The early stages of speaking a foreign language can be a roller coaster of emotions, especially when using the language in person. It is scary, frustrating, exhilarating, humiliating, and exhausting--sometimes all at once! During my first year as an expat in Germany, I wrote about one single day in which I felt each of those emotions, and more. It's a great example of the highs and lows of language learning, as well as just getting out there and speaking, no matter how embarrassing it may seem:
0830 I communicated the following story successfully to my German class and teacher as soon as I arrived to class, albeit in the simple language and grammar indicated (while elaborately pantomiming). I was operating on my “You’ll never believe this” setting, so I wasn’t as inhibited as I usually am:
“I’m here but I must go home and then come. My books are on my steps and my door is not locked. This morning, we are going, and I ask my daughter: Where are your shoes? No shoes. We’re looking for her shoes. We can’t find. We’re searching in the house and can’t find the shoes. I look outside and here are her shoes. They are wet. Here, I mispronounce “wet” a few times, and am adding the German for “from water”, until someone understands and pronounces it for me. I repeat it. Wet. Her shoes are wet. VERY wet. Why are her shoes very wet? I don’t know. She was playing yesterday in the garden with me and with my husband. My husband put the shoes outside and now my daughter forgets. How do you forget your shoes are wet? I don’t know. She puts her shoes. I have my bookbag and put it on the steps. I open the gate for my car. We go. I’m driving here, I looked and saw no book bag. My bag is on my steps! I have forgotten! And I did not lock my door! I must go home and lock my door, and take my bag and come.”
Do you know how exciting it is to be able to relate this story? Awesome. As for the morning itself, let’s gloss over that.
1230 My daughter and I stopped at Burger King. I was ordering a Happy Meal and the girl asked if I wanted catsup or mayo for my fries. You get this simple question all the time, and yet I did not understand the woman. She switched into English.
Do you know what a moron you feel like when you don’t understand a common question?
1600 I had to call UPS to arrange for a pickup. German UPS. Given the difficulty of phone calls, I started out by telling her that I only speak a little bit of German, and I asked her to speak slowly.
Now, if there’s one thing I can say, it’s that I speak only a little bit of German, please speak slowly. But apparently she interprets ‘slowly’ as “as if I just snorted cocaine.” Somehow I made it through the phonecall (at least, we’ll know so if a UPS guy shows up at 3:00 on Monday). I even made a joke and she laughed.
1830 I needed to pick up a few things at the local home and garden store. I wanted to know where the birdseed was, so I found a young clerk. I asked:
He didn’t understand me. I pointed to the grass seed and the insect seed, then flapped my arms and said, “Tweet, Tweet!”
And he said, “Ah, bird food?” “Yes.”
And that’s how I ended a day of speaking German: Flapping my arms and tweeting.
So what do I recommend? Just get out there and practice. Get a tutor, listen to podcasts in the car, read, and interact in person--as often as possible--in the language you are learning. If you only know present tense, just use present tense. Don't hesitate to speak just because your grammar isn't perfect.
And don't worry about being embarrassed. If you're not standing in front of a man tweeting and flapping your arms, you're already ahead of the game.