Catherine Gracey

Living Life, One Misadventure At A Time.

Passive Aggressive Fossilisation

on February 23, 2015

Last year, when I began learning JavaScript, I decided to dust off my language learning ideas and turn them into a computer program. This isn’t the first time I have tried to do this, but it is definitely the most successful so far. My various failed attempts over the last three years have taught me a lot, and that understanding is finally coming together.

This project consists of two main parts: a range of modules to learn the language through, and a database that supports the modules with language data. In the past I have been most excited about building the database, carefully reading grammar books, and making sure that the exercise to write a program teaches me more about the German language than the programming language of choice.

Since beginning the project last year, I have noticed a dramatic shift in my priorities. This time I took a database that I had already started, converted it into a form that would be useful for the current project, and have barely touched it since. I am enjoying the programming far more than the language, which seems odd since learning the language is the ultimate goal of the project.

I decided to take a few days off from the project last week, to explore my emotional state with German. I felt no hesitation playing games in German, talking to my partner and child in German, or browsing through German books. I simply resisted when it came to the point where casual interactions might have turned into focused study.

It has bothered me for months that my language skills have fossilised, but this week showed me why: it isn’t that I have reached my natural limit for German, that my study skills are ineffective, or anything else on a long list of possible failings. The problem is that I no longer want to improve.

Emotionally, I have the perfect level of German skill. I understand more of the language than my daughter does. I can make my way through Germany without too many issues as a tourist, and I am skilled enough that I can use German as a lingua franca in other countries. I already get as much social credit for trying to learn as I am going to. But, most importantly, I have stopped at a level where I am incapable of communicating about anything beyond pleasantries with certain people I know in Germany.

My last trip to Germany was difficult for me. I understood enough German that I knew when people were being rude or unkind, but not enough to respond. There were dozens of times when I found myself at the centre of a highly critical discussion about various failings that I was perceived to have, but I did not have the ability to answer those criticisms. If I learn more of the language then I will need to do something about these little attacks, because I won’t be able to hide behind the defence of hoping that I simply misunderstood what was said.

Defending myself verbally is going to require a very different vocabulary to the one that I have been trying to learn. Calling someone out on their behaviour requires very particular phrases if you don’t want to cause even more offence. Broken German won’t be sufficient; it has to be fluent or nothing at all. Learning to talk like that isn’t a philosophical problem for me, but focusing on it feels like waiting for the next run in that I don’t want to have.

If I am going to keep working on my program then I need to deal with my current reluctance to learn more. There is still a lot for me to improve with German, and I can always pick up additional languages. I have a wealth of available options, I just need to get past the fear and get back to enjoying the process.


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