The Struggle & Acceptance of Learning a New Language


One of the top ten questions I've been asked in new social settings while living abroad is, "do you speak the language?” For us that language is German, and yes, in Austria they speak German. There are different variations and dialects in learning German, and even Viennese German can carry several distinctions given to the form but German it is. And German I am currently struggling with.

Let me provide a bit of background here: I took four years of Spanish in high school.  No, I was not fluent, but I could sing a wicked, Canta Y No Llores.  When my brain is processing speaking in a foreign language, Spanish is my default. Next was Turkish.  Our family lived in Izmir, Turkey for one year and and I attended Turkish lessons once - sometimes twice a week - for a good portion of our time there.  I knew enough to "pass" as a local while moving through our community.  Ordering at restaurants was no problem, negotiating in the market place was even fun on occasion…

Then when I started being mistaken for an actual Turk, things usually took a turn for the worse.  The cadence and speed of conversation accelerated and I was lost amidst translation.  I suppose it was my darker skin, brown eyes, and curly hair that did it.  I'm not really sure but if my husband Jared was with me at that time as I was almost always the one approached and spoken to in the native Turkish.  They would approach me as if I would understand, or at the least be able to navigate the request, admonishment, questions, etc.  Go figure.  Turkish is not a simple language.  One wrong syllable misplaced within the base word and it is possible to go from saying yes, I understand, to no I don't.  And don't even get me started on sentence structure! It is possible for one word alone to have the impact of an entire sentence (my head is spinning just thinking about it). And still, my mind associates foreign living with Turkish, sometimes Spanish... and now German.  

This realization of having to learn a new language (again) arrived recently while on a trip to New York.  I found myself answering, danke to waiters and waitresses, bitte when I needed to say excuse me or please and entschuldigen when I bumped into the throes of people walking the city streets.   Rather odd.  This seems to have happened relatively quickly.  My mind became accustomed to hearing German, deciphering signs and other communicae in German and so much so that when I now hear English out of context, such as in my everyday ventures, I become disoriented.  Although my ears do perk up and I take notice.  Because, hello, I understand you!  Let's become friends and go for a coffee and speak my native tongue (oh how easy that would be).   

Even though German is an everyday part of my life here in Vienna, I still do not speak my current country of residence’s mother tongue.  Sure I understand ‘’market talk’’ as I call it - the simple pleasantries and plethora of greetings shared both upon meeting and leaving every social situation - but that is my limit. Typically when I attempt my best German ordering at a restaurant or cafe, the person on the receiving end will promptly switch to English.  Yes, my German accent is that pitiful.  And yes, it is totally for a lack of effort.   We were provided with a private language tutor upon our move here.  A certain number of hours for our family to acclimate, learn German and maybe even gain some cultural context.  As all who have lived abroad, or speak multiple languages know, context really is everything.  

Back to language lessons: We began strong; our tutor came to our home once a week for about an hour and a half.  All of us at the table, workbooks at the ready, his iPad displaying notes and vowels and endings and, and... my head hurt.  He was brilliant.  Fluent in ten languages, but had passable knowledge of at least thirteen I believe.  

The night of our first lesson he shared with us his philosophy, one husband Jared and I were in agreement with and is proven to be quite effective.  And then before leaving - as I was visibly frustrated - he said this, "learning a new language is 80% emotional".  Pardon me sir? The challenge became tangible and I had somewhat of a revelation on the spot.  Not wanting to use that little tidbit as an excuse but more so I began to understand why I was experiencing such a mental block - I didn't want to learn.  I wasn't even sure German was/is worth learning.  A majority of the time I can find English speakers in the city.

Although it would be so nice to be able to answer the sweet elderly lady asking me for directions on the train, or respond to the man saying something to me for being in his way, or not following some unspoken rule.  My brain goes into overdrive and this results in an overwhelmed, saddened and frustrated Leanna - unable to respond in English, yet alone German. 

Please hear me on this.  I do not intend to be disrespectful of the Austrians, of their language or their culture.  On the contrary, I am an Austrian resident and it would really be in my best interest to be able to converse in German. Certainly it speaks volumes to those natives when I do try, or relay to them that my skills are not adequate but I am learning.

My husband Jared and my son are immersed daily within the language, so much so that my son can easily respond to questions asked, gives directions and shop in German.  He even has the proper accent.  To help him continue his progression my son will be starting an intensive course in just a few weeks. For twice a week and two hours each day he will be diving deep and growing his vocabulary and understanding of Austrian German (which, in the case that you were not aware, is vastly different than German-German, as alluded to above.

My lack of German understanding has let me down on more than one occasion. Other expats and non-native German speakers have assured me that it is a difficult language.  On the other hand, those that do speak it - or in my experience teach it - are quick to offer an alternative opinion.  Here are a few of those "helpful" encouragements I have heard as of yet:

  • Rules are rules; they do not change as in the English language.  True enough.  But it does seem that there are quite a few of them in German. The endings, are what they are.  Not as many exceptions as in the English language, but you can add just two letters and the word can change from present to past tense.  Always (well, except for those words that do not apply - feel free to fact check me on this. I am under no false pretenses here that I grasp this language and all its rules and such completely).  

  • One word can have several different meanings and is used for vastly contradictory purposes.

  • When translating German to English I have encountered several stumbling blocks.  As in, there just aren't enough words in German for all of our flowery and superfluous English (see previous sentences above).  

There you have it, a few of the complications I have encountered.  Now, if you are like my daughter and foreign languages come easily this might all sound ridiculous, pedantic and over the top.  It might just be.  However, this is my reality and who knows maybe my act of writing about it is an attempt in overcome the roadblock built up in my brain when it comes to the German language. 

Now before I am inundated with all the latest research on learning a new language, such as the how-to's of mastering a foreign language, etc. please know that I have Ted Talks bookmarked on the most beneficial strategies! I am reading a book on neuroscience and creating new brain pathways, and most of all I am believing big for a miracle.  Like - the one where I wake up and begin my morning practices and when my husband walks into the kitchen for a cup of coffee I nonchalantly ask him, "Möchten Sie eine Tasse Kaffee?”  which translated to English means, "Would you like a cup of coffee?”.  After I did this I was kindly told that I did not need to greet him so formally in the morning, and that "Möchtest du Kaffee?" would suffice.  Yet another example of my misunderstanding of this language. Ahem.  And so will begin my immersion and love of German!


About the Author

Gathering people around the table, sharing stories and welcoming all to that space are some of Leanna’s favorite things.  She recently celebrated her one year anniversary here in Vienna with her husband and her teenage son. Leanna also is learning to navigate the logistical and emotional journey of her three adult daughters residing in the United States (her home country). Additionally, with having experienced multiple moves, she is no stranger to the mental and emotional challenges related to living life in a foreign place - whether that be a new city, state and/or country. Leanna shares her journey on her blog, The Six Hansons.