Oberlin Blogs

A Foreign Language Revelation

November 28, 2012

Emily Wilkerson ’15

About a week and a half ago, I went to German House, watched an episode of Tatort (basically the German equivalent of Law and Order if Law and Order were in a different city every week), and then tweeted the following:

Typo intact because I'm honest like that.

I figured that no one would be particularly interested in my revelation and that would be the end of it1, but after a short twitter conversation with Barbara and a real-life conversation with Ma'ayan I became convinced that people actually might be interested in my language learning at Oberlin. Furthermore, I realized that despite my love of foreign languages, I had never written about language learning at length on this blog.

Thanks to my public school district's amazing language program, I've studied three foreign languages. I started Spanish in sixth grade and I've been learning it pretty much ever since. I haven't taken a Hispanic Studies class since my first semester at Oberlin, but next semester, I'm getting back on the horse and taking a 300-level Hispanic Studies class. During sophomore year of high school, I started learning Latin. My senior year, I was unable to fit Latin 4 into my schedule so I took an accelerated German class instead. After taking an online placement test at Oberlin, I registered for and took German 102 during my second semester. I'm currently taking German 203 and I plan on continuing with German at Oberlin so that I can study abroad in Germany next year and complete my major, which will also require that I continue studying Spanish. As far as I can tell, there's only one flaw in that plan and it's that intermediate German is SO HARD.

Which brings me to my revelation or perhaps more accurately, my hypothesis: the level that I am at in German is the most frustrating level of the language learning process. At the beginning (as far as I can tell), language learning is about memorizing short lists of basic vocabulary, learning simple phrase structures, and getting a feel for the sound of the language. Everything is simplified so that a new student can understand the vast majority of what they're reading or hearing. When language studies become really advanced, the works read, topics discussed, and grammar used are appropriately complicated. Even if the student can't understand everything, the majority of the material is still intelligible and the student has the resources to fill in the blanks. The intermediate level is, in my experience, a different beast altogether. At the intermediate level, students are generally reading "real" texts and writing and speaking about complex ideas, but without the complete set of tools to do so with a high degree of accuracy or comfort.

This seemed appropriate.

Tl;dr? Beginner and advanced levels: comparatively comfortable. Intermediate level: huge gaps in understanding and one foot-in-mouth moment after another.2 Want an illustrative example? I could give you a few, but my favorite is that in my high school German class, we read a bunch of stories about Laura Lupe, a little girl who solves mysteries. The best description that I can think of is that these books are a lot like the Cam Jansen series if it were written for German 7-9 year olds.3 Now, not two years later in German 203, I'm reading Der Richter und Sein Henker by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, which Wikipedia calls a "classic in the genre of crime fiction, fusing existential philosophy and the detective genre." Disregarding the fact that both works have a detective as the protagonist, they obviously couldn't be further apart.

I should be clear that this isn't a complaint. I'm pretty blessed to be studying a third foreign language with classmates who are equally committed to learning German and the lovely Sonja Boos as my professor, but it's frustrating to constantly feel like I don't know enough German to be able to discuss existentialism, understand what's going on during Tatort, or even have normal conversations without making major grammatical errors when I'm at German Table. I know from experience that this is normal and that this stage will eventually end, but I'm impatient, and I'm constantly reminded of the excruciating gap between what I want to communicate and what I am actually able to communicate. At the moment, I'm trying to combat this by studying often (I only note this because it's a change of pace for me. It's fair to say that I coasted on my natural abilities in my high school language classes), talking to myself and reading aloud in German (this has led to some awkward moments with my roommate), and generally going to German events whenever I can, but the nagging feeling of incompetency persists.

So I have a few questions for anyone who got to the end of this post. First and foremost, does my theory hold up when you compare it to your experience with learning or even teaching foreign languages? Second, any pieces of advice on how to make this part of the language learning process a little less frustrating? And since I'm always interested to know about this, what was your pre-higher education language learning experience like? Did your school/school district offer more than one foreign language? If so, which languages could you choose from? When could you start learning a foreign language? How many questions in a row is too many questions?

On this post more than any other I've written, I would love to have your input in the comments. Danke!

1 Why did I tweet about it then? The world may never know...

2 That's not to say that foot-in-mouth moments don't occur during other parts of the language learning process. In my experience, they occur pretty often throughout, especially if you're stretching yourself trying to make improvements.

