Since many students go abroad for language immersion, I wanted to share my rather unique experience and some of the lessons I learned along the way. When I studied abroad, I was able to practice two languages in addition to the German I went to Berlin to study. How, you may ask? Well, the full story requires a bit more explanation...
At the beginning of my freshman year, my parents were assigned to a two-year job post in Central Asia. Since I wanted to be a part of their overseas experience while still staying on my academic track, I decided to study abroad in Europe for a full academic year. Before this I’d only ever taken Spanish, and my plan had always been to study in a Spanish-speaking country for the spring of my junior year. However, the program I found in Berlin – FUBEST – was a perfect fit because it had all the classes I hoped to take and required that participants took German, which I’d always wanted to learn anyway. That brings me to lesson number one: be open to whatever opportunities that come your way.
When I got to Berlin at the end of August, I’d been living in a Russian-speaking country for two months and had gotten used to trying to get around with just a handful of basic Russian words – including my go-to: ya ne govoryu po-russki, “I don’t speak Russian.” Then I had to start all over again in Germany with ich spreche nur ein bisschen Deutsch, “I only speak a little German” (I had to give myself some credit for the hours I’d spent on Duolingo and German vocab websites over the summer). Lesson two: do whatever you can to learn and practice.
I’d chosen to live with a host family, but could hardly put together a sentence in German when I met my host mother. If I had to revert to English, she could usually understand what I was trying to say, but didn’t speak much English herself. But with a stroke of serendipity, we shared common ground: Spanish! As it turned out, she was originally from Mexico and had grown up there before moving to Berlin. I was able to practice my Spanish at home while learning German in class – I thought that was just the coolest thing, that I could work on two languages at once.
Until, that is, I started to actually learn German. To learn as much as I could while living in Berlin, I’d chosen to take intensive German. That meant three hours of German four days a week. In the mornings, I was learning and speaking German; in the evenings, I conversed over dinner in Spanish. Linguistically, my brain was jumbled. I would sprinkle Spanish words in German sentences and vice versa, mix up grammatical structures, and struggle to recall simple vocabulary words. Thankfully, my host mother could keep up because she’d been through the same struggle when she was learning German. She always listened patiently and helped me out, and sometimes, she’d mix up her languages too. We’d laugh at our absurd combinations of German adjectives and Spanish nouns and giggle at my silly vocabulary mistakes. Lesson number three: a lighthearted approach to language makes it so much more enjoyable. It’s easy to be too hard on yourself and get frustrated.
My study abroad experience was unique in that I practiced two languages while in Berlin, and then went home for breaks to my family in a country whose language I also could not speak. The year I spent overseas was challenging as I was constantly exercising a part of my brain that wasn’t used to that much of a workout. I’m still nowhere near fluent in Spanish or German (and certainly not Russian), but the biggest takeaway for me is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And that brings me to lesson number four: set realistic goals and strive to meet them. My goal is to be a lifelong language learner, and this past year was only the beginning.
Melanie Malsch is a junior double-majoring in International & Area Studies and Environmental Studies with a minor in German. She studied abroad in Berlin, Germany for the 2017-2018 academic year.