Why yes, this is a language rant, partly fueled by the fact that I’m getting ever so slightly tired of people commenting “Oh, but your English is pretty good!” after learning that I’m originally from Germany. Yes, I have a slight accent. I’m from Germany. I immigrated to the U.S. five years ago now for reasons I usually greatly simplify for the benefit of the general public. But hey, what else is new?
Seriously though, bilingualism is one of the coolest things ever. And yes, I’m saying this as a self-professed language nerd, but I’m sure all of my multilingual friends will agree with this. It also takes lots of work. Personally, I’ve started to learn English in fifth grade, at the age of ten. That’s now fifteen years ago, which honestly feels like forever because, hey, to me, it kind of is.
Anyway, whenever people ask me about how my English got to be as good as it is now, there is usually more than one answer because, face it, there’s no speedway to language proficiency. For me, it’s probably been a combination of starting early (though I know in Germany at least they now start kids on English as early as Kindergarten, so those kids have years on me), great teachers (sure, I also had some not-so-great teachers, but the great ones I had were seriously outstanding, the ones who got me to read the literature, to act in plays, to participate in foreign exchanges…) and books!
Yes, lots and lots of books. I still remember that day when we had just finished reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and eighth-grade me decided that yes, she was going to start reading English books now! As in whole book books, never mind learner’s editions. This just so happened to be right after the UK release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which turned out to be the first ever English book I tackled that wasn’t assigned to me by a teacher. I think it took me a good dictionary and about three months to make it through the whole thing, given how I’d never heard of words like “marauder” or “Padfoot” and what the hell did “snitch” even mean? But in the end context was my friend and I started reading any English book my local bookstore would order for me. The cool thing about this was that I learned a lot based on context, which meant that most of the time I would know how and when to use a word and what it meant, even if I wasn’t entirely sure about its exact meaning in German. Also, learning a lot by reading meant that I’d inevitably completely butcher some of the written words I learned when actually trying to pronounce them, but hey, that’s okay, because I eventually got corrected and got the hang of it, and thanks to Ms. Cadigan, finally got over my crippling fear of speaking English with an actual native speaker. Thanks, Ms. Cadigan.
Another milestone for me was discovering the endless possibilities of making international friends on the internet, which proved especially insightful since at this point I was still learning a lot about conventions of speech, colloquialisms, etc. and it was really cool to actually “use” what I had learned from reading and in school by talking, or at least writing, to other English speakers.
Actually speaking and getting more and more immersed in the language was probably the third step for me as I finally was able to afford traveling and even started working for the international division of my local branch of child and family services. Together we would organize and host international exchanges and other events that would get teens from different countries together, often to do something cool and creative like art and music in Hungary. I also got to visit some of the coolest people I’ve ever met online — something that eventually got me to move the U.S., which got me the epitome of immersion and by now I’ve had five years here to work, study and make friends — and also write.
And here it’s more than obvious, I think that what really makes you proficient in a language to the point that some people might not even notice that you’re not a native speakers when you talk to them and people read your work just like they would a writer who writes in their native language, is to get fully and completely immersed in it. Since I’ve moved to the U.S., my learning curve took a serious upturn as I learned all those little bits and nuances that you just don’t get from studying language in theory. Personally, I love to engage in some people-watching, but it’s even more interesting to listen to people and to interact with them in order to really get a hang of different accents, slang, humor, all that makes for what linguists like to call near-native proficiency.
By now I write in a way that I couldn’t even begin to translate into German, because my stuff isn’t German, it’s English. It has tons of slang, cursing and colloquialisms that by now feel second nature to me, because that’s what it is. I still get a bit peeved when people imply that I’m somehow second-rate, because I’m not a native speaker, but that’s mostly my own insecurities talking. It’s those insecurities that make me wonder if my writing will ever be good enough, if it wouldn’t be so much better if I had always known English, you know, like a native speaker does. But for the most part I’m keeping a tight lid on those insecurities. Yes, German is my native language and I’ve studied Latin for eight years, French and Spanish for three, Italian and Ancient Greek for one and a half, back when I still wanted to be a Latin teacher.
But in the end English somehow managed to become the primary language I speak, the language I think and dream in. It’s come with a lot of work and some personal screw-ups, but I still think it’s one of the coolest and fun things I’ve ever done and I hope to pass my language nerdiness on to some unsuspecting students once I’m done with that pesky little degree I’ll be finishing next year.