When I tell people that I took twelve years of German growing up, they tend to make a few assumptions. “Were you raised in Germany?” and “Does your family speak German?” are two of the biggies— reasonable assumptions because I have a German last name. But by far the most common assumption that I hear from people is, “Wow, so you must be fluent in German, huh?”
That’s when I hang my head and admit that I haven’t practiced my German in over ten years and have forgotten a lot of what I learned. While I used to be able to hold a casual, breezy conversation in German, I’ve gotten seriously rusty over the past decade. Learning a language is like exercising a muscle—it atrophies pretty quickly without constant use and practice.
The first step of the journey
It wasn’t until I began reading up on the benefits of learning new languages as part of a work project that this minor shame turned into regret. I realized that I didn’t appreciate what I had until I lost it. As a child, my local public elementary school happened to offer a German immersion program, and I loved learning math and science in German. I attended private German lessons for several years and took the language as an elective every year in middle and high school. German was always one of my favorite subjects and I took it seriously. But passing the AP German test meant I no longer needed to take a language in college, and that was the unceremonious end to my German studies. I guess I always thought in the back of my mind that I’d keep practicing it, but it’s hard without the formal structure of school.
Reading all of these articles and statistics about why language learning is so important for kids made me realize I’d neglected something that had once been a daily part of my life—even a component of my identity. It was time for me to try German again. After an unsatisfying experience with language-learning apps and several failed attempts to stick with independent study, I decided to pursue one-on-one lessons.
Of course, my busy schedule made that easier said than done. And because I work from home full time, face-to-face in-person classes didn’t appeal to me, either. I really appreciated the flexibility of Cricket’s language learning programs and was able to find time slots that worked for me on short notice.
Taking the plunge
When I entered my first virtual lesson with my instructor, Erona, I found myself answering all of her questions in English. I could understand everything she said, but I was too shy about the holes in my knowledge to speak German to her. I explained to her that I’m still good enough at German to know how bad at German I am. Determining my ‘level’ would be difficult because while I had a good grasp on certain elements of grammar and higher-level vocabulary, I’d also forgotten a lot of the basics, including common words that I used to use every day.
I forgot the words for ‘apartment,’ ‘wall,’ and ‘office’ on that first virtual lesson. At first I felt humiliated, remembering how I’d once easily improvised German skits and presentations back in high school, but I realized that being embarrassed would only hold me back. The only way to get better at German was to put myself out there.
Erona started the lesson by asking me what my goals were and what I wanted to focus on. I gave a pretty vague answer—“I want to reconnect with the language and recover some of what I lost”— but she had a good idea of where to start. She shared pages from a German book on her Zoom window and we got into practicing conversations with blanks for missing words. It was a simple way to review grammar (verb conjugation was always the hardest thing about learning German for me) while still practicing conversation. She even picked pages that featured characters talking about theatre, a big hobby of mine.
Soon, I felt much more relaxed and confident in my German, and it was easier to remember some of my forgotten words than I thought. During our second lesson, Erona told me that my pronunciation was “very German,” which made me feel fantastic. When I briefly visited Germany as a teenager, I hardly got the chance to practice my German because every time I opened my mouth, everyone recognized my American accent and switched to speaking English! Every step of the way, she encouraged me and helped me feel less mortified about being out of practice.
I also spoke with a coworker, Xiomara, who has also been trying out Cricket Media’s adult language learning programs. Her reasons for learning a language are very different from mine: “Now that I finally can travel, my partner and I decided to book a trip to France and Italy. He is in charge of guiding us through France and I am in charge of Italy. I was very excited to finally make some progress on my Italian. I have used apps and other tools for a few years but nothing compares to the direct guidance of an expert in the language and culture, connecting my learning to my language and culture.”
While I was able to pull some information from my past study of German, Xiomara and her instructor found she had an advantage in learning a new language, too. She said, “I started classes with Tania and she immediately identified that I spoke Spanish and was able to make connections between one of my dominant languages and Italian, the language I was working to learn.”
Tania even gave her some recommendations for places to visit on her trip to Italy! I don’t know if I’ll ever visit Germany again, but I certainly hope to make it back someday. And if I do, one thing will be different: if Germans speak to me in English, I’ll just keep speaking German back to them, even if I make a mistake!
Now that getting back into German doesn’t feel as scary to me anymore, I’ve realized that language learning is a lifelong journey. It’s not just about hitting a goal and stopping there—it takes regular practice and deliberate cultivation. Thanks to a few lessons, I’m back on that path, and hopefully for good this time!
Megan F. lives in Virginia. When not studying German, she can be found marketing, directing and acting in community theatre plays, writing more blog posts, and counting down the days until fall.