! Then when you’ve been taking classes for a few months and you still barely know how to say hello, quit! You’re probably too stupid to pick up a foreign language. And anyways, like all those other really smart expats told you, speaking German won’t really improve your life here that much anyways!

Lesson Learned:

You won’t learn any foreign language just sitting in a class for an hour or two a week and not doing anything outside of class. I’m talking about more than just homework. When you go out on the town, take a stab at reading billboards, signs and train schedules. Just because you haven’t learnt all those vocabulary words yet doesn’t mean you can’t suss out the meaning through context. Try to speak German to folks you encounter in public, even when they speak English back to you. Watch your favorite TV shows with the German subtitles on, browse German language newspapers and magazines, and attempt to send your friends short emails and text messages in German. I get a kick off of saying, “ja”, to random things waitstaff offer to me in restaurants, even if I’m not sure what it is. That’s how I learned to order different types of beers! I also use language learning apps like Memrise, Duolingo and Quizlet to help me learn. They’re fun and they give me something productive to do on the train!

Classes are great for big grammar and vocabulary dumps, but real learning is holistic. When you live in a foreign country, the whole world around you is your classroom, so take advantage of it!

Mistake #3: Get discouraged when it’s hard to communicate:

In Switzerland there are four official languages; French, German, Italian and Romansch. I live in the German speaking region of the country though, so I should be fine just learning German, right? Hahaha. No. Swiss German is a completely different dialect than the High German you learn in classes. Different words, different pronunciation, even different grammar. Add to this the fact that it’s an oral language, with no official written rules and very few places where a foreigner can actually learn in a formalized way. Oh, and the dialect varies from Kanton to Kanton, meaning even if you did learn Swiss German, you may not be able to understand other speakers of the language that live 10 km up the road from you.

All Swiss people learn, “High”, German in school, but even though they understand it, when I try to speak it to them, 80% of the time they switch to English. I’m never quite sure what to make of that. Is it because they are trying to be helpful? Is it because speaking baby-German with me is annoying? On my more cynical days I sometimes think it’s some people’s way of saying, “You’re not one of us and you never will be.”

Can you understand now why the idea of just speaking English is so attractive to foreigners?

Lesson Learned:

Although everything I just told you is true, don’t let it hold you back. I read somewhere that even Swiss people sometimes have difficulty understanding each other sometimes, which was a huge comfort to me. If you’re having a difficult time getting local people to speak your target language with you, here’s a few other ways you can practice with strangers:

  1. Kids and old people: The elder generation isn’t as English saturated so their immediate response isn’t to switch to English for you. Plus, old people have a lot of patience and don’t mind speaking slowly. I’ve had some nice conversations with elderly people at bus stops. And kids are just fun to talk to. They use simple vocabulary and get a kick out of talking to an adult who sounds like a moron. Everybody wins!
  2. Other foreigners. A lot of people move here from all over the world and learn German to survive. If the Turkish lady who runs the cafe down the block doesn’t speak a lick of English but is proficient in German, she’s a great unsuspecting target for my German Experiment.

Mistake # 4: I discounted my real world experience:

I’m out in the real world all the time trying to get around. I listen to train announcements, I take classes in German at the gym, I go to the doctor’s office. I understand a decent amount of what I read and hear now. But it doesn’t always feel like it’s getting me any closer to fluency.

Lesson Learned:

Like I said before, all learning counts. Although my small talk skills aren’t the greatest, volunteering at the till for the social dances at the studio where I take classes has really helped me count in German, and that’s not nothing. I’ve also learned directions and body parts from taking dance classes. Doing things like this feels scary, but it’s forced me to use the little German I know to it’s greatest potential, it’s gotten me out there listening to the language, and it will provide me more opportunities to speak once I’m more confident.

Mistake #5: Waiting for the perfect moment:

Speaking of confidence… where is it? I’m at a frustrating place where I understand more than I speak. My brain is so slow that once I’ve figured out how to respond to a question I’ve been asked it’s too late and the moment has passed. Sometimes it feels like I will never make it through this patch.

Lesson Learned: 

Learning is all about making mistakes. To get somewhere new in life you need to be willing to fail, fail often, and pick yourself up and keep going. Don’t be too afraid of your dreadful grammar or terrible pronunciation. It may be scary to try, but if you don’t take that first risk, you’ll never get anywhere.

So where to from here? If somebody could point me toward the bridge between being able to listen in on a conversation and actually being able to participate in one I would be eternally grateful. I’m really tired of the only German I feel comfortable speaking being the staccato sentences I utter to the poor lady who gets my cappuccino every morning.

Yes, there is a better way! Read all about my experience learning German at the Goethe Institute in Berlin here!

Cover photo courtesy of Sino Project Language Learning 


14 thoughts on “How (Not) To Learn A Foreign Language

  1. My language learning secret is one you’ve already mentioned: talk to the kids. They are more likely to tolerate bad grammar and pronunciation. Also try to write in it. Like keep a diary or take notes in the language you’re learning. Writing helps you retain it more and makes you hunt for the perfect word to express yourself. It’s like practising in the mirror, only more private and internal.

  2. Oh wow… Thank you for a great description of what it feels like to learn a language. Reminds me of a few years ago in Spain, when I was feeling pretty confident in my language skills… until I met a couple of people who worked in my industry and I realized I had vocabulary for many things *except* work! It was a good reminder that any language is a gradual acquisition.

    Love your suggestions for just getting in and trying it… Since you asked for tips, for learning specific vocabulary the thing I’ve had most success with is handwriting the word in one language while at the same time saying it out loud in the other, several times in a row, then switching.

    1. You hit the nail on the head about having different vocabularies for different things. After 2 years here, my vocabulary for travel, shopping, food and making a doctor’s appointment (so long as they don’t ask any unexpected questions) is okay. Trying to have a conversation with the doctor about anything more than the weather? Nope. Going to the visa office to renew paperwork? Not so much. But I can describe my favorite foods, hobbies and colors!

  3. Story of my life!! As an expat in Athens, learning Greek has been like one of those lessons I will never stop learning. Which sounds romantic… but it’s irritating as fuck. I know exactly what you mean when you say “If somebody could point me toward the bridge between being able to listen in on a conversation and actually being able to participate in one I would be eternally grateful.” Thank God people here get a kick out of the fact that an American is trying to speak Greek, and are usually quite encouraging about it. But oh how nice it would be to conversate as opposed to just surviving… one of those lessons in patience for sure!