Learning German is “what eternity was made for.”

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I went often to look at the collection of curiosities in Heidelberg Castle, and one day I surprised the keeper of it with my German. I spoke entirely in that language. He was greatly interested; and after I had talked a while he said my German was very rare, possibly a “unique”; and wanted to add it to his museum.

If he had known what it had cost me to acquire my art, he would also have known that it would break any collector to buy it. Harris and I had been hard at work on our German during several weeks at that time, and although we had made good progress, it had been accomplished under great difficulty and annoyance, for three of our teachers had died in the mean time. A person who has not studied German can form no idea of what a perplexing language it is.

From A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain. Found at https://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/texts/twain.german.html

Let’s begin with a confession

This is embarrassing, but I have lived in Germany for ten eleven years and my German language ability is basically abysmal.

It is true.

In spite of taking countless German courses over the years, the fact remains that outside of establishing services, making appointments, or speaking with officials, I have not necessarily needed it.


Yes, if I used it daily, my life would indelibly be all the richer because of it.

I understand I have limited myself because of my inability to really use the language properly.

In the beginning, I came here to teach English and I was told repeatedly that I needn’t require the language as I would be dealing mainly with students whose English was decent enough. I also always had someone who could help me with setting up my phone or internet, help me to find a doctor that spoke English enough, or register with the city.

Not nearly all the resources collected over the years.

My best teacher

My best teacher, or reason to learn these days, is my son. I have to be able to understand his teacher and other people that he interacts with at his school. I also need to understand his friends, his doctor, his notes or messages from school or the city. He has been a great motivator for me.

In the evening, early on, we let him pick out the books to read. Sometimes these books were in German, sometimes they were in English. So, it was important to be able to read German, at least decently. Today, generally speaking, I can read small amounts of text on a page fairly well and listen to short chunks of spoken language without difficulty.

That said, if the topic, theme or vocabulary is too specialized, I struggle.

I don’t want to struggle.

I don’t plan on earning a degree that requires impeccable German language skills, but would like to be able to speak, in German, on a wider variety of topics. As it is, I can maintain general small talk for a short time, on a very narrow set of topics.

What I want, what I really, really want

I love to talk to people, to learn about them and their lives. I find that even when people think their lives are boring, they can be incredibly interesting if able to dig a little deeper. Understanding more than one language really helps facilitate this.

I have always wanted to be able to speak German with old Omas and Opas (grandmothers and grandfathers) to hear their stories and about their lives.

Additionally, it would be really lovely to fully understand my son in either language. I think this would allow him to chose which language to communicate in rather than always being forced to speak English with me.

That is what I really want.

Language learning is hard

Exhibit A: a funny compilation of French to English to French, using Google Translate. Yes, it isn’t German, but it is still pretty funny and possibly a little relatable.

The benefits out way the cost

Many different sources will tell anyone that will listen that the benefits of learning additional languages far out way any stress incurred whilst learning. Additionally, people who only speak one language, or who are monolingual, are fewer and far between as most of the world’s population is either bilingual or multilingual. Language learning also boosts the brain’s ability to use both languages simultaneously and keeps multilingual user mentally young, according to an article by Viorica Marian, Ph.D. and Anthony Shook from 2012.

There’s a certain sinking feeling one gets when thinking of the perfect thing to say just a moment too late. Perhaps a witty parting word could have made all the difference. There is no English word to express this feeling, but the French have the term l’esprit de l’escalier—translated, “stairwell wit”—for this very phenomenon.

Nor is there an English word to describe the binge eating that follows an emotional blow, but the Germans have kummerspeck—“grief-bacon”—to do just that. If we had the Swedish word lagom—which means something is just right—the English explanation of Goldilocks’ perfectly temperate soup could have been a lot more succinct. Or the term koi no yokan, a poetic Japanese turn of phrase that expresses the feeling of knowing that you will soon fall in love with the person you have just met. It’s not love at first sight so much as an understanding that love is inevitable. Keats and Byron could have really used a word like that.
– CODY C. DELISTRATY “For a Better Brain, Learn Another Language”, October 17, 2014, The Atlantic.

Delistraty continues to say that learning languages helps people learn more elementally the culture surrounding the language, it’s metaphors, and frames of thought. Additionally, multilinguals generally do better on exams, have better memories, have wider vocabularies, generally do better academically overall, create more synapses in their brains from learning and using the multiple languages, may be less likely to develop Alzheimers, may be more self aware and perceptive to the world around them, and more.

So, the benefits are great, why aren’t more schools integrating languages sooner?

Are you like me, struggling to learn an additional language, if so which one, and where are you struggling? Do you speak more than one language? How did you learn your additional languages and when? What benefits has this experience afforded you? Do you have any tips for us language learners, write them in the comments below.

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