Fleeing the ‘tyranny’ of a heavily monolingual culture in pursuit of an additional language is not a new thing. It’s associated strongly with the adage: ‘the best way to learn a language is in a country that speaks the language’. While there are certainly arguments for and against this, it’s something that makes most additional language learners curious, sometimes curious enough to sell his house and much of his goods, dump the rest of his goods in a forty-foot storage container in Bendigo, do an English-teaching course to earn a living, and give it a try.
It might not seem that crazy … but I suppose it does. Australia is a multicultural country; but additional language acquisition, above and beyond the language or languages you were born into, is generally treated with polite concern, if not outright bafflement. When you tell someone you are learning German, or French—or any language—the most common response, after a brief widening of eyes, is: ‘Why?’ Now as long as you respond to this with some kind of variant of, ‘I am learning German to further my career opportunities’, then at least you will have a sense of being vaguely understood. If you say anything else, such as, ‘because of my love of Goethe and Schiller and Hesse and Grass’, then prepare for a certain degree of incomprehension. An additional language is looked at as a formal tool of commerce. If England is a nation of shopkeepers, as (maybe) Napoleon said, then the speakers of English want additional languages to act as a window display, or maybe a new exotic shelf to stock ‘Continental Goods’.
It’s not real tyranny, of course; nor is it being a real refugee. But each language is its own refuge.
And as (maybe-German) Charlemagne (maybe) said, to have a second language is to have a second soul.
I had been learning German for around a year and making progress. I felt good. I could follow along and get the gist of what was happening in Babylon Berlin with the German closed captions running as a crutch. But I was suffering from an Intermediate Plateau, which became all too apparent when I turned the closed captions off. It was like I had learned not much at all. So the adage—above—came into play: the best way to learn a language…
So how has it worked so far?
For the first three weeks or so my system of learning was broken up. It’s best to develop habitual learning processes, and I had what I thought was a concrete routine. But moving so far and landing somewhere that seemed both so similar and so different from where I had always been, and feted by others and new friends and new family, there was an inevitable collapse. The joy and sense of wonder can be overwhelming; your learning habits will most likely be torn to pieces, your Intermediate Plateau flat-lining further, feeling more like a ditch. There are various graphs available charting the process of Culture Shock as a result of moving to another country. They’re useful, of course; but the degree to which they apply to you will depend on how much in-country support you receive. There is probably a sweet spot somewhere between not enough and too much. That’s what you should be aiming for; but it’s unlikely you’ll ever get a glimpse of the target.
So once you do settle, you’ll need to develop those habits again and get them in the groove of your normal routine, despite everything around you seeming anything but normal. Obviously, the huge advantage you have then is that you have recourse to a whole chunk of native speaking Germans.
And they are happy to help. Even the DHL Express delivery driver might correct a poorly conjugated verb briefly before almost falling down the stairs trying to fulfil his horrific articles/km quota.
The immersion effect is overrated; at least it is for the Intermediate Plateau sufferer. So much of ‘the best way to learn a language…’ adage seems to be caught up with a kind of Philosopher’s Stone magical process; German will not be absorbed through the pores of your skin. You need a certain degree of comprehensible input. You learn to value old people speaking; they tend to speak more slowly and more clearly. Women tend to speak faster than men, but more clearly; men more slowly but less clearly. And, strangely, it seems harder to access closed captions in Germany than Australia.
What you get out of it will depend on developing your on-the-spot active listening skills. It’s through active listening that the adage starts making some sense.
My curiosity, at least, remains. It has sharpened, if anything. Wer nicht wagt, der nicht gewinnt. [equivalent: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.]
Written by Jeremy Davis