If you have ever confessed to studying a foreign language, I bet that you also must have lost count of the times you have heard something along the lines of ‘Nice! But why are you doing this?’ To which you probably have some well-rehearsed response up your sleeve. But let’s face it: does anything you answer match the complexity of the relationship you have been developing with that language? At some point, as you dive deep enough past the compulsory school requirements, it stops being an academic chore — like it or not, you have consciously made some language a part of your life.
When such time comes, the one-word or one-sentence explanation no longer works. They might seem adequate at first, but there are probably several more reasons lingering in the back of your head. Perhaps those are not the initial whys that made you take up the language; however, there is no denying the role they play in your continued interest in learning.
Through the several languages I have learned, I realized that acquiring a new tongue is similar to weaving a spider web. You start with a single thread that attracts you to the language, then as you move up, you discover something else about it that spikes your curiosity. Ideally, the trend continues.
Although my spider-web analogy might seem abstract, thanks to it, I could retrace the different threads that pulled me towards learning specific languages. The answers to my present-day whys sometimes lay scattered across the years; some of the reasons might have been more pragmatic than others, but in the end, they were all compelling enough to hold me tight to the language web I was unawarely weaving.
I am going to begin with a language which I have been learning for more than fourteen years now. We began studying German in school in Poland at the beginning of elementary school, alongside English. German became my forced companion. Sometimes I wonder if I’d have approached it on my own, but back then, I didn’t think much of it — it was just the way the education system worked. I had no substantial understanding of what I could use German for, especially since the aura surrounding German classes in school was that of neglect. Everyone knew that they had to take these classes, but the teachers never expected the students to learn much. It was a secondary language after all — the students were to focus on English, the language that, supposedly, mattered the most.
Nonetheless, I did what the students normally do not — I aimed to improve my German , rather than sail through it with the same five sentences. Yet, I still had no real compelling reason to do it. I must have just believed that if the school put it on my timetable, then German and I had to at least become acquainted. But I was suspicious about jumping into a friendship.
German and I were great colleagues throughout the years. Our relationship was admirably professional: it stayed within the boundaries of the classroom. I set a healthy boundary; German would not intrude on my linguistic territory in the outside world. I had English for that. But soon, I began to overstep the line. I realized that German helped me beyond just guaranteeing a stellar grade on the transcript. Unlike English, it was awfully logical. The conjugations, the word building, the declinations… Everything had its place. You could combine certain words or fragments to create something with fresh meaning. It resembled a puzzle. Even if I came across some word for the first time, I had a fair chance of guessing what it meant through a logical dissection of roots and patterns. The pronunciation was also easy to grasp: the rules were easy to follow, which is often not the case for English.
German was the one to make me realize that languages are best approached as a complex problem that you need to break down into smaller tasks — acquiring vocabulary, absorbing a new set of rules, and practicing.
The fear of losing what I put years of studying into, made me persist with German beyond the classroom. I began to think about whether there was any more meaningful connection I could develop, or if I was holding onto it desperately and out of habit. Could I be interested in traveling around German-speaking countries? Sure, but I was not crazy about it. Would I fall in love with German cuisine one day? Respectfully, I doubted that too. Perhaps I could become a fan of a German opera? Too bad I was more of a literature nerd than a music one. Then it struck me: despite speaking German quite well, I never gave German literature a go — that is, not in translation. That is how I ended up enrolling in What is German Literature? in my freshman year. I truly needed an answer. All I had ever known about Germany was purely through history classes and I only ever had a Polish perspective available to me. I had no idea what the culture, philosophy, or relationships to certain historical events was like in Germany throughout history. I only had raw historical facts at my disposal. It was time I placed them in a more multidimensional context.
The literature I was reading opened up my mind. I felt like I had access to a whole new world that was shut before my eyes. I found joy in deciphering the more complicated sentences, mixed with a sense of pride after finishing a whole page of a novel without having to look up a single word. I no longer felt tension when reading or listening to the news in German. I let the language grow on me, using it as a new medium through which I can understand the world. As my plans for the future keep solidifying, I continue weaving more threads that tie me to German. If I ever wish to focus on European history or work in European affairs, German will remain my forever companion.
Dear German, I know it might not have been love at first sight, but thank you. I am sure there are more doors you can one day open for me.