A more descriptive title for this post would have read along the lines of: “I Came to Austria as a Native English Speaker and Everyone Here Speaks English; Why Do I Need to Learn German?” but I received a firm too lengthy from the publishers.
It’s hard to find someone here in Austria that doesn’t speak conversational English. Especially in Graz, an international city featuring thousands of international students.
I came to Austria because for three reasons: I wanted to learn a different language, I wanted to immerse myself in a different culture and I wanted to be nestled amongst mountains. But upon arrival, upon finding copious amounts of pals who speak flawless English, the first reason unraveled. The unraveling of the second reason followed quickly, as I lost interest in pretending to not be American as I had to pick my way around Austrian bureaucracy in order to not get banished from Europe.
I underestimated how difficult German is to learn as a language: I’d heard stories of immigrants who learned German in 5 months, of students studying abroad in rural parts of Germany who became fluent after a year. Everyone told me stories of how easy it is to learn a language when you’re in the country and surrounded by it.
Pretty much just thought I’d show up and then be fluent shortly after, but..
Languages don’t work that way. Not even a smidge.
Fundamentally it takes motivation. Intrinsic motivation. Motivation beyond I could impress other people with this talent. I realized that I lacked a good reason to learn German, and reinforced by the fact that everyone speaks my native tongue. Those people that learned German in 5 months? It was because they had to.
First step: find actual, good motivation to learn German. Process: YouTube.
Benny Lewis’ Ted Talk Hacking Language Learning is what I attribute my change in perspective. He proclaims that you cannot experience a culture if you force that culture to speak your native language over theirs.
Imagine if someone who only spoke Spanish came into, say, the bookstore where you work; you happen to know Spanish after four years of studying it in University, so you engage the speaker in a Spanish conversation. Yeah, you’re perhaps “fluent” in Spanish: but you can’t tell that person about the one time you read this book and how it made you feel, because you don’t know the exact phrases and metaphors to convey the exact emotion. You can’t fully express yourself because you have to compensate with the language.
I can imagine how frustrating it is to be linguistically limited in that manner.
Do you want to actually immerse yourself in culture? Do you want to be part of a different world? Do you want to be exposed to things and people you’ve never experienced before?
You have to learn the language.
Lewis talks about the things stopping people from a pursuit of language learning; lacking a “language talent” gene, fear of frustrating native speakers, not being in a country where the language is spoken. Then he goes on to explain how shallow these excuses are, that there is no one “language talent gene” only people who are more motivated than others (or perhaps have a talent for memory), that native speakers love speaking in native tongues because they can actually express themselves fully, that we have so many tools for language learning thanks to the internet.
I’m out of excuses. I’ve already applied for a residence permit, already set up my Austrian bank account. I’ve already chosen my classes and figured out Uni. It’s time to stop saying ein bisschen and “I’m learning” when people speak to me in German. It’s time to start watching How I Met Your Mother in German. To engage shopkeepers in broken German sentences.
Let Austria be fully Austria.
Peace & Blessings