I landed in Berlin with two things: a year’s worth of German and a whole lot of arrogance.
I proudly held my own during the cab ride to my sublease, and I chatted jovially with my new roommate while she explained the twelve-tiered recycling system. So einfach ("easy"), I thought to myself. Speaking German was almost too easy. I was practically a native!
Jet-lagged but smug, I strolled to the grocery store around the corner. The moment I walked in, the cashier fired off a slew of rapid, slang-heavy German.
And my mind went blank. A year of lessons, gone.
Noticing my confusion, she spoke a bit slower, but both her accent and her vocabulary left me stumped. This wasn’t the slow, crisp Hochdeutsch ("standard German") that the cab driver and my roommate had so graciously used with me. This was the nearly unintelligible accent of Berlin, my new home. And I couldn’t understand a word.
That day, I learned an important lesson: Visiting - or even moving to - a country where the language you’re learning is spoken is exciting, but it’s not always easy.
Despite the difficulties, it can be the best decision of your life. Just keep these key things in mind before you board the plane:
1. You’re going to fail. Constantly.
Before I decided to move to Berlin, I wish someone had shaken my shoulders and told me this crucial thing: You’re going to fail.
And that’s okay!
At first, failure will seem constant. You’ll rehearse entire conversations in your head, only to hear the words jumble up on your tongue. You’ll learn the hard way that a single misplaced accent mark can turn a harmless word into an expletive. You’ll lose track of conversations halfway through. You’ll have to grin and bear it when people chuckle at you.
And that’s okay!
Because that’s how you learn.
Learn to laugh at yourself. If you let a fear of failure keep you from ever speaking, you’ll never improve.
The good news is that most native speakers are impressed that you’re trying to learn their language. Once they realize that you’re putting in the effort, they are more than accommodating. After all, many of them have struggled as well.
So plough forward, mistakes and all, and dwell more on your successes than your slip-ups.
More often than not, locals can tell whether you belong before you even open your mouth. Why? Because of the way you carry yourself.
Customs that make sense in your home country may seem bizarre or even downright rude in this new place, and vice versa - if you don’t abide by the new country’s customs, you’ll stick out. Sometimes in a bad way.
For example, in many German homes, it’s customary to remove your shoes as soon as you enter a house (hosts may even offer you Hausschuhe (lit. "house shoes"), special slippers for indoor wear). It’s taboo to cross at a red light even if there are no cars. And, of course, who can forget the way that Germans count? Forgetting any of these will immediately brand you an outsider.
When you arrive in the country for the first time, you don’t need to have a perfect accent. You don’t even need to be fluent. But if you take the time to research and practice local customs, you will find yourself on the path to fitting in.
Tip: Our Language & Culture Lessons offer a helpful insight in this regard.
No matter how many listening exercises you’ve completed or native tutors you’ve hired, there’s one thing that you may struggle to truly comprehend: slang.
Slang changes more rapidly than any amount of educational YouTube videos or blog posts could possibly keep up with. By “slang,” I’m not just talking about words for “cool” and “awesome,” but also about memes and pop culture references, oft-quoted song lyrics and hashtags, abbreviations and inside jokes that don’t make sense out of context but nevertheless persist. Be prepared for your conception of the language to completely change once you start chatting with native speakers.
When learning a language, you often learn a standardized form first. That makes sense: Most media is created in the standardized form, after all. The standardized form is often easiest to grasp and, if you speak it anywhere in the country, you’ll be understood.
You just might not understand anyone else.
Think about English. All of the standard English textbooks in the world can’t prepare you to parse a Cockney accent, or a Jamaican one, or a Scottish one, although they are all branches of English. Mix in accents from other regions of the world where English is the first language or co-language, such as Kenya, Australia and India, and the result is a mishmash of accents that sound nothing like the English you hear in movies.
The same goes for your target language. The German spoken in Bavaria is almost unintelligible to Berliners, and Marseillais French will have you scratching your head if you’ve only studied the metropolitan Parisian standard.
You’re always going to bump into an accent that you don’t understand. But you can prepare by exposing yourself to a wide variety of native materials, focusing on the accents that you expect to run into (but mix in a few wildcards as well). Spend at least a week before your trip training your ear to the difference.
You can find English speakers all over the world. That’s great for tourists. That’s terrible for you.
No matter what country you’re in, you can almost always track down an enclave of expats or study-abroad students who are all too happy to invite you into their Anglophone pack.
At first, this might feel like a relief—finally, people you don’t have to struggle to communicate with! But if you stick with other English-speakers, you’ll never improve in the language you're learning. And after all, that’s why you came to the country in the first place.
Sometimes, no matter how fluent you become, you’ll find yourself in over your head. You may need to enlist the help of a native speaker - or even a professional translator - such as when you’re applying for a residency permit, looking for an apartment or trying to open a bank account.
That’s not a sign of failure. Bureaucracy is notoriously difficult no matter what language you speak, so accept that you may need a bit of a boost.
No matter how much you love the language you're learning, if you stay in a foreign country long enough, you will despise that language at least once.
You’ll grow tired of struggling with difficult pronunciation, of only understanding half of every conversation, or feeling embarrassed as you speak slowly and bungle conjugation. Your brain will be exhausted. You will be exhausted. It might take months for this to happen, or even a year, but it will happen.
But here’s the beautiful thing: It will pass.
Your frustrations are actually growing pains - a sign that you’re on the cusp of an enormous breakthrough. Keep working at it despite your frustration and, the day you least expect it, the language will click into place.
When heading to a country that speaks your target language, a little preparation can go a long way. So train your ear to accents, commit to breaking free of the English bubble and, most importantly, prepare yourself to be wrong - and before you know it, this new country will feel like home.
Ready to start learning? Head over to our selection of courses to pick your next adventure.
Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.