one million words

find your voice. tell your story.

XXVI: On learning English

Having taken four years of English class in grades 7-10 allows me to understand about 75% of what’s happening when I arrive in the U.S. Although on occasion I will hardly understand anything. No worries, someone informs me, this person is from the South. Americans are very friendly yet most tire quickly when conversing with a foreigner. I quickly catch on to the stereotypical small talk, get used to explaining my name and origins. I listen to stories of German ancestry, aunt Ethel’s amazing cruise down the Rhine and cousin Eddy once stationed near Frankfurt. Had I perhaps run into any of them before?

It’s work to have a deeper conversation with me and the potential for misunderstanding is high. Sometimes people talk louder, as if unknown words suddenly gain meaning at higher volume. Others use helpful gestures. Sometimes people talk more simply than they need to but I feel silly offering feedback in my awkward English. The young men are more patient and persistent, I appreciate their efforts.

I need to learn the art of casual conversation, the stuff we never learned in school through formal dialogue. My dictionary lacks words like cram or bonkers or even hang out. It does not tell me that a buck is a dollar and that guys may include girls too. I am surprised how casually people use the word love, from loving ice cream and Paris and saying I love you to me when we’ve just met and hardly know each other.

Language is culture and I am learning the words along with the rules. When people ask: How are you? they’re not looking for a long narrative recounting your last week. A simple “fine” suffices in most cases. People say: Happy Birthday in passing, like a greeting of sorts, not stopping and offering a long list of wishes like I am used to hearing back home.

Full immersion is a wonderful way to knock a little perfectionism out of your soul. You’ll learn to offer up what you got or you’ll forever be stuck on mute, a silent observer. Turns out imperfect and slightly awkward English is good enough to make friends. Except no one gets my jokes for a long time. Nearly no one, to be fair.

Fortunately I quickly gain skills useful in short, daily conversation. I copy the way people talk, steal their words, sentences and grammar. We sing a lot at school, mostly hymns, many of which I know in German. We read scripture and bible stories, familiar narratives I easily follow along.

For a while I carry around a notebook in which I jot down any words I can’t yet translate: appreciate, struggle, testimony, spatula…At night I check my dictionary for the words in German. I tape the pages to my wall then take them down once they’re memorized. My vocabulary grows exponentially.

Part of attending school includes working on campus, four hours a day. Since I lack special skills and my language is limited I get stuck working in the cafeteria every morning from 5-9am. I thought I was a morning person but five is earlier than I am used to. I arrive at work late, sleepy and confused. Someone hands me a hairnet. I don’t understand the first three instructions. Our school English did not include vocabulary useful in a vegan kitchen. The supervisor rolls her eyes and pairs me with another girl who patiently demonstrates what I am supposed to do. We sort beans and bake bread, cook oatmeal and bake muffins. Sometimes we add a few drops of mint to leftover oatmeal and bake vegan cookies. Carob chips are not in the budget. Our special cookies are soggy little piles which taste like toothpaste biscuits. Scary. Another new word for my list.

Since most of our vegan food is a little bland, I think I can help. One morning it’s my turn to prepare a batch of oatmeal. Secretly I rummage through our limited selection spice cabinet and come across caramel flavoring. At least I think it’s caramel flavoring. The oatmeal turns dark brown the instant I add the caramel. (It was caramel coloring not flavor) My supervisor can’t figure out what I did. Nothing I say, I only followed the recipe card. I lose my recipe making privilege and return to sorting beans.

By Christmas, 3 months later, my English feels pretty solid. I understand close to 100% and comfortably express myself with few misunderstandings. My friends and I have real conversations and my humor is returning. In January I switch my journal to English. Shortly after that I have a dream in English. A milestone in language mastery. I spent the next couple years attempting to rid myself of my accent. I practice and practice with friends who are patient….th’s….rrr’s….l’s are my troublesome traitors.

The accent lives on…in tiny words or phrases. I rarely get asked where I am from anymore but if you listen a while, you’ll hear it. I speak German with my kids who answer in English and speak German when they feel like it. It would be fun to pick up another language. I came across these language quotes which sounded inspirational and true. Be brave and inspired, my friends. Good Night!

The limits of my language are the limits of my world.

‒Ludwig Wittgenstein

To have another language is to possess a second soul.


Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.

‒Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery.”

-Amy Chua



One Reply

  1. Heather Tourville

    Love these insights into your past, Astrid! Nicely written 🙂

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