During my middle and high school years, I took three years of Spanish: three years of grammar rules, frustratingly catchy songs and endless amounts of color-coded flash cards, none of which stuck in my head past the tests (or before the tests, if I’m speaking honestly). In that time, all I remembered how to do was count to 10 and introduce myself as “Maria”, my Spanish class given name. I resolved I must not really be the language learning type, just as my sweet, tiny grandma wasn’t the language learning type either. She sure gave it her all though. She owned a calculator that translated English words into Spanish, and vice versa. She had shelves full of vocabulary and grammar books into which she delved frequently so she could converse with her Spanish-speaking neighbors and a man who painted her house, who all adored her for even trying. But despite all the studying and translating, she still managed to just throw an “el” and an “o” here and there to make it work. “Your checko is on el table-o.” She gave it her honest, hilarious best.
So when my husband and I decided to move to Vienna, Austria, I was more than a little nervous about learning German – The Awful German Language, as Mark Twain so bluntly, perfectly put it. If you weren’t already aware, the German language is insane sometimes. No, it’s insane pretty much all the time, actually. But now after almost two years of embarrassing myself time and time again, exhausting hours of meetings with my language partners, and attempting to not sound so obviously American, learning a language isn’t the worst thing in the world, and the awkwardness of it and the hard work do, in fact, pay off. Yes, it’s downright terrifying sometimes, especially when phone calls are involved (anyone else absolutely terrified of phones?), but it has finally hit me that maybe, quite possibly, I can kinda-sorta speak two languages.
Below are some signs that you can maybe, quite possibly, kinda-sorta, speak two languages as well:
1. You speak two languages at once.
Have you noticed you’ve unintentionally replaced particular vocabulary words from your mother-tongue with vocabulary words from your newly learned language? Yeah, me too. I don’t remember the last time I said the word “beautiful” in English. Everything is “schön” now, but within English context. Sometimes this habit is okay if you’re talking with people who are either in the same boat you are, or speak both languages fluently. But if I say something like, “Man, I could really go for a Himbeer Soda right now” or “Yeah, I bemerkt that earlier” in front of people who have no idea I’m talking about a raspberry soda drink or that I mentally noted something earlier that day, I sound and look pretty ridiculous. But hey, at least the vocabulary is sinking in, right?
2. You think in two languages at once.
I don’t know what language I think in anymore. Of course my go-to language is English, but after a night out with my Austrian friends or a day out roaming in the city, my go-to language is uncertain. Random Austrian phrases pop into my head, and half the time I don’t even know where I heard them from. Did I hear it from a friend? A commercial? Is it even grammatically correct? Do I still speak English? I need a nap….
Shortly after we finished up our first intensive German classes, I had a dream I was ordering a cheeseburger at McDonald’s (yikes), but ordered incorrectly. As punishment, the McDonald’s lady put down cheeseburger after cheeseburger until I finally remembered the correct way to order. Unfortunately, by the time I remembered, she had piled 100 cheeseburgers on my tray, and I woke up from my McDonald’s nightmare exhausted and with a headache. My advice: Try to dream in a grammatically sound style and you should be spared headaches and monstrous amounts of cheeseburgers. Also don’t dream about McDonald’s.
4. You secretly really hope your friends and family will ask for a demonstration.
Anytime I’m with a friend or family member, part of me hopes they’ll ask me to translate a sign they can’t read or tell them what the monotonous lady on the subway just said. A word of warning though – this desire, though fantastic and addicting, is a double-edged sword. You’ll quickly find yourself hoping your “fans” don’t ask you to do this in front of a local because chances are, you’ll get the translation or example conversation wrong due to nervousness, and then the local will pat you lovingly on the head and say with their eyes, “Oh you sweet thing. You’re not in the big leagues yet,” and correct you in front of the very ones you were trying to knock over with your awesomeness. Perhaps try out your awesomeness when you’re alone and the translations can bend a bit in your favor.
5. You absolutely love the feeling of knowing something your friends and family don’t.
This is by far the best feeling and biggest accomplishment of learning a second language. Now you may be thinking, “Holly, surely the best feeling and biggest accomplishment of learning a second language is actually being able to speak with and learn from those in whose culture you’re living in?” Yes, true, but nothing beats talking about not wanting to do the dishes or clean out your share of the attic right in front of your in-laws without them knowing a word you’re saying. I’m not advocating that you use your new “secret language” to talk badly about others in the least, because that’s never nice, but not wanting to do the dishes or wondering aloud to your husband why it’s necessary the two of you spend an afternoon digging through storage boxes when you could be getting coffee with friends is more than a little exhilarating. And it drives your friends and family nuts.
Having a secret language in which you can talk about others (while exercising caution) is, as we’ve established, pretty great. But when you’re the one being talked about in your secret language – and, unbeknownst to the speaker, you can understand that secret language – the coolness factor might wear off a bit. Or maybe it stays exactly the same and you’re still on Cloud 9 because heeeey! You understand what that grumpy old hairdresser lady was saying about you! Yeah, she was complaining that you probably didn’t know a word of the language just like all the others who come into her country looking for a place to reside, but not you. You know the truth. And you understand every single word down to the accusative preposition, and for that, you deserve a high-five and an ice cream. Three scoops this time.
7. You realize about 10 times a week that you still have a really long way to go.
Have you gone a few days (or hours) with what you consider to be a good handle on your new language, only to be harshly spanked by it a little while later? Being humbled, especially in a public manner, is never an enjoyable experience, but it is necessary to the language learning process. And I contend these spankings of humbleness make us into better second, third – or however many you intend to learn – language speakers. I once watched a guy give a TED Talk about his secret to speaking over 10 languages, fluently. What was his secret? He aimed to make at least 100 mistakes a day in the language he was practicing. It sounds like kind of a backwards challenge, as we usually tend to aim for perfection. Personally, I shut down after I noticeably make 5 mistakes and tell myself I’m obviously having a terrible German-speaking day. But though it feels that way, it’s not true. It’s just that you and I are trying our best at learning a new language; a new language that forms our mouths into uncomfortable shapes and comes with genders and sounds we never knew existed. Sure, we have a long way to go before we’ve mastered the thing, but at least we can decently speak a second language. High five.