3 Fun fact: both Laura and Cam have word play in their names! As I recently learned, Lupe is the German word for magnifying glass and if I remember correctly, Cam is able to solve mysteries because she has a photographic memory, which she utilizes by looking at a scene and saying "click," much like a camera.

Responses to this Entry

obie alum now living in germany here! i spent the past two years here learning german so i could do my master's here (it's free! ...if you speak german), and i completely agree. intermediate german is one step forward, football field back, and i used the same advice i got for when i started long distance running up hills: look to the top of the hill once at the beginning, then look down or at nothing but ignore the hill until you're at the top. one foot in front of the other eventually gets you there (even if the middle involves a lot of crying and an asthma attack).

Posted by: obie alum on November 29, 2012 2:46 AM

I've only studied one foreign language--French--but yes, I think the middle level is the most frustrating. You want to say complex things but you don't know the right tense; you want to do high school level commentary with a second-grade skillset.

Posted by: Tess on November 29, 2012 8:49 AM

Intermediate level is most definitely the most annoying, and where I got tripped up in both Spanish and French. And more specifically for me, it was all those weird combination tenses that I just couldn't figure out. After several years not taking any of those classes, I'd say my skills in those languages are back in the intermediate/beginner-intermediate range (but at least I passed my foreign language requirement!).

Posted by: Rusty '10 on November 29, 2012 10:47 AM

Emily, this is an awesome article! I always love reading your blog! : )

Posted by: Conor on November 29, 2012 12:12 PM

Yep. Spot on. You're welcome to come read German out loud to yourself in my room, by the way - I sometimes miss just hearing it being spoken around me.

As for your questions: I know of no way to bypass the intermediate-stage gulf between skillset and complexity of desired utterances, but some ways of thinking about it are certainly less frustrating than others. As in "WHY AM I NOT JUST FLUENT RIGHT NOWWWW" is really frustrating and "this is a fun test of how clearly I can explain what I think: can I do it with the language skills of a five year old?" is more fun. And you tend to have a really solid handle on your ideas once you can explain them in kid words.

My pre-higher-ed language learning started when I started going to school and had to learn English (because I was living in America but had been speaking German until then), but I don't think that's quite what you're asking. More learning happened when I went to an international school for a brief period of time in Denmark for the purpose of learning Danish, but that school didn't do much for me; it wasn't until I got to regular school and was immersed in it that I started to feel like a native speaker. But that's still not taking a foreign language class, which is what I assume your questions referred to. That should've started in fourth grade for me, because that's when the Danish school system starts teaching kids English - but of course, I already knew English, so while it was technically a foreign language class, I didn't learn anything. I didn't learn a new language in a class I enrolled in for the purpose of learning that language until I got to high school in Alabama, at which point my choices were French and Spanish (I took French). Sophomore year, I switched into a high school that offered Latin, German, French, and Spanish (I stuck with French). I got fairly far with it, but I always wished I hadn't had to wait so long to start.

Next year I'm starting Old Norse.

Posted by: Ida on November 29, 2012 1:57 PM

I feel your frustration!
I've always been obsessed with learning languages. I am a native spanish speaker. I learned English in school and high school. In High School i got extra French courses for some years. So i know basic french. During High School i also went to extra lessons at the Goethe Institut (i don't know if you've heard about it) to learn German.
It's been about 6 years since i started. It seems like a lot of time and i should already speak perfectly and fluently. Sadly i don't speak as fluent as i would like (my grammar sucks).
Also this year i started with korean.

ok, back to your theory! I think the basic levels in any language are just input. As you said, you need to learn vocabulary, get used to the new sounds or writting systems. Simply learn and repeat basic sentence structures. Which is quite easy i guess.
When you get to the intermediate levels you need to start using all you've learned and start making your brain work. It stopped being just a passive intake of data and started requiring more attention and effort to CREATE coherent data. By coherent data i mean it should be gramatically correct and it should say something relevant because at this level we're supposed to be discusing deeper or more abstract topics. That's tough!!

Some years back i sat on an airplane next to two young german guys and we somehow starting talking! they couldn't understand why i spoke german and i couldn't understand how was it possible they were understanding me!! (awesome feeling btw) We spoke the whole two-hour flight and that was when i realized language is there, somewhere in your brain ready to turn all those hours of input into really helpfull output!
So, you're right! This point where you are is the most challenging one. But don't get stressed, nor discouraged. German is hard but you already know more than you think you know! That i can assure you! You'll wake up one day and realize the intermediate crisis is over and you understand and speak german as if it were english!
sorry, i got a bit excited and wrote too much!
(I read about your post on tumblr so here's mine: moonkiss91.tumblr.com in case you wanna write back)

Posted by: Michelle on November 29, 2012 3:38 PM

I agree with Ida. Yep, spot on.

