Learning a second language as an adult

Here I am still in Germany, forever trying to bridge the language barrier between the family I married into and me. The task falls on me because, mostly, they comprehend and speak English.

As for my German?

Let’s just say, I am still learning.

Learning a second language as an adult = Easier said than done.

Through the years, I have picked up many vocabulary words and can understand and speak several common phrases — at least enough to keep me somewhat in the loop during conversations.

This year, I am making more strides due to several advantages:

1. This is my 8th trip to Germany – high-time for more of the confusion to start to click, even as an adult learner.

2. I was here for 12 days without being spoiled by my husband, who I constantly look for to translate when I get stuck.

3. My mother-in-law is speaking mostly German to me – super confusing sometimes, yet super helpful in the long run. Didn’t someone say immersion is the answer to learning a new language?

4. I don’t have my go-to excuse of “baby brain” that I have used for the past five years. The kids, while still consuming and dependent, don’t occupy my every thought and deprive me of sleep. Alas – I have some free mind space!

5. I have been driving a lot this year. Nothing will force you to learn roads signs faster than sitting behind the wheel.

6. I have made a few solo trips to the grocery store. Nothing will force you to learn faster than reading food labels in order to buy the proper cut of meat.

7. I have the desire to learn more. I long for the day when I can express a complete thought and make productive contributions to conversations. Not to mention, navigate my way through a major city someday without looking like a complete fool and over-compensating with nonverbal communication.

8. I have been helping with household duties more than ever before. Nothing will make you learn faster than wanting to make sure you start the washer correctly or use the right cleaning product.

With all of these, what I consider, advantages I know I am making progress, but it is very difficult at times. Listening requires 110% of my concentration, which isn’t always possible for me to give.

During conversations, I find myself watching people’s mouths and lips as they speak, much like a baby who is learning to talk. I find myself using translating tools – mostly a hard-copy dictionary – to help me learn new words. It’s much easier for me to remember words that I look up myself and can see the spelling, with all those consonants and umlauts, than for someone to just tell me.

Did you know, on a washing machine, that einweichen means “soak?”

imageAs for my four-year-old?

He is talking circles around me.

It’s quite humbling when he has to translate something for me. Like when we were in the grocery store and he had to clear up a misunderstanding between the cashier and me.

Weird (and kind of cool) that I turned to him for help. AND – that he came through.

I know children teach their parents lessons while parents are busy teaching them, but his fluency in German to my gaping holes in German has made for an interesting development in our relationship.

There’s no other way to put it: He knows more than me.

You would think I would be able to learn alongside him, but his brain is far more malleable than mine. Almost 31 years older than his, the cognitive/language part of my brain is already developed in English. My brain doesn’t know what to do with a new language, while his sorts and thinks with ease in two languages.

I am glad for him. How lucky is he? Bilingual at four. Just like that. And soon my daughter will be, too. And eventually me, I hope. I am already planing to enroll in a course when the kids are in school and I have even more mind space. (What will that be like?)

Until then, I’ll keep carrying my pocket translator in my purse and looking to the big dictionary on the shelf here in the house. I’ll keep driving, shopping, watching mouths, listening, turning to my kids, and trying my best.

Over time increased understanding will one day – one day – be the “click” loud enough to bridge the gap. Even if it takes me another eight trips to Germany.

Maybe then I can start comprehending the Metric System in Europe without using Google.

If you have ever learned a second language as an adult, or are in the process, what are your tips? Any other insights?

About britta326

blogger, picture-taker, diaper-changer, runner

11 thoughts on “Learning a second language as an adult

  1. Sounds like you’ve already hit quite a good level and the trouble with learning a language is no matter how good you get, you can always be better. But if my French is anything to go by, immersion is definitely the way to go. I used to watch a lot of TV when I was in France and that helped a lot. I tended to watch things like game shows that I’d never watch in English, because they were easy to follow.

      • I certainly ‘got good’ as an adult, though I did have a secondary education covering the basics. I was definitely in my mid-twenties when I felt I could actually communicate well. Cartoons are definitely a good way to go!

  2. Ooh it sounds like you are doing wonderfully. My German will get me a beer a bed and the bill but I love languages, with a passion of someone who was never good at them at school, (I got a U in O-level French which I think means I even got my name wrong). At college I spent a summer working in France and found that actually with immersion and patience I could communicate.
    My top tip is alcohol, (or social situations I guess) not enough to stop you being able to remember vocab, but when I relax over a glass or two of red wine, my French improves beyond all measure.
    My current project is Ojibwe, which is the language of my husband’s tribe. Obviously in America it is an intellectual exercise, but he is exploring his roots and it is one area I can join in. At the moment I listen to Audible on the bus to work, but next year I’m hoping to do the immersion course at the annual Pow Wow.
    Exciting stuff, I look forward to hearing more about it 🙂

  3. I learned in a linguistics class that before the age of 8, children have the ability to learn new languages and gain native fluency and pronunciation. After that, they can still be relatively fluent but having that “native accent” will be nearly impossible. And then the learning curve just gets harder as we age. Cultural immersion is always a fast-track solution to learning a new language but I’ve found that entertainment helps too! Music, tv, movies, etc. are very helpful and if anything, it helps with your listening comprehension so even if you can’t speak properly, you can still understand things. 🙂

  4. I’m with James, I learned a lot of French by watching TV, particularly news programs, although I didn’t have kids around so it was easier for me to choose what shows I watched. Anything with pictures to help you understand! I studied French in high school and college, but hearing and speaking it in it’s native country was an entirely different situation!

  5. Words accompanied by pictures is helpful. For example, advertisements and signs that had both helped me make some connections. It’ll be a lifelong process as I continue learning, but I am hopeful that native speakers will be understanding and talk slowly when needed.

  6. The course you mentioned is a good idea, I took German I and German II. I also watched German soap operas Gute Zeiten Schlechte Zeiten and Alles Was Zählt with my wife. They tend to be less complicated. The best thing we did is after I reached a sufficient level of proficiency we conversed strictly in German. That was rough in the beginning, and there were PLENTY of misunderstandings, but you have the best immersion tool next to you everyday. Of course it was just the two of us then. I don’t know how it would work for you with the kids, but maybe after they go to bed. Keep it up, you’ll get there.

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