On Friday I will be flying home to start a new job in Oxford and it will mark the first time in nearly 11 years that German will no longer play a significant role in my near future. And while it should perhaps be a time of bittersweet sorrow, the overwhelming feeling is relief.
Learning German has felt like an epic journey of highs and lows. I am not, nor ever was, a natural linguist, but instead I undertook the never ending task of systematic vocab learning and grammar exercises, and held a strong belief in practice makes comprehendible, if not quite perfect. It was German’s logic and distinct lack of exceptions (compared to French) that kept drawing me to it. Formulating a German sentence felt a bit like solving a math equation as you try and work out what word belongs where and the strong sense of satisfaction that came from getting right was rather rewarding. But for every time I have ever got it right there were hundreds more times that I got it wrong and it is that which led to a German career filled with feelings of inadequacy and despair.
I’ve always said it is the curse of any language student to never feel fully fluent. To always feel like they could do better. And this is something I have battled with throughout my German learning. In school I had to deal with the humiliation of taking the same exam three times yet not ever going up a single grade. While from early on in my degree I had to quickly come to terms with the fact that German would bring my marks down; no matter how hard I worked at it, I was never going to achieve what I could studying just English Lit. Even now, living in Germany and speaking the language on a daily basis, I still regularly have moments where I could scream with frustration as I fail to formulate coherent sentences or articulate my thoughts and opinions. The number of times a day I simply blurt a bunch of German words in someone’s direction and hope they make sense of it is just embarrassing. All this to learn the language of a country infinitely more fluent in English than I will ever be in German.
I realise thus far it all sounds rather bleak and perhaps it would be tempting to say I regret ever choosing to study German beyond a compulsory level. But putting aside the fact I am still doing better than two thirds of the British population who can’t speak a second language at all and am probably more fluent than many people reading this post, the experience of learning German has always been more rewarding than speaking the language itself. From larking around with the language assistants in school, to meeting some of my now best friends in German classes at uni, to living and working in a completely different culture and being exposed to experiences I never would have otherwise encountered good and bad; it’s all worked to shape me on an intellectual and emotional level. Whether I conjugate a verb perfectly or use the correct effing preposition with the correct effing gender with the correct effing case is insignificant in comparison.
Today my German is the best it will be for the near future, and quite possibly forever, and I am saying a fond goodbye. Goodbye to daily embarrassment, frustration and sense of failure, but also to a beautiful language (I’d choose it over the romance languages any day) that has been a companion to some of the most significant moments of my life so far. I’ll revisit it for sure but I feel no shame in stepping into the next chapter of my life and leaving it behind because the important things are coming with me.