I’ve talked before about how fluency in a language can still mean frustration when you find yourself needing to talk about a new subject. When I began renovating my home, I suddenly found myself tongue-tied. I needed help learning the skills I would need to finish the project, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it. Words like beam, insulation, and jigsaw were not in my vocabulary; there had never been a unit on building in any of my German textbooks, and it had never occurred to me to learn them. At least I knew the word for “hammer.” (It’s Hammer! Got that one in the bag.)
It had been a while since I’d found myself in the same position. Until I got pregnant. Suddenly there were hundreds of new words and concepts to learn about. And once I’d learned them all in English—which happened naturally through all the reading I was doing—I still couldn’t talk about them with my husband or my midwife until I’d completed round two of the challenge: learning all those new words again in German.
Tackling new subject matter in a foreign language is always a challenge, is always a bit frustrating at the get go. You’re used to being able to express yourself, and then suddenly BAM, you need to do it in a language in which you just don’t have the tools to do so. So slowly, painstakingly, you start flipping through your English-German dictionary on a more regular basis in an attempt to fill up your toolbox in time for the next conversation with your doctor, midwife, or partner. Slow though the process may be, I will admit this: the process always goes faster when the need is immediate and real. Trial by fire has been a better teacher than any class I’ve ever taken.
One by one I learned the new concepts, and then the new words. When my birth prep class started I learned more, absorbing the words simply through context. But sometimes I didn’t understand, and I asked questions. (Never be too shy to ask for an explanation when you don’t understand what someone is telling you in your second language! It is always worth it!) Which helped me learn more. Sometimes I didn’t understand anything my midwife said (she speaks with a regional accent I can’t always follow), and my husband would translate for me, repeating her questions in words he knew I would understand. And sometimes I had to describe the concepts I wanted to discuss in a roundabout way, letting my midwife puzzle out what it was I was talking about.
But you grow with each challenge you face, and in needing to discuss subjects whose vocab banks were still works in progress in my head has led to another, unexpected skill. If there is one thing that living in a foreign country and in a foreign language has made me good at, it’s talking around words I don’t know and describing concepts I don’t have the right words for in other ways.
If you want to read more from this author, check out her personal blog—covering everything from tiny house living to expat life in Germany to parenting—at ClickClackGorilla.com.