Global Mom Talks: Foreign Languages

My first kiss was Austrian. Age fourteen, early evening, standing at a fountain in front of a bus stop in Salzburg,  saying goodbye to my Latin-looking crush. Named Horst.

You’ll forgive me that I didn’t make it kissless to sixteen.  But talk about thrill.

Fourteen in Florence, with Maxi, Horst, Kelly, a bad perm and Hash buckle jeans

Fourteen in Florence, with Maxi, Horst, Kelly, a bad Toni perm and Hash buckle jeans

Not about the kiss, mind you, but about having understood word-for-word the sweet goodbye promise Horst whispered into my ear, as clear to me as if he’d spoken English. With that, a surge went through me – ba-shwiiing! – and my passion (even more for languages than for Horst) was ignited.

Five languages by 40, I decided right there as I hugged teary-eyed Horst good-bye, stepped onto my bus, and pulled out into the sunset and my dusky future.

Did I know what I was vowing myself into? Of course. . .naw.  But it was my first kiss, the sun was setting over Salzburg’s Festung, and, well,  forty-years-old? Humph. That seemed as far away from 14 as did my hometown back in the Rockies.

Now, well past forty, I can look back on my decades of learning languages, and share some truths I was to come to know after getting “bitten” by a love for language.  And for Horst.

First visit to Rome's Coliseum

First visit to Rome’s Coliseum

1) It’s Work

Hard work. Inevitably, there will be times your head will hurt like your quadriceps did when you hiked Kilimanjaro with a piano on your back.  Or like your biceps did when you singlehandedly pulled that boat filled with molten lead out of the bay. That kind of hurt.  Why? Because your brain is doing gymnastics. While wearing chain mail and armor. With the sheer voltage of all the neuro-transmission blazing away in the brain while you try to learn a new language, your gray matter could honestly light up Fenway Park on a Saturday might. It’s that demanding. To stick to the task, you’ll have to be pretty motivated.

(A love interest never hurts.)

2) Ego? Leave it at the Door

Our Dalton insists this be no more than #2 on the list.  Although he phrases it like this: “Be ready to be so embarrassed, so humiliated, so reduced by the mistakes you’ll make, that you want to dive under a table and pull huge brocaded drapes over yourself while you crawl out the nearest door.”  And then he goes on; “You’ll ruin any reputation you ever had of being even this smart. Be prepared to look really, really dumb.”

This, of course, happens when you’re learning languages at any stage of life after your childhood years, when you’re oblivious to people’s judgements of you and the bloopers you’ll pop out in your new tongue. Think of being stripped down as close to the bone as you can be.

Then go below the bone.

There. That’s how self-assured you’ll be while learning a new language.

My baby brother Aaron, who began learning German in an Austrian kindergarten. He still speaks it along with other languages.

My baby brother Aaron, who began learning German in an Austrian kindergarten. He still speaks it along with other languages.

3) Younger, Better

Which makes you want to learn all your languages before the age of 12 or so. (Before 8 is reported to be even better.)

My polyglot friend, Irina, will never unlearn her Russian or Bulgarian, learned at home and in primary school.  And her Czech learned from extended family from  her early childhood on? Also like a second skin. Her French, perfected during university studies in Paris, took a bit more effort because she was older, she admits; but it has become a polished – native – over the years.  English, she began using in earnest later in life, as she did Italian.

The research is extensive about how nimble the child’s brain is with regards to language acquisition.  You know this already. But did you also know that the acquisition of a foreign language (or two, or three) before puberty will increase general cognitive ability, acuity with other subjects, and lead to greater academic tenacity overall, will facilitate a closer understanding of one’s native tongue, heighten cultural sympathy, and lead to deeper compassion?

4)You Can Get By, But You Can’t Get In 

If you move to a foreign country, lucky you!  You have every opportunity to adapt to a new culture and learn a language. If you chose, however, to not integrate and not learn the language, you’ve missed an opportunity.  Of course, you might get by. Even well.  But as research proves, you cannot enter in.  By “in”, I mean into the deepest heart of any given culture without at least a rudimentary facility with the language.  Think of it like this: the language of any people is like the smell and taste and sight and sound and texture of their cuisine. Until we have it in our own mouths, chew on it, swallow it and digest it so that it’s a part of us, it’s almost as if we’re staying in the living room and never going into the kitchen where it’s whipped up. In the living room we’re in their “house,” yes. But we never really taste what makes them who they are.

