It’s been a long time since I’ve really written, but today I feel
like sharing in this medium again. If you haven’t seen it yet, I started a podcast at the end of February (you can find all the episodes wherever you enjoy listening to podcasts, or just click on “Podcast” right there at the top right corner of this page). I really enjoy talking about language learning and my journey as an adult language learner, and I’ve discovered that I prefer talking my thoughts out instead of writing. But, I haven’t gone completely away from writing. Every now and then my time and desire will link up, and I will arrive back here to release the flow of thoughts.
Back in October (heavens, 7 months already), I published a post about my top 3 language fears when moving from Italy to Germany last summer. After the arduous process of finding a home, unpacking, getting the kids registered for school, and just generally getting settled in, I want to look back at those three fears and compare them to the reality of what’s happened since we moved over 10 months ago.
Fear 1: Losing my Italian
My first language fear was losing my Italian. Leaving the country and losing the daily immersive access to the language, it’s only natural to be concerned about losing what I’ve gained in Italian. Additionally, I had only just gotten a foothold in the CEFR B1 area of Italian when we had to move, and I wondered if that was strong enough to keep a steady hold.
So what’s happened so far?
I’ve been thrilled to discover that there are many opportunities for speaking Italian the area where we now live. I’ve encountered numerous opportunities when ordering food, having my bike repaired, and even when asking for help at a local clothing store. I hear Italian spoken around me often, so the change isn’t as dramatic as I’d feared. In addition, my daughter misses the country so much that she often prefers to speak with me in Italian, and I read an Italian book to her almost every night. I continue to surround myself with Italian input via reading, Instagram, podcasts, and music. My level of understanding the written and spoken language is reaching a new comfort I didn’t have when living in-country.
Italian output, however…now that’s a different story. I restarted Italian lessons on iTalki about four months after our move. I went in confident, excited, and ready, but I quickly found myself floundering for words. I had told my conversation tutor that I was at about a B1 (intermediate), but during the lesson I felt very A2 (beginner) again, taking a lot of time to think through sentences and find the right verb tenses. I couldn’t remember several basic words off the top of my head because the German word would come to mind instead. I left that session feeling very frustrated with the sense of losing my Italian.
Fearing the loss or degradation of Italian, however, really just means that I didn’t feel ownership over my language life. Though immersion didn’t make me fluent, deep down I still felt as if immersion controlled my language acquisition. I realized after that initial iTalki lesson that I hadn’t been producing much Italian as we got settled into our new lives in Germany, and of course that’s why I was tripping over my tongue and searching for words that came jumping at me in German.
What’s really great, though, is that I already have a solution to this problem. Speak more. Easier said than done, of course, because as a perfectionist, I tend to shy away from activities that reveal my inexperience or weaknesses. But I’ve kept those iTalki conversation lessons (seriously, y’all, my tutor is awesome), continued speaking to my daughter in Italian, joined speaking groups at online language conferences, and even returned to Italy to visit native speaking friends.
I asked my tutor yesterday where he would put my level of spoken Italian, and surprisingly, he said B1+, so on the high end of low-intermediate. He went further to explain my strengths and what I have to continue working on, and he also gave me some insightful feedback regarding the distance between B1 and B2. His very educated and experienced assessment is just one of several pieces of evidence that I’m not at risk of losing my Italian, and in fact, I’m continuing to improve because I control my language acquisition. I schedule and complete conversation lessons. I study specific things that are still unclear to me. I listen to music and podcasts in the language. I seek out speaking opportunities. Immersion doesn’t do that. I do that.
Fear 2: Getting to Germany and not understanding anything
We’ve been in Germany for 10 months now, and I still remember the first few days, weeks, and months of being here. I jumped right in ordering food in German, asking questions in stores, chit chatting with our new neighbors. What I found was that I understood quite a lot, so not understanding anything has simply not been an issue. In fact, most of what I understood in the beginning was less from knowing and more from connections to English or context clues.
Something else I’ve learned about myself is that I’ve become better at anticipating what someone will say. It doesn’t work all the time in every situation, of course, but this is something I learned to do in Italy without even noticing I was doing it. Relying on my intuition in addition to what I know in a conversation has helped in the realm of understanding.
Another thing I didn’t anticipate is that many people around us who don’t speak English but know we’re new to Germany and the language stick to Hochdeutsch (standard German) instead of dialect, and they also speak slowly and clearly enough for me to generally understand. While this is something that I don’t expect of people, I certainly appreciate it, and it makes me want to work harder to communicate in their language.
Fear 3: My Italian isn’t good enough to help my kids maintain theirs, and my German is so basic that I can’t help them there, either.
My third fear moving away from Italy and beginning a whole new language was that I wouldn’t be able to help my kids with their language needs and desires in a meaningful way. This one is harder to talk about because, in a way, reality isn’t too far from the fear. My Italian isn’t good enough to maintain my kids’ (in fact, my 5-year-old son has lost most of his spoken Italian as he’s picked up German), and my German is still so basic that I can’t help them a lot there, either.
At the same time that these things are true, I no longer have the fear or overwhelm that once came of it. So what’s going on?
The truth of the matter is, I finally realized (and accepted) that I’m not responsible for teaching my kids languages other than our mother tongue. I am responsible for guiding them and easing the struggle. When my daughter doesn’t understand something in her homework, it isn’t my place to explain every word and grammar point. It’s my place to show her how to work through what she does know to arrive at conclusions about what she doesn’t. It’s my place to show her how to use the tools she has access to in order to engage in the language in a more meaningful way. And if she wants me to explain vocab or grammar, then I’m prepared to do so, but I can’t force it on her because she shuts down. That’s important, too – adjusting my teaching and support techniques to match each child’s learning style.
The biggest takeaway, though, is that I can use the Italian and German I do know at home and build upon our daily use of the languages without feeling like I’m solely responsible for their language journeys. I can structure fun activities, read to them, and encourage TV in either language. So my language levels may not be strong enough to help them in the same way native speaker parents can, but that doesn’t mean I’m useless.
My son’s Kindergarten teacher told me that speaking our native language at home is more beneficial to my son than trying to speak German. Why? Because I’m his comfort. I’m his stability. I’m his safe space. He’s pushed out of his comfort zone every day at Kindergarten, where he hears German for 6 hours or more. Providing a safe place for him at home to communicate in his comfortable language helps support him emotionally and psychologically, and that’s something that only my husband and I can provide for him. It’s important and immeasurably valuable to his language and overall development.
I think we all have language-related fears or doubts at some point throughout our language journeys. I was thrust into a life change that was out of my control, and while I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to remain in Europe and pick up another language, situations like this can magnify the fears. Really it all comes down to how much we feel in control. Moving away from Italy was out of my control, and I had a lot of fears about it. But realizing that my language journey, improving my understanding of German, and supporting my kids in the best way for them are all in my control, helped ease the fears. Also being aware of our fears or doubts is step one to overcoming them because we’re better postured to find ways to move through them.
Do you have fears about your language learning? About multi-lingual parenting? About moving to a new country with a new-to-you language? Share your experiences. I would love to listen.