Language learning curve

| April 27, 2013

The early stages of speaking a foreign language is a roller coaster of emotions when applying the language on the street.  It is scary, frustrating, exhilarating, humiliating, and exhausting.  Yesterday was a perfect example of how the highs and lows come in rapid succession:

0830  I communicated the following story successfully to my German class and teacher as soon as I arrived to class, albeit in the simple language and grammar indicated (while elaborately pantomiming).  I was operating on my animated “You’ll never believe this” setting, so I wasn’t very inhibited:

“I’m here but I must go home and then come.  My books are on my steps and my door is not locked.  This morning, we are going, and I ask my daughter: Where are your shoes?  No shoes.  We’re looking for her shoes.  We can’t find.  We’re searching in the house and can’t find the shoes.  I look outside and here are her shoes.  They are wet. [Here, I mispronounce “wet” a few times, and am adding the German for “from water”, until someone understands and pronounces it for me.  I repeat it.]  Wet.  Her shoes are wet.  VERY wet.  Why are her shoes very wet?  I don’t know.  She was playing yesterday in the garden with me and with my husband.  My husband put the shoes outside and now my daughter forgets.   How do you forget your shoes are wet?  I don’t know.  She puts her shoes.   I have my bookbag and put it on the steps.  I open the gate for my car.  We go.  I’m driving here, I looked and saw no book bag.  My bag is on my steps!  I have forgotten!   And I did not lock my door!  I must go home and lock my door, and take my bag and come.”

Do you know how exciting it is to be able to relate this story?  Awesome.  As for the morning itself, let’s gloss over that.

1230  Sequoia and I stopped at Burger King.  I was ordering a Happy Meal and the girl asked if I wanted catsup or mayo for my fries.  You get this simple question all the time, and yet I did not understand the woman.  She switched into English.

Do you know what a moron you feel like when you don’t understand a common question?

1600  I had to call UPS to arrange for a pickup.  German UPS.  Given the difficulty of phone calls, I started out by telling her that I only speak a little bit of German, and I asked her to speak slowly.

Now, if there’s one thing I can say, it’s that I speak only a little bit of German, please speak slowly.  But apparently she interprets ‘slowly’ as “as if I just snorted cocaine.”  Somehow I made it through the phonecall (at least, we’ll know so if a UPS guy shows up at 3:00 on Monday).  I even made a joke and she laughed.


1830   I needed to pick up a few things at the local home and garden store.  I wanted to know where the birdseed was, so I found a young clerk.  I asked: (German) Where is the (English) birdseed?

He didn’t understand me.  I pointed to the grass seed and the insect seed, then flapped my arms and said, “Tweet, Tweet!”

And he said, “Ah, bird food?”  “Yes.”

And that’s how I ended a day of speaking German: Flapping my arms and tweeting.

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Category: Ex-pat Parenting, In Germany A Broad blog, Linguistics, Shits & Giggles

About the Author ()

Kari Martindale is a writer and ESL instructor. She’s visited all 50 states and 37 countries, including many of the big cities of Europe and a ton of Christmas Markets. She spends her days straddling the fence between a sense of adventure and a sense of dread. She is married to what is clearly a patient man and has a daughter who, frustratingly, is just like her. Her academic and professional backgrounds are in linguistics and foreign languages. When she's not teaching ESL, she's writing. When she's not writing, she's thinking about her next trip.

Comments (3)

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  1. Gavin M says:

    In my (very) humble experience the language learning curve is more like a learning step. The feeling like a moron thing seems to last for ages, but one day almost overnight it disappears. Maybe just a confidence thing.

    My German is awful though – when I’m there and attempt to speak any, people just answer me in English, for which I am grateful.

  2. Oh my goodness, I love your blog! It’s so funny. I was reading this entry and every time I laughed (which was a lot), my cat meowed, and that made me laugh even more. Thanks for the good times.