First glimpses of Geneva, Switzerland, over 30 years ago.

First glimpses of Geneva, Switzerland, over 30 years ago.

SA19 1977 IT Slz CH259

5) The More, The Easier

We talk glibly about laying tracks for language learning. But that figure of speech might not be so wrong. Once your brain has been trained (or tracked) for a second language, it is more capable of laying another language on top of those same tracks.

Beyond that, when the languages are related (Germanic, Romance, etc.), the structures and vocabulary are similar, and the learner has a distinct advantage.  For example: German, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Afrikaans, Flemish and Icelandic are language cousins.  If you master one, you already have an aptitude for acquiring the next language cousin.

6) Your Ear Helps Your Tongue

My mathematical skills are abysmal.


Still fourteen, and still playing the cello.

Still fourteen, and still playing the cello. Back then.

Which seems to surprise people when they learn that I love to learn languages.

“But. . .I thought language was all about math,” some say. To which I say,”If language had anything to do with math, I would have dropped out of this international lifestyle on day one.”

So how do I do this language thing?  Where I lack the head for quantum physics (or algebra), I make up with an ear for music. I was raised by professional musicians, and was a professional musician myself (a concert soprano) for years. When I approach a language, I am listening primarily for its music. I hear its cadence, its rhythm, its tones and phrasing.  And then after listening and watching everyone’s mouth while they speak it, I do what I do when I sing: I mimic. I learn languages the same way I prefer to learn music. By ear.

The grammar (or math) of a language I figure out later, osmotically. So I don’t ruin the whole melody. (And that takes  a lot of #1).

7) Stockpile.  Then Spew.

You know, of course, that children are stockpiling the rudiments of language for months – years – before ever producing it themselves.   Your snooglie-wooglie isn’t just passively watching your lips while you coo and patter away while feeding her those strained peas.  She’s hurriedly building language basics.  In the process, she’ll grunt, squeal, howl, belch and cry – all efforts to transform what she’s stockpiling in her brain into the complex coded cooing system you’re feeding her with her peas.

Then one day, it all erupts into active language: “Peeeeeeeeeeeeeas!”

And she’s off!

Chen Xihua, my Mandarin teacher, visiting me in my new home outside Geneva, Switzerland.

Chen Xihua, my Mandarin teacher, visiting me in my new home outside Geneva, Switzerland.

With adults, it’s really not much different. You’ll sit in your Mandarin Sunday School class (well, at least that’s what I did). And at first you’ll only hear a string of undecipherable sounds. You’ll watch everyone’s lips. Like they’re feeding you strained peas. And since they’re loving folks, they’ll try to spoon feed you.

You’ll manage a grunt.

Then your brain will snatch a word. A little conjunction, maybe. Or two words. You’ll squeal. You’ll howl.

The next week you’ll grasp a full phrase. (And that’s where you belch.)

Then next month, you understand whole sentences, concepts, a paragraph! You’re feeling so confident, you might raise your hand. . . to . . .to make a comment. Which you do. But you can only say a sentence or two.

That’s where you cry.

First, you stockpile the words. Then you produce them.  Don’t be surprised if you have to receive for several weeks. Or months. One day, just watch.  You’ll be spewing your own peas.

8) Not All Languages are Created Equal

Languages are different, ranking in difficulty because of size and complexity of vocabulary, grammatical structure like number of declensions, jargon, syntax, tones. A fellow blogger, Richard, has been learning Somali in his home state of Minnesota. If you want a peek at how linguists rate the difficulty of languages (and Somali rates stratospherically on that scale), stop in on his blog, Loving Languages.

