The following reflections come from an exchange student who is so committed to the language-learning cause that moving to Vienna during a pandemic and Brexit seemed like the only reasonable thing to do when faced with such uncertain circumstances. By Anna Whitehead.
As an exchange student at the University of Vienna, one of the most obvious hurdles to jump over is the language. Having never lived outside of the UK for longer than a few weeks at a time, I was understandably a little concerned about how I would cope. Would I be able to follow the lectures and seminars? Would I be able to converse with my housemates in the Mediatrix-Heim? And speaking to other Erasmus students, it seems like we all had this irrational fear that we just wouldn’t understand anything at all and moving to Vienna would all be a huge mistake.
Halfway through my Erasmus year in Vienna, I’m glad to say that the German is coming along very nicely indeed; I’ve completed one semester and exams in German, and my housemates in the Mediatrix-Heim are nothing but understanding and encouraging as I fumble around the kitchen guessing the gender of spoons and forks. Here is what I’ve learnt about learning and trying your best to live in a foreign language!
Etwas Unerwartet - something unexpected
Etwas Unerwartet – Something Unexpected – was the prompt for a photo challenge which ran during a trip to Weimar I went on some years ago, and quickly became an enduring catchphrase of mine. Spending a summer hurtling around Thuringia in unstable vehicles – whether that be trucks deep underground in a salt mine, or a vertiginous Rodelbahn – celebrating Goethe’s 268th birthday party, and making the local paper? Etwas unerwartet! Spending over twelve hours travelling from London to Vienna via a five-hour layover in Paris? Definitely etwas unerwartet!
Over the past few years I have found myself in a whole range of obscure and niche situations due to my interest in languages, and have learnt to just embrace whatever bizarre circumstances I find myself in. After all, it does make for wonderful blog content.
Let it go, lass jetzt los!
High-pressured academic environments have a tendency to lead to crippling perfectionism, which results in an inordinate amount of stress and late nights, as submitting anything but the very best essay leaves you feeling like a failure. Learning a language is a great remedy for this, as you soon realise that you will at first have to sacrifice grammatical accuracy and adjective endings if you want to maintain the pace of the conversation or convey a story to a native speaker.
At the beginning of my Year Abroad I was often quite hesitant to join a conversation, and would plan my sentences in my head first, but at some point I accepted that I wasn’t going to improve by staying silent, and just let the perfectionism and shame of forgetting the verb go. There are often times when you don’t know a crucial word and can’t, or don’t want to, whip out your phone to google it, but try to see these as creative opportunities to practise your improvisation skills. Chances are you’re not the only one who has had to learn German as a second language, and your audience will be sympathetic and understanding of your struggles.
One of the most obvious and cliché reasons to learn languages is that they break down barriers, enabling you to forge personal connections with people you otherwise might not have even met, to enjoy literary masterpieces in their original, or to gain a deeper appreciation and nuanced understanding of another culture. People can be quite different when speaking their second language, myself included, and conversing with them in their mother-tongue almost unlocks a new level of their personality. My flatmates at Mediatrix-Heim seem entirely different people when they speak English, and it’s much easier to joke about or talk about their day in German.
I think I’ve also learnt that even though the language barrier might seem untraversable at first, it is often not as great as you might make it out to be in your mind, and with a bit of good humour, sensitivity and perseverance, you will be over it in no time at all.
Klein aber fein (small but excellent)
Learning a foreign language is becoming an increasingly rare skill in the UK, and alarmingly quickly too. My German teacher insisted it was about ‘quality not quantity’, but I do admit it would have been nice to have had some classmates.
There’s also something very amusing about being admired and applauded for speaking foreign languages in the UK, and then coming to Europe, and being questioned by friends who are fluent in three languages and excelling at Law or Politics (or even both), as to why you’re studying languages as your degree. So many of my housemates can speak multiple languages which always makes for animated dinner time discussions!
As fun as language lessons in school were, nothing compares to being fully immersed in a German-speaking environment. I’d definitely recommend staying in student accommodation if you’re looking for this experience – there will always be people hanging about to practise with.
And finally… Humility
Catholic friends might know or have heard stories about the Litany of Humility – a repetitive prayer to help one draw closer to God through the virtue of humility. For my secular friends, I can heartily suggest language learning if you want to grow in humility – you will make a fool of yourself more times than you thought possible, and find yourselves struggling to express yourself and side-lined in social situations in which you’d normally be in your element. You will feel like a stand-up comedian whose jokes don’t get a laugh, a linguistic outsider who is perhaps underestimated, or even ignored at first. But I’ve found that these circumstances have given me two valuable things – a fresh perspective on how those who don’t have English as a native language feel in the UK, and a fierce determination to keep on improving until someone finally laughs at my jokes.
There are a myriad of reasons as to why you might want to dabble in various European languages, and the lessons I’ve learnt in doing so have definitely extended far beyond the walls of the languages’ classrooms at my school. The following reflections have come from one who is so committed to the language-learning cause that moving to Vienna during a pandemic and Brexit seemed like the only reasonable thing to do when faced with such uncertain circumstances. I hope they provided some food for thought, or perhaps if you’re about to move to Vienna, some encouragement! I’m crossing my fingers and pressing my thumbs together for you (die Daumen drücken) if you are – viel Glück!
About the author
I'm Anna Whitehead and I’m a newcomer to Vienna, having made the decision to trade the dusty bookshelves of the University of Cambridge for all the Kaffee, Kuchen und Kultur that an Erasmus year at the Universität Wien would offer! I’m interested in Austrian literature and politics, enjoy learning languages and telling questionable puns. You can find a couple of stories over at https://annaw51.wixsite.com/annadventurelog, as well as a few snaps on the gram - @anna_whitehead11.