Learning a language is never easy. I know, what a groundbreaking and earth-shattering statement you have probably never heard before. Nevertheless, it’s true. As someone who has been in and out of German classes throughout high school and college, I still tend to accidentally switch up similar-sounding words, completely butcher the pronunciation of words I have read fifteen times over, or internally moan in agony when I read a 20-letter long, obscure word that seems to span across the entire page. German is a challenge, and even the Germans themselves agree.
Whether it was the woman at the cash register who gave my friend and me a questioning look when we told her that German was our favorite subject in school or new friends who were shocked that we would take on the challenge to learn such a language, it was obvious that even native speakers found their own tongue a bit difficult. Even in the United States, most people perceive the language as harsh, aggressive, and confusing.
But at the end of the day, German, like any language, simply requires time, effort, practice, and patience. The language learning process is truly a rollercoaster of emotions. One minute you are happy that you were able to order a glass of water and some pasta at a restaurant and the next minute you feel devastated because you had to ask the cash register to repeat himself three times before he switched to English because you had no idea what the word for “receipt” meant (true story). Despite the self-doubt and insecurity that comes with undertaking a new language, sticking with the language and pushing through mistakes are the best thing you can do for yourself.
My skills were truly put to the test during the online Einstufungstest, or placement exam, a few weeks ago. I spent the night before with my head buried in a grammar book attempting to write, correct, and memorize as many words and phrases as possible before the test. But when the day finally arrived, the exam was actually quite manageable, and I was proud to say that I reached my expected level when the results came out.
Since then, I have spent my last two weeks at the University of Hamburg’s Language Center participating in a pre-semester intensive German course for five hours every day. Such classes are probably not everyone’s idea of fun, but the course has tremendously improved my ability to feel more comfortable when speaking German and has proved as a reminder that other exchange and international students undergo similar struggles as myself.
The class centers on improving the four essential skills for mastering a language: speaking, writing, listening and reading and requires two take-home essays as well. My expectations were that the course would be led by a strict professor who was just going to drill constant vocabulary words into our heads and wear the class out by the end of the day. But in reality, the professor, as well as the other students, are all supportive and encouraging of one another.
With classes starting in just another week, I can see that my German has improved even after just a few weeks of my arrival in the country. Participating in pre-intensive German courses required lots of attention and hard work, but has proved to pay off in the end. Nevertheless, I still try to take time out of my day to either watch a show with German audio, read a translated book, or listen to a German podcast before ending my day. I would be lying if I said that I was not at all nervous to take my upcoming sociology and political science classes completely in German. But what would be an exchange year without stepping out of your comfort zone?
Fluency in German, or any language, takes time, but I look forward to seeing how my German language skills gradually grow during my year in Hamburg.