Depending on your mother tongue, certain languages will be (or should be) easier than others. Nadja, my Swiss German friend, speaks Swiss German, High German, Dutch, and English. And she claims they are fairly easy for her. She studied French growing up in Switzerland and has perfected it living for many years in Paris, and also learned Spanish to serve a full-time mission for our church. Maybe – maybe? – Somali would be a challenge for her, given that it is neither a Germanic nor a Romance language, being completely unrelated in structure and tones to what she has already learned.

9) Classroom Vs. Street Language

“What you taught me was German. I trust you. But it ain’t what they’re talking at me here!”

This was a letter from a young volunteer for our church, who had been in our near-immersion courses in the Missionary Training Center where my husband and I had instructed for a combined five years.  Sure, we’d given this missionary all the rules and phrases, and had done so in the cleanest, most comprehensible High German we could.

But he’d landed in Basel.  Basel’s Swiss German sounds as much like High German as Beowulf sounds like The Nightly News. There’s some overlap. I swear it. But I’m not finding it.

My first ever visit to Switzerland. Fourteen again.

My first ever visit to Switzerland. Fourteen again.

When you learn language in a classroom, it is bound to be too artificial (and static and padded) an environment for you to have to navigate the true break-neck-speed bumper-car  world of active language exchange. Don’t be surprised when you land in Palermo and your crash course Italian doesn’t match the dragon blaze coming out of the mouth of the rabid taxi driver. Or when the three semesters of high school Russian drain out of you in a lifeless puddle as you face down a burly train conductor in Moscow’s Kalishnikovo station.

10) Promoting World Peace

I’ve noted that visitors in a new culture who say, wincing with disdain, “Oh, that’s soooo French/German/Italian/Norwegian/Tanzanian/Russian” are most often those who’ve not made the effort to speak that language. They’ve chosen, in effect, to remain outsiders, the ones left standing in the living room, never eating the feast.  (#4)

Learning another language besides your mother tongue allows you to look at people in a totally different manner, as real, complex, multifaceted and fascinating creations. And once you really have it swirling in your cells, it becomes part of who you are, and your judgements of that culture and of its people will be altered profoundly and permanently.  You will have melted down the rigid walls of prejudice, xenophobia, rigidly destructive hyper-patriotism, and will be on your way to becoming an active agent in healing the too many breeches in humankind. You will be a vociferous defender of those people and their culture. You will – imagine this – sincerely love them.

Even more than I thought I did Horst.

Salzburg, Austria, 1978. View over the Festung.

Salzburg, Austria, 1978. View over the Festung.

What truths about learning languages would you add to this list?

What languages have you learned, and how?

What has learning languages done to your view of yourself, others and the world?

26 thoughts on “Global Mom Talks: Foreign Languages

  1. Thanks for linking to my post about Somali. It’s a toughy all right!

    Maybe it’s not an additional item, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about these days. Some people don’t want you to learn their language. I remember some Moroccans were simply hostile to me when I spoke to them in Moroccan Arabic. They wanted me to speak French with them; Arabic was private.

    I guess what made me think of it was the feast metaphor. What if we’re not invited? What if we say, “Smells good!” and just crash the party? Is that ok? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

    Maybe the LDS perspective is helpful here. You learn the language and knock on doors, knowing most won’t be opened to you. Yet a few are opened, and the connection is wonderful. Even if many were hostile, you learned the language to connect with those with the open heart.

    Like you said in #10, cultures are faceted with many different people.

    • Richard,
      What a treat to have you comment here.

      I won’t forget your blog, and refer people to it often, as your deliberate approach to learning languages hasn’t always included living in those countries. More folks can do what you’re doing than what I’ve kept doing, and that’s moving to the places. (I still haven’t lived in Italy, though, and might need to do get Italian down.)

      You are right about certain languages having a sort of territoriality about them. Some are the great secret code that protects a culture, and outsiders aren’t always welcome. The open heart–of both the one knocking on the door, and the one opening—is vital.

