Sometimes when you’re learning a foreign language, it feels like you’re doing everything backwards. When children learn a language they start small, maybe asking for a toy simply by saying “me doll!” While adults may resort to similar sentences in must-communicate situations in their adopted language, they often have the disadvantage of wanting to start with more complex subject matter.
Asking for directions, ordering at restaurants, making a doctor’s appointment on the telephone—these topics may sound simple, but they are conversations we don’t expect young children to be able to handle, and they are conversations that can be a huge challenge for a beginner. Not to mention the moments when we want to try to express complex feelings about a politcal or personal issue in our stumbling German (or French or Russian or whatever language we happen to be tackling). As adults it is hard to truly start with the basics because our minds are already used to processing and communicating much more complicated thoughts.
So we jump right into the fire. We go to classes, and we attempt to memorize the ways in which we can tell someone that we are feeling dissatisfied with our jobs or are really enjoying a new book or are falling in love. We start big and we start complex, and this makes the process frustrating. But most adults have more complicated concerns than getting their hands on our favorite toys, playground antics, or what’s for dinner. And though we deal with a lot of frustration because of it (and tend to be envious of the way kids can pick up new languages at light speed), most of us eventually arrive at a point where we can express more complex thoughts in our adopted language. But sometimes the attempt to get to adult-level speech fast means we leave certain basics behind. Which brings me to a confession.
I still cannot spell words in German. I don’t mean that I spell German words incorrectly, I mean that when someone asks me “Can you spell that for me” auf Deutsch, I often can’t do it. I don’t have trouble with the consonants, but the vowels give me trouble. Ask me to spell a word with both “i”s and “e”s in it, and I will start to stutter. The pronounciation of the German alphabet is very similar to the that of the American alphabet. Most of it is no trouble. But I never learned it. So now I’m in a position where I can talk about complex issues in a language whose alphabet I can’t even recite without a few lengthy pauses. I can read a 600-page novel, but I can’t spell the word out loud “bier” correctly on the first try.
The good news is, of course, that it’s never too late to learn, and I’ve been attempting to fill in this missing knowledge. (How embarassing will it be if my child’s teacher needs me to spell something and my five-year-old can do it better than I can? Me, a professional writer!) I practice spelling words with lots of my problem letters in them (unfortunately a list that includes my own name), and someday when someone asks me to spell something on the phone, I won’t have to ask them if it is ok if I spell it in English.
What trips you up in the foreign language(s) you have studied?