I used to be fluent in German. At one point I remember having a conversation with someone in Germany who asked me, “Where did you grow up? I can’t place your accent.”
Language is organic. If you don’t use it, you lose it. I have found this also applies to your native tongue.
In the case of German, I first learned the language in grade 10. When I started university I took a double credit intensive introduction to German. My first year plan was to get good grades and work on my portfolio for Carlton University School of Architecture. When I found out that I wasn’t accepted I decided to continue get a bachelors degree in German. I would then apply to a school in Vancouver for architecture that required an undergraduate bachelors degree.
Part way through my second year I fell in love with the German language, the structure, the sound, the literature, and how it made me think.
I was awarded two summer language school scholarships in Germany (after my second and third years). The opportunity to speak and hear the language every day, including cultural immersion, increased my fluency exponentially.
After finishing the first year of my masters program, I was awarded a ten-month scholarship to work on my Master’s thesis at the University of Siegen, Germany.
It was about three months into my stay when I woke up one morning and realized I had experienced my first dreams in German. I was thrilled. Dreams! In German! Echt toll! It was something I had only heard of, but it made me aware that I had crossed a language barrier. That I had bridged the gap between translating from English into German to fluid thinking and speaking in German. That level of fluency creates a completely different level of communication ability.
Still, one of the greatest struggles of foreign language is to understand idioms. As well as I could speak and understand, grasping the meaning of idiomatic expressions and jokes were sometimes beyond me.
The converse was hilarious to my German friends. What I mean is that I would make jokes, or say things in a particular way that would make a German stop dead in their tracks. One of my friends from the student residence where I lived, Thorsten, told me, “What you have said is perfectly grammatical in German. But no German would ever say it that way and that’s why it’s hilarious.”
When I returned home to Ottawa I encountered something unexpected. Every time I got together with people I hadn’t seen since being away I would tell them stories of my trip. Except I would be tongue-tied. I had trouble telling the story because my experiences happened inside of a German linguistic thought process. I had to translate my memories from German into English!
Once I withdrew from the Masters program I had no contact with other German speakers. In part because of the emotional state I was in at the time, I didn’t make the effort. It goes to show how language is organic and if you don’t use it, it withers and fades away. I regret that loss.
The Flex Your Mind Project
Mark Whitehand invited me to play and take part in “The 30 Things About Me Experiment.”