      And as I’m sure you’d agree, you’ll never know until you knock. Many people behind those doors, hosting delectable feasts…

  2. I love this post far more than I can say. I have only learned one language beyond my first language. I learned Swedish as an adult while living in Sweden. I took night classes at the adult education center for immigrants. My husband would bike home from a vigorous day of classes and research at the university, I had dinner on the table for the kids, and would be ready to go as soon as he parked his bike. Then I would race off on my bike to catch my class.

    Learning a language while living in a foreign country makes it urgent and relevant, which is more motivating. I was called to be a counselor in a primary presidency several months after moving to Sweden. That was when I pushed passed the humiliation barrier. I made thousands of mistakes all the time when I talked to the primary children. They laughed, corrected me, and we moved forward. I am so grateful for that experience because I needed to speak Swedish, there was no slipping into English.

    You are absolutely right that learning the language helps you get in. One of my happiest memories in Sweden is a day where I didn’t stand out at all, but was Swedish-for all intents and purposes. I think learning the language also helps you understand how people from a certain culture think and feel.

    Learning a language also requires an enormous amount of time. Here’s my confession. I didn’t try to learn Arabic while living in Saudi Arabia for 18 months. I moved there coming from a few years of intense stress and I was completely exhausted both physically and emotionally. Quite honestly, I wanted time and space to regroup and recover. I do not regret my choice, but I do understand that doing so made me even more of an outsider and an observer, rather than a participant.

    • And here’s an extra element that plays into integrating or not, Tiffany.

      Physicality counts. It might seem obvious, but if you look the part, linguistic integration is probably easier. When we lived in Hong Kong and Singapore, I noted instantly that natives never addressed me (clearly nordic/germanic looking) first in Cantonese (HK) or Mandarin (Sing.) I was visibly “not one of them.” I didn’t try to learn anything but rudimentary phrases in our 6 months in HK, but studied Mandarin in Singapore, and had a harder time (than I had ever had in European countries) convincing locals to speak to me in their tongue. They did, but they said it was crazy/extraordinary that I insisted on fumbling through in Mandarin.

      In contrast, my Californian friend with Chinese heritage and family name, but who’d never been exposed Mandarin, was expected the moment he opened his mouth to speak just like Singaporeans.

      (And by the way, thanks for this honest and detailed personal profile, Tiffany. Love it.)

      (And by the way, thanks for this honest and detailed personal profile. Love it.)

      • Yes, physicality counts. What a great observation. While living in Saudi Arabia, my Egyptian friend, who was a Christian, told me of her husband being accosted by the religious police in a mall and forced to pray. He kept insisting that he was a Christian, but his appearance to them signaled that he was Muslim.

        In Saudi Arabia, despite wearing the abaya, I did not pass as a local. My appearance, coupled with my lack of Arabic all served to put me in the outsider box. I have to wonder if there is an added layer as well. In predominantly Muslim countries, I wonder if lack of understanding/familiarity with Islam and the particular Islamic customs of the country also mark and signal outsiders.

      • Tiffany— A weird envy of mine: you got to experience life in an abaya. I’ve wanted to do just that for many years and write a study entitled, Life Behind The Veil.

        Hmmm. Maybe you should write that.:-)

  3. I wanted to learn so many languages when I was younger and I have done a lot of language study but it feels like it never can be enough. In some places our living conditions have been too hard to let me spend the time I needed on a language, and in others I just can’t get the motivation to learn yet another language when I know I’ll be there temporarily and I already knew it well enough to learn to cook the local food and understand a lot of what is going on in church.

    We’re going to an Arabic-speaking country next. I minored in it almost 20 years ago and I’m beyond delighted to return to something familiar and beloved. I sincerely hope that my husband’s assignments in the future will stick with the languages we already know or that are at least related. Turkish or Farsi or Uyghur? Yes please. Mandarin or Japanese? No, thank you.

    I definitely think personality has a lot to do with this. I’m an introvert who doesn’t talk much in English so practicing Russian on unsuspecting people wasn’t one of my strong points. 🙂 Also, motivation matters. Spanish is a lovely language but it doesn’t consume me like Arabic and Uzbek do.

    • Amira–
      Happy through and through to see you here and hear your voice on this topic. Your story is fascinating.

