Magdeburg l “Guten Tag,” I said. “I am here today to talk to you about learning foreign languages in my home country, England.” And then, for about five minutes, I said things about how the English were bad at learning foreign languages, and how I thought that was a bad thing, and how it was useful to learn foreign languages, for when you were abroad.
I made many mistakes of grammar, vocabulary, and probably pronunciation too. But I managed to communicate a few basic points. My fellow students, and more importantly my teacher, seemed to understand most of what I said.
And that was that. I had completed my German course. I guess I can speak German now.
Test should make a difference
It’s strange that doing something as simple as sitting a test should make a difference, but ever since that final speaking exam I have actually felt more confident with my German. I don’t even have a certificate to show for my efforts, but the simple fact of taking (and passing) the test feels like real confirmation that I’ve reached a certain level, more or less. It’s done me a lot of good.
That, in turn, has made me realize that by far the most important thing about learning a language is having confidence. And, coincidentally, that that’s the thing I’m worst at.
I often think back to learning French at school, which I did from the age of 11. I was good at it - very good, actually. I went home every day and learned my vocabulary, I practiced my grammar carefully, and I learned how to pronounce everything without choking on my own phlegm. The stakes were pretty low in our French lessons: they mattered for our grades, but not for our quality of life. We were not actually living in France. With so little pressure, I enjoyed it as a (not particularly) intellectual exercise. It was like an easier version of maths or chemistry.
Was good at languages - I thought
I didn’t talk loads in French lessons, but when I did say things, they tended to sound OK and be more or less correct. I’d roll my eyes when my more talkative friends chatted on and on, making so many basic errors as they did so. How embarrassing, I would think. They got some grammar wrong. I, on the other hand, was good at languages. I thought.
These days, when my fellow language students dominate the conversation in German, seemingly unbothered by the catalogue of basic mistakes they make as they do so, I no longer roll my eyes. Instead, I’m filled with envy. Because I’ve come to realize that the only way to learn a language properly - to the point where you can communicate with native speakers - is to talk, talk, talk. Which I’m just not very good at: I can’t bear making mistakes.
Lost right to call good at languages
Nearly two years into my time in Germany, I have categorically lost the right to call myself good at languages. I’m good at certain things - the things that make you good at learning a language in school, like basic grammatical rules, and guessing the meanings of words. I can ace reading tests, and write with confidence (true, I’m a professional writer, but I don’t think that’s cheating). The problem is simply that I’m absolutely terrible at the one thing you truly need to get by: simply having the confidence to say stuff. Which means that my speaking skills are lagging far, far behind.
Still, maybe things will get better now I’ve officially completed this course. There’s a long way left to go, obviously, but this may have been the push I needed to really get me talking more in German.
Just in time for me to have my rights revoked because of Brexit. Tremendous.