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.

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