As a 19-year-old who had just finished school I went to South Africa as a volunteer youth instructor for four month. It was the first time that I left Europe and the first time I used English as the every- day language of communication. Even though I was a good student and thus was able to communicate fluently, the difference in my overall behavior was striking. I have always been quite an extrovert who is usually not afraid to approach people and is sometimes even described as funny.
However, at that time this description only applied to my ‘German’ self. In English, I was an introvert who often needed some time to laugh at jokes and rarely showed a spark of humor. My personal low-point was when my fellow co-worker from England told me that when I was instructing the kids on supposedly fun outdoor activities I sounded ‘a bit like a robot’. To me that ultimately explained why the kids sometimes looked at me with big (scared?) eyes instead of excitement. Even though I was able to explain the content of what I wanted to say (We will use the zip line and you have to be careful about certain things.), I was not able to convey my overall excitement for the activity (It’s a zip line! It is going super fast! It will be so much fun!). What I did convey was rather that they would end up in the hospital if they didn’t strictly abide by the following one thousand rules. I am sure at that point I perfectly matched some of the negative stereotypes people connect to Germans…
I want to underline that I don’t usually spend my free time scaring kids! Instead, the little episode illustrates a typical language barrier. I understand the learning of a language as a gradual reduction of distance not only between the learner and a native speaker but also between the learner and the language itself. At the beginning, a foreign language often resembles a random mumbo jumbo and the first attempts to get an insight to it are hard work.
However, slowly but surely, the mumbo jumbo around you becomes something you relate to and every word and sentence you understand and speak is a little success. At some point you will be in the situation I described above being able to say but not necessarily express whatever you want and while you are constantly improving it might take a long time until you feel entirely confident in every situation. In fact, studies imply that even advanced speakers of a foreign language don’t overcome this barrier entirely. It was shown that a person tends to make more rational (utilitarian) decisions when the choices are presented in a foreign language since it provides a stronger rational and cognitive distance than the native tongue. That is also why it is often easier for people to say swear words or taboo words in a foreign language. However, ‘when it counts’ they fall back to their mother tongue since it is closer connected to the negative emotions the speaker wants to convey.
Does that mean we will never fully overcome the language barrier? In this narrow sense I have to say: Probably not. However, this would not be a positive blog post about language learning if it finished on such a negative note. Learning a language takes effort and the willingness to put yourself into situations in which you might feel vulnerable. At the same time it teaches you to learn from your mistakes, to accept and overcome moments in which you cannot fully express yourself, and to open your mind towards a different way of seeing the world. Finally, even if you might never swear with the same enthusiasm as you do in your native language, you might just have found the perfect tool in case you long for more rational decision making in your life!