At the gym the other day, between the monotonous stomping of my feet on the treadmill, I overheard a woman speaking in heavily-accented English. She was asking her workout partner to show her how to correctly do a push-up. I listened to her for a few minutes, as she struggled to find the words to describe what she wanted to say. It made me reflect upon my own experiences as a study abroad student in Munich. I remember how frustrating it would be to run into situations where I couldn’t accurately express myself.
On one particular occasion, my inability to remember the verb “to pay” meant that I couldn’t tell the waiter that I had already paid my bill. I recall repeating over and over again: “ich habe schon…ich habe schon…” (“I already…”) But the word escaped me. I tried to motion a “paying” action with my hands, but it just confused the waiter even more. Finally, I remembered the verb and was able to complete my sentence, satisfying the waiter and setting him on his way.
Running into situations such as these occurred on almost a daily basis when I first moved to Munich. Things that should take moments to complete, often became stressful, drawn-out processes simply due to my inability to correctly express what I wanted to say. As a grown adult, it was extremely frustrating to have my vocabulary set back to the level of a child, particularly when I still needed to do “grown-up things” (like set up a cell phone or register with the city).
So suffice to say, I completely sympathized with the woman at my gym when I heard her struggling in broken English. But when I turned around and saw who she had been speaking to all along, I felt an even higher level of respect. The woman had been speaking with her husband. It was obvious that they shared the same mother tongue, so it would have been much easier for her to carry on in their native language. But the fact that she chose to instead practice her speaking skills and converse with him in English, made me beam with admiration.
I’m now married to German-American man, but I have to admit that our daily conversations in German are usually limited to short words and phrases. Rarely do we commit to conversing fully in German, simply because English is the more natural medium for both of us. My husband moved to the US when he was 10, so he speaks English as if it were his native tongue. Plus, we met before I even started studying German, so it’s become what we’re used to.
But I have to admit that seeing this courageous couple made me realize that there’s no excuse not to try. It also made me think of all the people living in the U.S. who struggle to learn English because they want to create a better life for themselves. I’m lucky that learning a foreign language has never been imperative for me – it’s always been a choice. A choice that nonetheless opens the door to many opportunities and experiences. So what excuse do I have not to practice more often? Better yet: why would I not want to?
What motivates you to study a foreign language? When things get tough, what “keeps you going?”
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