Deutsch als Fremdsprache: Reflections on living life in a second language

Karah Kemmerly

Since last Friday marked the end of our three-week-long Orientation Intensive Language (OIL) course, and this week marks the end of our first month in Deutschland, I feel that it’s a good time to share my progress in the most challenging and the most rewarding part of living abroad: interacting with the world and the people around you in a second language.

It doesn’t sound too difficult on paper. I’ve taken German in school for more than six years now, and I’m fairly comfortable speaking, reading, and writing in the language. Before I left, my family and friends all told me the same thing: “Your German is good, so you’ll be fine!”

In reality it isn’t so simple. Since native German speakers don’t necessarily know we’re foreigners at first glance, they don’t always speak distinctly or clearly. They might use slang terms or even regular words I’ve never heard of, or they might even speak a dialect of German that sounds very different than the Hochdeutsch, or standard German, I learned in the classroom. In addition to that, there is a certain amount of anxiety that comes with knowing your grammar isn’t perfect, even in small situations. (Is that the right article for cappuccino? Das? Die? Did I just sound like an idiot while ordering coffee?) And lastly, there is a special sort of fatigue that comes with interacting in a second language. Because you’re thinking much more about sentence structure and word choice than you ever would while speaking your native language, simple things like grocery shopping and asking for directions become mentally exhausting. My friend and old roommate in the United States, an international student from Montenegro, used to tell me about this fatigue all the time, and I thought I understood it fairly well, but I had no way of experiencing it until coming here. There were days when I came home from four hours of language class, and I wanted nothing more than to just read a book in English or watch an American movie. Some days I gave in and curled up with Sense and Sensibility or invited my American friends over and we spoke English while cooking dinner together. But other days- I’d like to think most days- I stayed in German mode.

My program friends and I developed a system that has worked fairly well for us so far. We try to speak only German in class and anytime we’re in public. We speak German with our roommates. And then, we we spend time together in the evenings, we sometimes have conversations in English. I think that it has been a fairly effective system thus far because I do think that my German has already improved quite a bit. After watching dubbed sitcoms and learning the history of Freiburg from a fast-talking OIL professor, I’m much more comfortable speaking fairly quickly and understanding German at a faster pace. And having German conversations with my friends, roommates and classmates has made me much more confident in my speaking ability, which is hugely important. I’m looking forward to increasing my confidence as the semester continues.

This is probably nothing new for those of you who didn’t grow up in the U.S., and that’s part of the reason I want to talk about it. I think the way we treat learning foreign languages in the U.S. is pretty sad. So many times, I’ve heard Americans say that they aren’t learning a second language because everyone else in the world speaks English and they don’t have to, and I think this is such an arrogant attitude to have. If you’re considering learning a second (or third or fourth) language and you have the means to do so, do it. It really does open up the world for you. You can travel more comfortably, watch more movies, read more books and newspapers and talk to so many more people. And you will grow immensely.

And to my international friends in the U.S., what you do every day is pretty impressive.