Foreign language milestones during school never seemed particularly important: you pass another vocabulary test, you manage to stumble through another book with a little less dictionary hopping. Ho-hum, another day of school. But when that language becomes the currency of your life, those milestones suddenly become monumental.
The first time you manage to order dinner at a restaurant completely in German is so exciting that you e-mail your friends to tell them about it. The first time the woman behind the counter at the bakery asks you something and your reply doesn’t make her switch automatically over to English you buy an extra celebratory pastry. And when you finally manage to make a telephone call without breaking into a cold sweat or causing an epic misunderstanding you’re ready to throw a party.
I still remember the first time I understood the use of subjunctive II in German. And no, I didn’t remember that grammatical title right off the bat. I had to look it up. The grammar can be hard enough without having to memorize an irrelevant title on top of it. Master the grammar and don’t worry about the name of the grammar, I always say. But subjunctive II. That is what you use for describing hypotheticals. “Would you like to go with us to the movies?”, “If I had a million dollars, I would…” and etc. This is done in German with the verbs hätte, wäre, or wurde. (I’m simplifying here. If you want to know more, go read this.) And though the concept sounds straightforward to me now, there was a time when I didn’t quite have the knack of it.
I hadn’t been in Germany more than two months when it happened. My au pair host family had signed me up for German classes at the Volkshochschule and we’d been reviewing things I vaguely remember having already covered in high school. One of them was subjunctive II. I passed all the tests and understood it when I saw it, but I hadn’t yet graduated to using it myself, or even always understanding it when a native speaker used it.
The scene remains vivid in my memory: I had the afternoon off as the five-year-old twins who I took care of were playing at a friends’ house and had been reading in my room on the fifth floor. The family’s ten-year-old son yelled up to me from the stairwell on the floor below. I no longer remember exactly what he said, but I remember that he used subjunctive II and that I consciously understood it for the first time. I remember going back into my room grinning at myself for having just gotten it, for not being confused about a few sentences that were daily blah-blah for the ten year old. It was over six years ago, and I still remember the feeling of joy that washed over me at the realization that I had reached some sort of personal listening comprehension milestone.
What pesonal milestones have you passed in your foreign-language-learning journey?