Language-Learning: When Immersion Won’t Come to You

When I was in school, I remember my foreign language teacher telling our class that the best way to learn a language was via total immersion. As a teenage girl learning German in a Texas public school, I never dreamed I’d encounter such an opportunity, but fast-forward 15 years, grammar and vocabulary eroded by the sands of time, I find myself here in Berlin. This is my chance, right?

Perhaps you’ve noticed but Berlin is less than immersive. It’s quite possible to get by with minimal German. In fact, there’s this nasty rumor that everyone speaks English—lies! One could argue, however, that, given the recent startup boom, Berlin is enabling its English-speaking expat bubble more and more. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say Berlin’s English-speaking bubble is enabling itself and increasing as a result. Socio-economic point of contention as that may be, we English-speakers find ourselves benefitting from the convenience, and subsequently suffering (in a “first world problems” kinda way) due to the same. Therefore the onus is, well, on us to rise to the linguistic occasion, to reject the powerful pull of familiarity, and to sally forth beyond the borders of our comfort zones.

Enthusiasm aside, when I first arrived here, my language-learning plight was compounded by the fact that I was working long hours from home for a company that had nothing to do with Berlin. Now, anyone who’s experienced long-term telecommuting will understand what I mean when I say it can feel like living in social exile. It’s a situation that does one’s interpersonal skills no favors. Eccentricity starts to take over, and it’s not a pretty thing…

Anyway, I eventually got tired of being chained to my desk, feeling disconnected from the city in which I was living. I decided I needed to get serious and get myself into a real Sprachkurs. There’s an old saying that goes something like: If the immersive experience will not come to me, then I must go to the immersive experience—even if it’s only three hours a day.

I enjoyed a heady peak following a stretch of back-to-back intensive courses. Confidence soared, horizons expanded. It was a glorious time. Everything seemed to come together: I landed a second part-time job, and then another volunteer gig. However, irony of ironies, they both ended up being not only English-speaking but work-from-home situations as well.

So what did that mean for my linguistic aspirations? The thing about languages is how easily they start slipping away from you when you’re not using them regularly. I found myself once again at a frustrating plateau, perhaps even sliding backwards. In a way I was kind of back where I started, right?

Not long ago I was chatting online (auf Deutsch) with a former classmate from the Ukraine and lamenting my language-skill regression in the face of an English-speaking bubble-universe. Never mind that less than a year ago the mere idea of coherent lamentation would have seemed entirely beyond my ability. My friend calmly pointed out, “Weltsprache ist deine Muttersprache, was kann besser sein?

The between-the-lines translation: Check your privilege, English-speaker.

So that was my cue to dial back the angst and reframe. If you don’t need to learn German for work or study, that just leaves the casual day-to-day stuff: interacting with your environment, understanding what’s going on, making yourself understood. To make that happen requires just a little creativity and self-motivation. Once again: If the immersion won’t come to me, then I must go to the immersion—for me lately, this means the dog park.

Recently I was with my dog at the Hundeplatz on Revalerstraße, mulling over work-related thoughts. I needed photos for a project, and looking through the chain-link fence at the be-postered and graffitied brick facades across the street, I got an idea. There was another woman at the park I vaguely knew, so I approached her in German and asked if she would mind keeping an eye on my dog—I just needed to step across the street to take a couple photos and be right back. The words flowed so naturally and spontaneously from my lips, effecting the beautiful alchemical transmutation of intent/desire into expression without the cumbersome act of conscious English-into-German. It was so right, so perfect. I did just as I said, snapped my photos and returned to collect my dog. I felt triumphant, powerful: ICH KANN DEUTSCH!

On the way home, I texted my husband about the exchange, expressing glowing self-satisfaction with gratuitous emojis, “Ya know,” he texted back, “she probably thought you went across the street to buy weed …” I quickly replayed the scene in my head, taking in the locale, its proximity to the guys in hoodies making the sidewalk rounds, my dreadlocks and flimsy “pretext”, the flicker of something in the woman’s expression when she said okay… “Aw, crapsticks!” I thought to myself. *slanty face emoji*

And so you see, folks, even if you manage to somehow transcend the misunderstandings of foreign grammar and vocab, you’ll still have plenty of opportunity for miscommunication and misrepresentation. Life is, after all, a comedy of errors, so why not live it up in both languages: immerse.

By Eileen Carelock 
Images © Eileen Carelock 
Eileen is a Berlin-based freelancer and tentative explorer of a tiny segment of the human experience. She ends up hanging out with her dog a lot; she also writes things.

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