      I’ve thought similarly: certain languages are magnets to me; others, maybe not so much. (A lot has to do with what one can access with that language, the entire culture out of which the language grows.) Projecting one’s investment (“Will we move just as I get the 9th verb declensions down??”) can quench the linguist’s fire. And as you say, there are those of us who are retreating in social settings, and others who are just. plain. verbal. While I can be painfully introverted (can hide from the world for days on end, if I need it) and am a dogged observer, I’m primarily the same woman I was as a child: The Conversationalist. That is a driver.

      And oh, I smile thinking of you “practicing Russian on unsuspecting people.” Cue sympathy sweat. 🙂

      Bravo and lykke til!

  4. My wonderful sister-in-law sent me a link to your post and it’s so true I wanted to cry. My husband and I are currently living in the central Peruvian highlands (Huancayo) where we are serving an LDS mission and learning Spanish is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life! We spent 17 months in Bogota on another mission, making our home is Latin America for three years now, with another 18 months to go. I should be fluent by now, but I am not. I study every day, and pray for the moment when I can understand everything and don’t have to search for the right words. In the meantime, I muddle through and do my best to check my ego at the door. I don’t blend in (blonde, blue eyes) but few people speak English here, anyway. Thanks for the encouragement that it really is hard work and I’m not extraordinarily stupid!

    • Paula–

      Well, first: Bless You!

      And second: I completely, fully believe you. Language learning is serious, arduous, and often emotionally draining work. Make no mistake about that! You write, “I should be fluent by now,” but I don’t know by whose standards. “muddling through” as you write is doing a LOT. You have to build block by block, word by word, then phrase by phrase.All without ego. It’s a humbling (and therefore truly empowering) endeavor. May the Lord fill your dreams and mouth with Spanish. 🙂

      And one important detail to keep in the forefront of your thoughts: your companion (your husband) is English-speaking. Were he Spanish-speaking, you would speak more SPanish at this point because you’d have round-the-clock instruction. This is how so many of the younger LDS missionaries perfect their language: they are assigned to work with natives.

      (Not that I’m suggesting a companion change for you any time soon…:-)

      If you’re in the highlands of Peru and were already in Bogota, and this is all voluntary, altruistic, loving full-time service, I can promise you are anything but stupid.

      Much love and admiration, mucha suerte y muchas bendiciones, hermana!

      • Thank you so much for your encouraging words! You are right , if my companion didn’t speak English I would progress faster. And age (58) doesn’t help, either. But I will continue working. 😊. And I have absolutely NO sympathy for our Latin missionaries who say that learning English is too hard!

  5. It’s been so nice to see you back blogging again! I took an extended break also, coming back just as you were winding down. I’ve been enjoying the last few blogs but haven’t taken time to comment.

    The languages one is good and I think Dalton’s description of the humiliation is good. My grandfather did not speak German, but the Swiss German. And they are really really different. I realized that when he was berating a young waiter at a hotel in Geneva for not speaking the right German (the poor kid was form Germany, which my grandfather found to be very insulting).

    Nice to see you posting again!


  6. Thank you for writing. I am grateful for all of your posts. Your kindness, wisdom and humanity touch me deeply across every subject you broach- from the worldly to the spiritual and even corporal. I appreciate the generosity it takes to share so much of yourself and your time.

