How to Break the Language Barrier
“Language is the key to integration.” This is a roughly translated nugget of Angela Merkel wisdom which I have managed to shoehorn into almost every German language exam I have ever taken. Since it is also über-relevant to incoming international students and outgoing year abroad students, I’m shoehorning it smugly into this blog too.
It’s something you don’t realise until you go away, but being fluent in the local language is a luxury. Getting by in daily life, making friends and writing essays is child’s play when you know the lingo. When you don’t, life gets harder, obviously, but that’s not to say the challenge can’t be fun.
1. Make friends with the locals. Often easier said than done, but if you offer your own language in exchange this can be very productive; I mean finding a tandem partner, or in my case too many to count. They want to improve their language and you want to improve yours. When I hear the word “tandem” I think of the two seater bikes I went on as a kid where one person always ends up doing all the work. Hopefully finding a language swap partner would be less tiring.
2. Watch TV and read! As an English Language Assistant teaching English to people in Germany, I found that those who were most confident/appeared most fluent tended to be those who watched a lot of films and series in English and also those who gamed online in English. The same goes for people who read a lot in the target language: newspapers, mags, brochures, books – anything you can get your hands on.
3. Really try to overcome confidence issues. This is by far the most important one on the list. It’s easy to feel when speaking a foreign language that your personality becomes a bland, watered down version of what it is usually, but this really comes down to confidence. One of the classes I most enjoyed teaching last year was the beginner class, because they weren’t afraid to try even with limited vocabulary. It’s tempting to get weighed down by the potential to make mistakes and worry about not sounding smart, but when it comes to confidence, the less you care the better you get.
As with many things in life, whether flirting or presenting or complaining about restaurant food, smiling goes a long way. In daily life you learn pretty quickly how to get by and how to identify the situations you struggle with. For example, talking one on one with someone is much easier than interpreting the slang in a banterous group conversation. Understanding comes with work and time and plenty of patience. Don’t be disheartened about what you can’t understand, be heartened about what you can.
A few personal observations: In my first year flat, some of the people I didn’t manage to get to know very well were those with a limited language ability and were too shy to start up or continue conversations. In second year I lived with two girls who didn’t possess English as their mother tongue but didn’t have any reservations about speaking the language; they became two of my closest friends. Last year in Hannover, by contrast, I was the one who didn’t speak the mother language. For me, it felt like I would never be close to my German flatmates because of my rusty German language barrier, but I came to realise the reason we weren’t close was not because of the language barrier, it was because we were quite different people anyway.
Remember: at the end of the day, nobody cares if you mix up word order or forget an ending. Go break, burn, and grind that stupid language barrier into the ground.