On Learning Languages as a “Mature” Person

I have been taking German classes for about six weeks now. This mission has an awesome language program. I guess it’s partly because there are so many employees and family members here to be taught, but I also give them credit for just plain doing a good job with it. As opposed to one post that I shall not mention with a local language that NO ONE speaks where I had to personally insist that funding be requested for family member classes? Oh, yeah, this is a major step up.

So, the classes are great. They even managed to put me in a sort of Beginner 2.0 class, though I’ve never had a German class before. It’s hard to know what to do with a person who has learned other languages, traveled a lot in Germany, and done just a bit of Rosetta Stone! I’m so glad they they didn’t leave me in the rock-bottom beginner class with the lady who thought “Ich bin” was the instructor’s first name…

Of course they have to accommodate the fact that people here don’t really speak German in the strictest sense.  They speak Österreichisch.  In rural areas this can be completely different dialect. In Vienna, it usually just means that the accent is very different and some of the vocabulary is different from Haupt Deutsch. (Though we do overhear conversations sometimes that are completely impenetrable, even to my husband, who actually speaks German.)

It’s kind of like the difference between Central American Spanish and Spanish-Spanish. The main consequence for me (as it was in Central America) is that I end up thinking words are “real” German when they aren’t. I said a mushroom was a “schwammerl” the other day in German class, and the teacher thought this was hilarious. Well, I say, if it gets me what I want here, does it really matter what they call it in Berlin?

German is truly an Awful Language, as Mark Twain said.  It’s definitely more difficult than Spanish or even French. And if you translate things directly in your head, you can’t help giggling because it sounds like a Monty Python parody of a German tourist. (I am the mornings coffee drinking!) But I’m not finding it to be impossible. Czech, with it’s three genders and nine cases, including the one just for children and small animals, did give me some perspective on this. (I can’t imagine what it must be like to learn Chinese or Korean! I salute those of you do know!)

As far as pronunciation goes, having had a lot of French definitely helps with the short vowels, and the Czech helps with the hard c’s and z’s. There are a lot of cognates, either between English and German or between Czech and German, so I recognize a good bit of straight vocabulary. And, for four years in Prague I shopped for products that were labeled in German as well as all the Slavic languages–some of that sunk in, on a molecular level, I guess.

However.  I am running into a problem I have never experienced before, and I am pretty sure it comes with age! Every time I have to come up with a word in German, the mental process goes something like this:

Accessing foreign language files…

Seriously, I can practically hear the files flipping in my brain!  They say that once you learn a foreign language, that part of your brain remains accessible for the rest of your life. Well, there is a downside to that phenomenon. Now I understand why older people end up scrolling through all their kids’ or grandkids’ names before coming up with the right one. It’s not about forgetting: it’s about remembering too much!

Second problem I am running into is a slight lack of motivation. I do know that I need to stick with this for at least a little while for practical reasons. But when I was younger, I thought learning a foreign language was really cool and interesting. I just don’t have that same level of enthusiasm anymore. It’s the same with learning how to use the European stove or figuring out the buses. There’s a certain been-there, done-that, not-really-interested-in-doing-this-again quality that wasn’t there before. I can’t help thinking I’d rather be reading a good book, cooking dinner, or working on a quilt. You know, living my real life, not the temporary Austrian one. It’s not insurmountable, it’s just something I’ve noticed. Change for its own sake just doesn’t have the same appeal that it once did.

So, this is me, learning German as a mid-lifey sort of person. Now, back to Rosetta Stone and learning how to ask if someone is Egyptian and/or likes to play soccer.  Because, you know, that comes up all the time here!



  1. Same thing when I spent the summer in Buenos Aires. I thought my smattering of Central American Spanish would be helpful, but they speak some other language in Argentina & at machine-gun speed.
    Bitte, beantworten Sie die folgenden fragen…. One of the few phrases I recall from four years of high school & college German. Glad it’s you & not me having to answer those fragen. Viel glück!


  2. I tend to go through languages too, though it goes German, French, Spanish, which is actually the order in which I learned them (the little bit I did). It is a problem when I am talking with our Mexican population here in Jackson (30% of the town!).


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