  7. Dear Melissa, I’m just about finished with your book Global Mom and have thoroughly enjoyed it. My husband speaks English, German, and Spanish fluently, and also knows French quite well, Hebrew, Greek and Latin on a basic level. I lived in Germany for five years… spoke it before I went over to study there, and then ended up living and working there years later, first on a Fulbright scholarship and then working for a large multinational company in marketing. I married a German, brought him back to the States and we now live in Miami – which is the largest US city where the majority of residents are foreign-born. Most are Spanish speaking, but there are many more languages spoken at home -from Creole to French to Portuguese to German to Italian to Vietnamese. In fact, I believe that there are more options for children here (than in any other US city) to learn another foreign language in public school. Our own children attend a public magnet school where they had the choice of French, German or Spanish starting in first grade, with a full two hours a day dedicated to language instruction (our own are enrolled in the German program, naturally, but have also picked up some Spanish by nature of the neighborhood we live in). We’ve seen children who do not have any previous connection to the language be virtually accent free by 5th grade – and at near fluency levels for children. It is fun to witness – especially parents who are then surprised by their child’s ability. While I only really consider myself fluent in German (in addition to English), and I’m proud that I barely have an accent, I also think that your “ear” for music is key. I’ve learned the basics of some Asian languages (Korean and Japanese), and once won a Japanese speaking contest in college because I apparently sounded “like I was really Japanese!” We all focus so much on the vocabulary, but listening closely in Miami, you’ll hear that people who have Spanish as their first language tend to speak English with a different tonality and melody – even when without an accent in pronunciation. It is an English that “sings”. I also focus a lot on being able to mimic. And, mimicking is important in how we have to think about the language. I often tell people who are new to learning a language to stop trying to do a direct translation, and take a different view. Key is the point you are trying to get across, not the exact word or group of words in your mind. That is hard to learn how to do, but I often found it a challenge – like a game. If I don’t know this word, how else could I express myself? In other languages, sentence structure is different. Some words don’t exist in another language. And some words are simply hard to pronounce. I recall my oldest, barely verbal at two years old at the pediatrician, and he said to me upon hearing a wail from another examination room, “Mama, that baby is sad.” I said, “How would you say that in German?” I knew he passively knew the word for sad in German but wouldn’t be able to pronounce it. Without skipping a beat, he said, “Das Baby weint.” I think that is the key that so many people miss. They focus on their own ability to translate what comes into their head in their own language. Fluency, in my mind, is being able to speak/read/write with ease, think in another language, and as you say, digest it so it becomes a part of you. That means really trying to abandon the one-to-one translation. And in doing so, the flexibility and solutions-orientation gained can be “translated” into other areas of one’s life, too.

    • Gillian–thank you for such wise insights! They come from your deep and broad experience.

      You’re of course spot on: sounding native is as important (at least for me) as is getting the raw mechanics of a language screwed together. And why is mastering the melody as important? Because language, beyond being a practical vessel for imparting information, is in its sounds, contours, and texture, and in the way it lies on your tongue the blood and breath of a culture. Its melody and rhythm are sacred.

      And thank you for the detailed description of how to approach speaking a new tongue, not as direct translation (your points are all correct here, and are where most folks get hung up), but as managing alternative ways of expressing idea. When first learning a new language, you have to let go of literal, verbatim translation—forget word-for-word exactness–and go for communicating general ideas. If one focuses on verbatim translation at first, one is stuck on the mechanical level and (this is important) is still “thinking” in her mother tongue. You have to cross that barrier where you are thinking first in that other tongue. Something powerful happens in that crossing, and I’m convinced it leads to compassion and, ultimately, to world peace.

      We leave the verbatim translation for when we become professional United Nations simultaneous translators…:-) And even they don’t translate word for word. As you know, that’s impossible for exactly the reasons you’ve noted.

      And Gillian, thank you for reading my book and for commenting on the good experience you’ve had with it.

  8. As an adult with 4 four children in tow I landed in Singapore and decided that at nearly 40 it was a good time to start learning Mandarin! Through this experience (which I am still crawling through), I have come to appreciate the mistakes I make more than the things I get correct. In that vast blank that surrounds you as you try to recall what was just spoken to you, or the heat rising, sweat inducing moment of terror when you realize you have clearly said something inappropriate, that is when the chisels come out and the correction is hammered into your brain never to be mistaken again! In the moment it is not my favorite highlight reel , but later on I am determined to study for that phrase that evaded me or finally memorize the correct tone so I indicate that I am speaking about my husbands brother and not an anatomical body part. Of course we are exhilarated by the amount of language we can understand in a conversation (this keeps hope lit) however, for me personally I feel my greatest lift when I master a mistake!

