Learning to Drown

Learning a new language is something like learning to drown, at least at the level I’ve been taking it. This Summer I’ve nearly made it through an eight-week intensive course in the German Language, and I can attest that the drowning simile is somewhat accurate (or just useful).

This might seem to be a bleak way of looking at it, but I swear it makes sense—the simile is not an attempt at melodrama. Imagine your first week in a serious language course (meaning, it is called an “immersive” or “intense” course): everyone is scrambling with their dictionaries, the professors speak only the language you intend to learn, and there is a sinking suspicion that the following weeks will be even more of a pain than once anticipated. It is like being on a sinking ship. There you sit, upon the tipped mast, watching the ocean creep up the now immersed (and vertical) deck. You can see your fate, your inevitable drowning, snarling at you from below–the waves bite at the air, longing to fill their mouths.

At this point, I felt optimism. You can do it, I assured myself, You’ve taken languages in the past. Soon, though, those waters would soon be in splashing distance of my feet almost able to grip at ankles or even shins. It was somewhere around the introduction of the Indirect Object that it started to make sense: I was drowning, but it was a good thing. Our professors assure us that German’s many subtle details will one day “click”–it seemed a common enough thing to say, but there is truth to this statement.

Imagine the point where the shipwreck victim is finally neck deep. Her body, in all good intent and will, resists first few splashes of water that try to enter her lungs. After a while, her resistance becomes more painful as more that a few splashes try to enter where they are not welcome. Eventually, there is a painful giving up, a concession, a surrender—the ocean wins.

This is a horrible vision to have when sailing, but in a German classroom, it is a welcomed comfort. Right now, our minds (all of the students) are resisting the language by instinct. We try our hardest to take the water in (of course I wouldn’t do this on the open ocean), but English is my first language: fresh air is my first love. I keep gasping for air by instinct, waiting for the day when instinct will cease to function and the language can finally seep its way in. This is when the language “clicks,” when the language is finally not an object of thought, but a matter of instinct; in other words, I will have learned the language when I have drowned.

I only hope that I can learn to drown sooner rather than later.


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