Learning a New Language | St. Lawrence University

Learning a New Language

Garth Curtis

Last semester, I studied abroad in Vienna, Austria as part of a St. Lawrence program. While I was excited to experience another culture, taste different types of food and travel, I was anxious about the language barrier. I wanted to learn a new language, but the prospect of initially having a communication barrier had me a little apprehensive.

I spent my first few weeks in Vienna mostly trying to use English, throwing in German words when I had the appropriate vocabulary and found that as I made an effort to speak the language, people were more willing to help me or try to understand what I was trying to say. As the semester progressed, between my German 101 class and daily interaction with native German speakers, my skills improved rapidly. Before I knew it, I was able to converse in simple sentences and generally understand what people were saying when they were talking to me. My epiphany came on a Saturday, when I was strolling through the neighborhood I lived in, perusing through shops and enjoying the city. I walked into a hat shop when the worker said "Kann ich Ihnen helfen?" or "Can I help you?" and without even thinking I replied "Nein danke, umshauen" or, in English, "No thanks, I'm just looking around." When I realized later that I had replied in German without even thinking, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and empowerment. It is an indescribable feeling when you realize that you are learning a skill that will enable you to communicate with millions of people--it's as if you are discovering an entirely different world from the one you've known.

As the feeling of empowerment was addictive to me, I was excited to continue my pursuit when I returned back to campus this semester. I am now in German 103, or Intermediate German. This class has allowed me to, in some ways, codify all of the conversational German that I learned while I was abroad; I am able to bring concepts and structures full circle and I am learning how to use different tenses to create nuances in my speech.

Studying abroad was a great way for me to cultivate my interest in foreign languages and it provided me with a solid basis to continue my education from.