    This language thing really does gets into your blood! While I mostly feel I my Mandarin is a mediocre stir fry of chopped veggies, I love the Chinese culture and people! Whenever I am in a Mandarin speaking country or find myself surrounded by the sounds of Mandarin at the local Asian market I even start to feel I am Chinese. . . . Then I am quickly reminded, to my dismay, that I am a Wai ren (outsider) when the locals ask me if I am Morroccan or Italian! I love all of the anecdotes, advise and inspiration shared in the comments and on your post! Thanks to you all.

    • Danielle–Folks, meet my lovely, high-octane inspiration from “Global Mom” (pp 249-251),my partner in Mandarin (crime?) I love this description, Danielle, and the tenacity you’ve shown in sticking with it, even after moving from Singapore. And now you’ve got your daughter in Mandarin immersion in the States, which you’re helping her through. Brava! no easy task, but I’m certain all the mortifying moments will be worth it. (Like when you speak with just the wrong tone, and your conversation about, say, eggplants becomes a slip into the suggestive. Oh man, done it.)

      Don’t give up! (As you told me many times with Mandarin.)

  9. Beautiful, as usual! I also love languages, on learning my third (French), my native being English and Spanish as my second… I did start a little bit of German, but decided to focus on French for now, since we’re hoping to visit Morocco and France (and Spain) this year.

    I love your writing. Thank you!

  10. thanx for the XXtensive in-depth (to me, @ least!) treatise.
    reminds of a joke (of sorts) i heard YEEERZ ago: went like this –> a teacher in a European school (doesn’t matter what country) asks her class:
    “what do you call a person who speaks many languages?’
    a bright kid responds: “multi-lingual!”
    “Good. What might you call a person who speaks two languages?”
    ” uh … bi-lingual?”
    “Yes, right. Now, what would you call a person who speaks only one language?”
    The class is temporarily stumped. After a pause a hand goes up, the child says “Americans?”

  11. Thank you for this post! My family and I have been living in Germany since December and I’m slowly learning the language. Two of my girls are in german school so they will pick it up quicker I’m sure. In church a sister spoke and said she has lived here for 10 years and doesn’t really speak any german. Bring military you really don’t “have” to. I thought that is SO sad!! I’m trying but am now going to try harder. You’ve inspired and encouraged me, thank you!

    • Aubrey-

      Congratulations on selecting the harder way in the short run, which will give you the easier way in the long run. I know it’s a daily challenge, and I understand it increases your stress…initially. But you will see countless benefits from the investment you make right now in learning yourself, and helping your daughters learn. And that won’t just be language skills! I’m happy for the adventure that lies ahead. And sad for the long time resident you mention who still cannot converse with the natives on their soil, in their terms. Not surprisingly, I suppose, the statistical profiles of groups of foreign residents (from political refugees to missionaries to corporate executives to military affiliates), the group that consistently scores lowest on language learning and cultural integration is…the military. 😦 Every effort to move that needle, my friend, is worth it! Thank you for coming here, Aubrey

  12. I loved reading this post and the comments from others who are part of a ‘community’ I’m now a part of for working to learn another language or for moving internationally. I love that idea that community isn’t only who you live around but those you have things in common with. I never figured I would have this kind of experience to be able to live abroad and learn another language and have many times felt inadequate to the challenge but I’m so excited for it and want to make the most of it for sure. I only wish I could already relate to those who were talking about already having learned the languages but that’ll come for me and I do really enjoy learning new things in German! And I think one of my problems is that I know in my mind that I need to give up any pride of trying to look not stupid, but it’s one thing for me to know I need to do that and another thing entirely for me to actually do that and feel comfortable with looking like an idiot. I want to get to that point, but in the mean time I’ll just keep getting myself used to that feeling. 🙂 And it’s always encouraging to hear about how others have struggled through language learning and culture transition too.

    • Hello, pianogirl! So glad you’ve found your way here. Yes, you are correct: Learning languages, especially after, oh, age 11, requires humility. Full stop. One will inevitable give up competence and social stature, even a kind of power, to eventually enter a linguistic community. I’ve always found that a safe, forgiving community makes all the difference. and can ease us into languages (cultures). From all reports, you are doing it JUST right. Viel Glück mit dem neuen Abenteuer in Deutschland!

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