When I first chose Vienna, Austria as my study abroad destination, I was excited about the prospect of improving my German language skills, as I have a long way to go. But at first, I found myself extremely frustrated by my lack of proficiency. I wondered if I should have waited longer and built up a stronger base; even other people in my program had significant prior experience with German. Now, I am enjoying the challenge of the language with some strategies that I’ve developed. I extend to you a few tips:
- Learn important phrases/formalities and what they mean – Wherever you go, there’s a few phrases you should always know: usual greetings, please, thank you, excuse me (in Vienna, it is better to use “excuse me,” which is entschuldigung, than “sorry.” Here, Americans are sometimes considered insincere because of excessive apologizing). But don’t just memorize these phrases. Learn what they mean, the context in which you use them and learn variants of the phrase. That way, as your language skills improve, you can take what you know from the phrases! If you know Gruß Gott, a typical Austrian greeting meaning “To Greet God,” then you can figure out that “oh my god!” is oh mein Gott! In addition to learning phrases, know when it is appropriate to use formal pronouns. In German, you should use a formal pronoun with strangers despite age. Within any skill level, you can learn what is considered polite (and that will be appreciated!)
- Find places where you’re comfortable practicing the language – Some places are more accepting of language learners than others; sometimes you just might feel more comfortable in a particular spot. Whatever the case, pick a place where you feel good about venturing out into language speaking. I found a cafe that I enjoyed where the waiters were extremely nice, which is where I practiced. Ordering food, asking about food, paying and talking to other customers are all great ways of practically applying your language skills in a place you feel comfortable. Plus, you’ll have a good excuse to keep getting great food!
- It’s okay to feel a little foolish! But don’t let it get you down – You’re going to make mistakes! And you will probably feel a little dumb about it! I know I did! Once you accept this, it will become much easier to make mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Making mistakes will actually accelerate your learning! Rather than staying stuck and feeling embarrassed about a mistake, embrace the knowledge and move forward with your language experience.
- Talk to native speakers, but also talk to other language learners – A common fact is that the quickest way to improve language is to converse with native speakers. While this is certainly true, and highly recommended, it can also be helpful to rely on fellow students. Sometimes, when I found myself struggling to articulate a question I had, another student could help me figure out what to ask. Or if I’m struggling with a grammar concept, it can be validating to know that others are struggling with it too. The best thing is to talk to native speakers, but the fact is that it’s pretty tough to do that all the time! So along with challenging yourself in that regard, be sure to find support among your fellow language learners.
- Express yourself in other ways – Sometimes, you don’t even need the best language skills to express yourself. Learning the native etiquette of a place can allow you to be polite without so many words. Are you supposed to tip? How much? What is typical behavior on public transportation? For instance, in Vienna (among other places) it is expected for a young person to give their seat to an older person if the train is crowded. I am not suggesting that you quit speaking altogether, but you don’t have to completely rely on language to have a meaningful interaction with others.
All in all, my advice is to learn what is polite, embrace making mistakes, and implement your language skills the best you can! It’s hard, but you will get better and it will get easier.
About the Author – Laura Chiarella, Summer 2018 Vienna, Austria Storyteller & Juniata College Student
As a junior at Juniata College studying Visual Arts, Laura enrolled in a summer BCA program to improve her German language skills in the “City of Dreams!”