4 Feb

I just came home from German class and running a few errands.  When I walked in the woman who cleans the home where I stay was already here and at work. She doesn’t speak any English, so often we smile and don’t have much to say. Today I braved a few German words… “You are a bit early” I said in what I hope was proper German. It seems I am more likely to try to communicate in German immediately after class. It is like I am more tuned into the language and less in my American brain. A few minutes later we had a brief dialog about some vegetables in the refrigerator and that I like to drink warm water.  Her face lit up and smiled as I did my best to express some simple thoughts in German.  Basic. Not much.  But still, it is more than when I arrived here four months ago.

I can’t help but notice how humbling it is to learn and speak another language. Going from feeling like a “master” in my domain to feeling somewhat like a child. German class today was pretty good but it was also a bit par for the course… sailing along understanding about 30 – 40 % of what the teacher is saying. Doing my best to ask questions in class in German…. my simples questions often misinterpreted by our teacher.

It is quite a new experience for me, being in “midlife” learning and meandering through the beginnings of learning a new language. It is different from when I studied French in high school, tolerating the lessons, then forgetting them when I walked out the door. I was like many of the kids who I taught in Korea… not understanding the value of learning a second language and no real practical place to speak or practice it.

Being surrounded by the language I am learning is quite a different things. Here as a student I am no longer in the comfort of my familiar territory. I am the lone American and native English speaker in my German class. I am also lumped in the with sea of other Americans, some of whom are unwilling or uninterested in learning another language. From my time here in Vienna studying German I have come to more fully understand that as an English speaker from the large country of the United States and the international acceptance of the English language, it is perhaps more challenging for me to let go of my native tongue a bit and make room for play with a new one.

Lately a few people have contacted me for English tutoring. I can’t help but notice my restored ease returning to my comfort zone and place of confidence. But as I consider tutoring, I also try to keep in mind and remember my own vulnerability in the German classroom. This experience alone is an education.

As I am surrounded by mostly my European classmates, many of them speaking two or more languages, I am indeed in good company but in some ways a world apart when it comes to language. They live on a continent where neighboring countries are like the next state, each with its own culture and language. The need as well as the access to the a multi-language world is quite different from the wide English-speaking canvas of the United States.

But I suppose we don’t travel to stay the same. Don’t explore new territories to not be challenged and learn new things about ourselves.

It is truly possible in Vienna to stay in a mostly English-speaking world. Often when I go to shops and am feeling unconfident or shy, I ask first “Sprechen Sie Englisch” before continuing the conversation. Most places someone will speak at least a little English, but I have encountered some with limited to no English-speaking. Sometimes when I try to fumble my way through a bit of German I am responded to in English.  And so it goes.

It is a grey wintry day here in Vienna. My hosts have been on their own adventure in the States. In just a few more days one of my hosts and their daughter return to Vienna while the mom remains in the States for a bit to continue her own work and adventure. It’s been nice to have a bit of time and space with the house to myself tending to the few basic things that need care while they are away.

All is well here as I continue to make my way with German class and a few local connections and commitments. Good-bye for now and thanks for reading!

Featured image at top:  A glowing Vienna sunset strolling home in the late afternoon.