Language was something I never really thought was that important. I grew up in Australia where my mother tongue is the universal language – English. In school another language, in my case French, was not taught until fourth grade and compulsory only until ninth grade. At which point I decided it was too difficult and I would never need to use another language anyway. I thought the same about chemistry and physics. I was only right about the last two.
Now, as an expat living in Berlin, I have discovered that language is undeniably important and not just as a tool for speaking. I moved to Berlin without knowing how to speak German – not one word. I had planned in the months before I came to do a course, but that never happened. Too lazy. I suppose I thought I would figure it out when I got here; and I did. However, I would not recommend this approach. Although, I tried hard to learn quickly and did some classes, learning a new language as an adult is difficult. And the locals (mostly the older ones) are not always so encouraging. I could have easily not bothered and lived in Berlin without having to speak a word of German or at least just the bare essentials. Many people do it. But this did not feel right for me. I would miss so much of the culture by not knowing how to interact properly. I wouldn’t get the jokes or the subtleties in which different people use different phrases. Basically, I would never really be able to assimilate without really knowing the language. So I persevered, although at times it was humiliating and other times I was made to feel very unwelcome.
I’ll just add here, that I have been living in Berlin for about five years and still have not learned the language properly. My understanding is very good however, writing and speaking are still a little tricky. As I mentioned before, it is very possible to live in Berlin and not speak German. My friends all automatically speak English with me, as they know it will be a much more efficient conversation that way. My husband is half German, half American, so English is also his mother tongue, therefore, at home we speak English. There are cafes here where, to order a coffee, even German natives have to speak English. So my journey to speaking fluent German is very different than if I would have lived in another city or small town in Germany. Basically, Berlin makes it easy to not learn the language.
However, in saying that, learning a language is not just about being able to speak to people. Language is the entry point to understanding a culture. How people use the language in different situations. How the language is shaped and changed depending on who is speaking it and to whom they are speaking. How dialects change depending on where you are or how old you are. I had never given much thought to any of this before I had to start communicating in another language. When I first arrived in Germany the simple task of going to the supermarket meant I had to try to read and then try to translate what I was buying (thank you google translate) and god help me if the cashier was trying to be friendly and make conversation. All I could do was smile and nod (and hope for the best). It was very overwhelming at times, trying to remember the formal and informal forms of the language (since that does not exist in English) and in what tense I needed to construct my sentence. Fortunately, after many practice runs at the supermarket, it is again a simple task in my second language. But everyday still there is a moment when I feel completely lost for words – and sometimes that is also in my mother tongue. You see, learning another language as an adult happens in a different part of the brain than when first learn to speak. Therefore, as a learn German, sometimes I push out my English to fit it in.
Now language is becoming even more important to me, as my son, who will soon be two years old and already talking an incredible amount, develops his own understanding of language. And while he learns to speak two languages at the same time, I become the teacher of one. Not only will the words I choose for my son become the tools he uses to navigate the world around him: the context, the tone and the interactions that surround these words as they are being taught will become his connection to his language. Therefore, I have to be considerate, conscious and totally open minded to be able to explain the world to him in a manner that helps him become a person who is considerate, conscious and open minded.
He watches me use language (verbal and non verbal) everyday, whether I am talking with him, his father or someone in the street, and then uses these interactions to develop how he will use that same language in his own interactions. If I show someone disdain he may be skeptical of that person should we meet again. Or if I am familiar with some he will assume he can trust them. I need to be careful in both situations. And most importantly if I am honest in all my communications with him, he will learn he can be honest in all his communications with me.
So now I use my language on a much more conscious level than ever before. Whether I am speaking my mother tongue, practicing my second language or teaching my son everything I know about communication, I know that the language I choose and how I choose to use it reaches far beyond a single word or interaction. My language is also how I project myself. When I speak English with someone who is not a native speaker I articulate so they really understand me and I am patient if they can not find the right words. When I speak in German I try to with confidence and everyday I surprise myself with what I can say – with the correct grammar. I can maintain full conversations, albeit slow ones, because other are also patient with me. And, most importantly, when I speak with my son I do it with respect and remember that what I teach now is the foundation of his language for the rest of his life.