It is time for me to reflect on my experiences as a student of German and as an American in Germany. What did I learn about the acquisition of languages? I believe that the most important factor in learning a language is time. Even though I lived in Germany and studied the language systematically, it still took time to acquire vocabulary and learn grammatical structures. Even more difficult was utilizing the vocabulary and grammar that I had learned to speak German, since real-time communication allows very little time to reflect on correct usage.
Even at the end of my stay in Germany, it was difficult for me to understand native German speakers for two reasons: first, they spoke too quickly for me to recognize all of the words and grammatical structures they were using; second, they used vocabulary that I did not know. My ability to speak German was also hampered by my limited vocabulary and incomplete knowledge of grammar. I also struggled to to recognize and formulate German idioms. When writing German, I would also “think” in English idioms and formulate German phrases with these in mind. I had to rely on someone who was fluent in German to show me when I had used an English idiom or when I needed to use a German idiom.
In my SLA proposal, I articulated several goals which I intended to meet after the completion of my eight-week course at the Goethe Institut:
- Internalize the morphological and syntactical principles of German such that I can recognize them effortlessly while reading German texts.
- Learn to easily comprehend spoken German and acquire the ability to competently converse in German.
- Be able to write German with sufficient competency to carry on written correspondence with German colleagues.
Although I am significantly more comfortable with German now than when I first arrived in Germany, I am still only an advanced beginner. Somewhat disappointingly, my course at the Goethe Institut did not cover all of the basic grammatical principles of German. Given what I did learn, however, both at the Goethe Institut and in my graduate German for reading course, I can decipher most of the grammar that I encounter, at least enough to grasp the basic meaning of a text.
Regarding my second goal of being able to speak German and understand spoken German: I cannot easily speak German or understand native German speakers for the reasons mentioned above. But my German for reading course did not teach me to speak or understand spoken German in any way, so I am definitely closer to competency in these areas than I was at the beginning of my studies in Germany. I believe that I have come closest to reaching the third goal of being able to write emails in German. When I am writing, I have more time to reflect on grammatical construction or look up words in a dictionary; I can also have someone else proof-read what I have written, in case I have made mistakes. I could not write anything especially elegant or complicated, but I believe that I know German well enough to communicate through writing on a basic level.
I found that humility is an essential quality when living or travelling in a foreign culture. It is disorienting to be a foreigner. It is uncomfortable to be faced with ambiguity. It is difficult to recognize the cultural preconceptions that often lead us to misinterpret cultural norms or interpersonal interactions. When I encountered situations where things were done differently than in the US, my initial reaction often depended on whether the change affected me positively or negatively. Eventually I learned to avoid judging the difference as good or bad and instead used it to gain insight into myself, my culture, or the culture in which I was a visitor.