It’s easy to underestimate the power of language – the power of being able to understand someone, or the powerlessness of not being understood. It’s easy to underestimate the power that language grants you in connecting with others, but studying abroad in Berlin has made this clear for me.
While some people on my program came to Germany having never learned German, I’ve studied the language for about five years. I was placed into an intermediate class, but I made American friends and largely spoke English for the remainder of the semester. When I would interact with German-speakers, the interaction was short enough for me to pass as a fellow German-speaker (asking for directions, ordering a coffee) or was quickly switched to English. And therefore, my time in Germany has been largely framed in English speaking terms. And yet, I didn’t realize how much speaking German defined my life here until visiting London.
I had never been to London before and I traveled alone, deciding to meet my friend at his apartment in the city. The plan was for me to find a bus from London Luton to Central London, which went off without a hitch. But after missing my stop and having to figure out how to navigate the metro to get to his place, a trip that should have taken an hour ended up taking over two hours, and I had no phone service to contact him or look up directions.
At multiple points in the journey, I felt lost in one of the largest cities in the world, which normally would make me somewhat frantic, and yet everything felt so easy. I’ve never felt so confident, and I kept repeating to myself that nothing could go wrong because everyone spoke English. I asked people on the street where to find the tube station, and I asked a metro attendant at the station how to buy a metro card. I took a picture of the metro map and referred to it when transferring, and when I got confused another attendant guided me to the right train. I found a map in my friend’s neighborhood that I used to find the right house, and a neighbor let me into his building. It was so easy! And with the realization that the only reason things felt easy was because they were in English, it became clear that navigating a world in German was somehow difficult.
I can understand almost everything that people say in German, and I could have managed every interaction that I had with people in London in German. Additionally, basically everyone in Berlin speaks English, and many people don’t speak any German at all. And yet, I still felt an immense sense of relief with the knowledge that I would be understood in my native tongue. But when I returned to Berlin at the end of the weekend, I didn’t feel a sense of renewed difficulty. The language barrier hasn’t had a strong effect on my experience here. So why was it that English was so powerful for me in London?
The answer to that question is simple: I adapted to a world in a foreign language without necessarily realizing that it was happening. Something that was uncomfortable became unconsciously comfortable, and when that discomfort was no longer present the existence of my adaptation became clear. The other day my friend mentioned that the awkward interactions that naturally accompany language barriers, like realizing that you’ve said something wrong or that you’ve misunderstood someone, no longer feel awkward. The abnormal is now normal, and the normal is exceptional.
I recommend studying abroad in a foreign country, because although the power that language grants you may be occasionally taken away, it’s amazing to realize that you become powerful in different ways. I feel powerful in my ability to adapt, be flexible and brush off mistakes. I feel powerful in my ability to understand and communicate things that I wasn’t able to earlier this semester. I’ve learned what I’m capable of through studying abroad in Germany, and that’s more powerful than anything.