As Christopher Dawson once said, “The greatest obstacle to international understanding is the barrier of language.”
Today marks the first week I’ve been living and studying in Austria. It may have only been seven days, but it feels like forever since I left home. From seeing skyscrapers every day to mountain views (“Bergen” auf Deutsch) and from Oak Street Beach to Wolfgangsee – es ist sehr anders (it’s so different). Different can be good, but it can also be difficult. One thing that is definitely a barrier is language.
The people I have met so far have been super kind and patient with my lack of fluency in German. Even though a solid 70% of my conversations end up auf English, many of my school peers help me out when we are speaking their native language. Here, I have gotten the question, “Should I speak to you in German, or should I speak to you in English?”
I always hesitate. On one hand, I want to say English so I can actually understand what’s going on; but on the other hand, I want to say German so I can get used to the language. I end up compromising and just replying with, “You can speak Denglish (Deutsch-English) to me.”
This first week I’ve spent a lot of my time observing, meeting new people, sitting in on conversations and just listening. I can’t lie. There has been times where I have felt isolated and helpless because of this. It’s hard to take part in a conversation when you don’t understand completely (or at all) what is being said.
My host family has been more than helpful when teaching me about their language every day. Meine Gastmutter (my host mother) even sits down a couple days a week for an hour at a time to read children books with me.
Helpful Tips for Conquering a Language Barrier
What I find helpful is carrying a small notebook to school and writing down unfamiliar words, then I can show them to my host family later to help me translate. Letting people correct your mistakes is also super helpful. It may be embarrassing at first, but believe me, it’s more benefiting for someone to correct you than for them to not say anything. Another thing is to speak what you know as much as you can (even if it’s wrong). This is important so you can at least get what you want to say out in the open. You may get a couple of confusing looks, but they know that you are making an effort to immerse yourself in their culture.
It’s kind of a win-win situation once I think about it. I get to help someone out with their English while they help me out with my German. Language is never an easy thing to learn, but it’s so important that we do so we can understand someone else’s way of living. Yes, it feels hard and you may want to give up or cry when you don’t understand or get something right, but it’s critical that you don’t. Remind yourself why you are where you are – it’s to learn. You have to keep putting yourself out there and making mistakes and striving to learn more. I promise you, it will help you in the long-run when you can finally take part in a conversation.
As they say in Austria, Tschüß!