You figure it’s going to be linear, like any other difficult task you’ve attacked and conquered in your life. You’ll focus, you’ll practice a lot, you’ll memorize things, you’ll immerse yourself, then it will just happen. But really mastering your first foreign language seems to unfold (or or certain days stay folded up tight) unlike any other life goal or achievement.
And for those visual learners, here is a drawing I did last week of a 10 or 15 minute portion of our class on that particular day. Please note that we lose the strand altogether somewhere in the middle and end up in almost the same spot as where we started. So, linear? No.
In the last few days, I’ve run into a wall (the second one). I hit the first wall earlier in the Fall. When it happened, I thought, “This is it, I can’t move any further. I can’t learn it. Either I’m dumb or its too hard or both.” But after a few days or a week of half-heartedly “giving it my all” at school, very slowly, a drop of understanding trickled down, a little bit of knowledge unfolded. It was just a little, but it was enough for me to gather some hope and then scale the wall. Then, I found myself encouraged when I watched my classmates, one by one, hit the same wall and scale it too. (Well, … most of them. Some of the students from the beginning are not in the class anymore.)
Our school schedule is Monday through Friday from 8:30-12:40. We spend four hours everyday in a little room in Bamberg being introduced to the concepts of properly speaking German. At this point, we have already passed level A1 and yesterday was our test for A2 (click here for an explanation of the language learning levels across Europe). We lost one more member of our class yesterday right before the test, “Too hard,” he said, “I’m not ready.” Maybe he wasn’t ready, but I wondered if the teacher could have prevented that.
We did not get the specific results of our tests yet, but we went over all the questions and answers. This was the all too disappointing moment when you think you did alright and you realize you didn’t do as well as you thought.
So here we are again. Another wall. This must be the wall of grammatical structure. The wall preventing me from understanding how and when to use the words (assuming I remember them) and in what order. This wall can break you when you read one word incorrectly and misunderstand a whole paragraph. How do people pass this point and come to understand what they are supposed to be saying?
Some people in the class complain that they hate the language, that they just want to stop learning it. They believe that it’s too hard or that they just don’t get it. But I don’t blame the language. The language is interesting and fun just like any other language. It has its’ rules and exceptions, its’ clever quirks and non-sensical sounds. A lot of the difficulty in really grasping it, just like grasping any other challenging subject, comes from being taught by a teacher who struggles to be effective.
I have never taught a foreign language. I don’t know the protocol for doing so or the criteria required to do this kind of teaching. But I do know this: If I taught ballet the way these people teach German, I would have kids running around in circles and tying me up with their therabands when they should be doing plies and tendus.
This class has made me realize that the ability to explain things clearly, to see the light turn on in almost all the student’s minds is a talent and a craft. It’s a skill that must be learned and honed. Visualizing difficulties before the students encounter them is paramount. A teacher needs to be better than the book, better than a video on youtube, I realized, otherwise there is no use for them. But the most important thing I realized is this:
the real wall I’m dealing with is my preoccupation with the bad teaching.
This preoccupation has become a distraction from the goal. The teaching is not great but my focus on what is lacking is the real problem. This is the next wall to scale. Tomorrow we begin the final homestretch. It’s just me and the German language, and those other classmates who are still running the race. Bad teaching or not, we will finish this race together. Ready or not, tomorrow we start B1. This is the final leg of our six month integration course. Becoming bilingual is the goal and we need to complete B1 to do it.