My STEP Signature Project was my study abroad trip to Dresden, Germany. There I studied German and the Goethe Institute for eight weeks, while talking exclusively in German and experiencing the day-to-day life in Germany.
While I had an amazing time in Germany, it really opened my eyes to how much I appreciate being home in the States. It brought me some understanding of what it is like to be a foreigner relying on the hospitality if others to get through some cultural miscommunication. I thought I knew what it was like to not be comfortable talking to strangers, but it is a completely different story when you can only speak some of the language of the country. This experience brought me greater understanding of the feeling of otherness that one can feel when in a new place and without the support of friends or family.
The simple chores of going to the grocery store or trying to order a meal and speaking well enough so that the person with whom you are speaking does not switch to English is difficult at best, impossible at worst. Some poorly phrased sentences mixed with a lack of confidence in the language lead to several conversations switching to English which should have gone smoothly. I knew what to say, how to say the basic concept, but the pressure and nerves of speaking to someone who knew that I cannot communicate at the level of someone my age was frustrating and the largest hurdle in my attempt to assimilate to the country.
Then I thought about this in relation to my experience on the other side of the interaction, as an American who has spoken English my entire life and my interactions with people my age or older who can’t express themselves due to their limited familiarity in my own language. I thought I could empathize. After all, I had also been studying Spanish since I was six. But this was different. My ability to eat depended on my ability to communicate with a cashier about the cost of my groceries. My ability to buy a train ticket depended on my ability. Some people I interacted with knew English well enough to help me, some didn’t. My goal was to not find out who could and couldn’t, so I assumed no one could.
As the weeks passed, these simple tasks got easier and I fell into routine. This combined with nearly four hours of German instruction every day had me improving in my speaking skills. Listening, however, was another thing entirely. Listening to a foreign language is interesting when you study it. When you first begin, you want to tune it out. You can’t understand that, that’s too fast, etc. The struggle is to focus. Keep listening, even when nothing is understandable. Catching just one word is enough to begin to find a place in the topic at hand. It is exhausting though. I did it for just under two months. I was tired when I got home, and excited to listen to English once again on the radio, TV, etc. because it is easy, and I don’t have to think so hard. That was my life for two months. There are people in the United States who have lived like that for two, five, ten years and counting. It gets easier, but not always perfect. Focus is still required. I can now try to empathize better with those I know struggle to fit in, even when they are alone watching TV or listening to the radio. In this understanding, I hope to be able to help anyone who asks it of me.
This change is significant to my personal goals because I have wanted to live abroad since I was old enough to understand the concept. I have always wanted to be fluent in another language, and have pursued classes and experiences that will get me to these goals faster. I underestimated how difficult it can be, but in the face of such difficulty, I also underestimated myself. I have been through it, and I have learned to not be afraid to make a fool of myself if it is in order to continue to learn. Being bold and forward in language learning is the only sure-fire way to get there. I am excited to do this again for another language, in another country, vastly different yet again from anything I have encountered thus far. If anything, my overcoming of these hurdles has strengthened my belief in myself and my ability to overcome my own discomfort. I look forward to challenging myself again in my endeavors to gain exposure to language and culture.