How to Learn a Second Language

The skyline in Hamburg, Germany.

Written by  November 25, 2013
Making the most of a semester overseas by brushing up on a second language.

Perhaps the most practical app on my smartphone is a German-English dictionary. It has been a few days since my arrival to my new city, Hamburg, and this portable translator has already helped me navigate through several language minefields— picking up my keys at the residence office, meeting my new roommates and tackling German bureaucracy.

In high school, I was desperate to learn German. I loved the language and the culture of a country that seemed so far away from Vancouver. After three years of studying, I spoke quite well and it was my best subject in university. I travelled to Germany with friends and spent five weeks being immersed in all things German.

Alas, in my second year, I was no longer able to fit German classes into my schedule. It slowly began fading from my memory. Five years later, I understand well but my speaking has deteriorated to basic conversation. Reviving my dormant German language skills is one of my main motivations for studying abroad in Hamburg.

Overall, Germans speak less English than I expected, making language abilities even more essential to thriving here. I am actually happy about this because my rusty grammar and vocabulary will get more practice. I dream about conversing with my roommates in German with ease so that we can communicate on a deeper level.

Germans are very enthusiastic about foreigners learning their native tongue. They are happy to make small talk with me in shops or cafés while I struggle to place the words in the proper sentence order. Sometimes, we understand each other instantly. Other times, it takes more time (and hand gestures) to get the point across.

Hamburg University offers free German classes to international students throughout the year. I am enrolled in a weeklong intensive course, hoping to jolt my German back to life before classes begin. Registering for these courses since anyone with previous knowledge of German needs to take a placement test.

Before my departure, I quickly assembled the essential verbs and vocabulary scrawled onto four double-sided pages. I read, memorized and re-read every word. They seem foreign yet familiar as if I should know their definitions. Ein bisschen. A little. Hoffentlich. Hopefully. Prepositions, pronouns and their cases dance across my brain: nominative, accusative, and dative. I am cramming to avoid the absolute beginner’s class. Hoffentlich, my German will be revived soon.

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Kait Bolongaro

Originally from Vancouver, Kait is a Paris-based journalist and photographer. She is moving to Hamburg, Germany for one year to finish her MA in Journalism and Political Science. Follow her musings on her website, Facebook and Twitter. 

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