Research says that it takes 720 hours of intensive contact time with a language that is similar to your first language in order to achieve proficiency. If the language you are learning is not similar to your first language, then it takes 3 times as long.

Of course during those 720 hours, as you have discovered, it is not always smooth sailing. Simple forms and words and situations make way for more complex and complicated scenarios. For everyone there comes a moment when what you know and what you want to be able to say are two different things... and yes it is frustrating.

There is this rumor going around that adults can't learn second or third languages...that only babies can. It's not that adults can't, I believe, it's that adults as learners are extremely impatient and also very self-conscious... they don't like messing up and tend to be very hard on themselves when they do. As an adult you are also are much more aware of what you wish you could do vs what you can do in the language. Adults get impatient. Adults buy ridiculously expensive software programs because they want a quick fix. Adults give up.

What I hope for you, as an adult language learner, is that you will persevere. That you will remind yourself of the many reasons why you want to study a second or third language and keep those in mind as you stumble over declensions and pronouns and sentence structures.

There will be moments, when you least expect it, when those breakthroughs will happen. For me it was when I realized I could eavesdrop on a city bus in Bogotá and understand what was going on. Totally unexpected, totally wonderful and I was totally grateful for that moment because I thought for sure I was never going to get the knack of this thing.

Remind yourself that, as one commenter said, even though it feels like for every step forward you fall back a whole football field, you did indeed make the steps forward. Be proud of them. And remind yourself that in the big picture...you have learned a lot.

Sometimes we get too focused on the day to day, or the test or the papers and need to remind ourselves that learning (be it a language or anything else) is a big long continuum, filled with fits and starts and crashes and launches. Take the wide angle view of this and look how far you have come.

Yeah, there's (always) more to be learned... but isn't that why we are all here?

¿Con ganas? Sí se puede.

Posted by: Barbara on November 29, 2012 4:37 PM

I know what you mean. I had the same experience learning English in school, and then trying to subsequently learn everything else like science and history in my adequate but not perfected understanding of the language--that annoying intermediate level you are talking about. Interestingly, English eventually "imperialised" all my thought processes such that I even sometimes catch myself thinking in English rather than my native languages. However, when I learned French in school, it did not turn out to be as consuming as English was. It remained purely academic and never really penetrated every aspect of my life as English did. The reason I believe was that English, and Anglo-Saxon culture surrounded me so entirely that I could not avoid being compelled to view the world through the lens of the English language. That aspect accelerated my ability to master the language so much more than with French because French culture was not really there to reinforce what I had been learning in the classroom. So I guess being surrounded by the culture of the language can be very edifying to the language learning experience.

Posted by: Simba on November 29, 2012 9:40 PM

Wow, I wasn't really expecting comments on this post so I am kind of blown away. As a general response to everyone, I'll say this: I think that learning a language can be a very personal thing and oftentimes people don't consider how they go about doing it, so it's great to read what other people have to say.

Obie alum: That is actually a great piece of advice, for exercise and for general learning!

Ida: There are a lot of things I want to respond to in your comment, so forgive me if this is a bit fractured. 1) I would come speak German in your room, but I imagine hearing me practice my German 'r's over and over again would get a bit grating after a while. :) 2) Very good point about trying to approach what I perceive as a problem as a challenge. Patience is not one of my virtues, so that probably wouldn't have occurred to me on my own. 3) I was thinking of classroom language learning when I posed my question, but hearing about the other stuff is just as interesting to me! Also, I am SO jealous that you're learning Old Norse. That is seriously awesome.

Michelle: Thanks for your comment! When I posted this link to my tumblr I figured that no one would bother clicking on it. That's awesome that you've learned so many languages.

Barbara: I was hoping you would respond to this post because you obviously know what you're talking about when it comes to this subject. I had never heard the 720 hours number before, but I believe it. I'm just curious about what constitutes a 'similar' language in this context? Also, you are so right about needing to remind myself on how far I've come. Even in the last month or two my reading in particular has gotten so much quicker and it's important to remember that.

Simba: I haven't been a scenario where I've had to learn in a foreign language (yet), but your observation makes complete sense to me. Out of curiosity, what is your native language?

Posted by: Emily on December 3, 2012 12:07 AM

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