It's OK to Cry When You Don't Understand: 3 Ways to Bust Through

Students of foreign languages sometimes get upset when they get frustrated. They get really frustrated and really upset because what they want most is to speak a foreign language, they've done their homework, they've studied, and somehow the pieces just don't fit together or the pieces they want don't come together when they speak.

It's a hard-core experience.

Some students think I learned German easily because I learned it quickly--it was not easy and my German skills were and are hard-won with hundreds and thousands of hours of listening, reading, and practice behind them; here's a short story to highlight one of my hardest moments.

In 2004, when I lived in Germany and was already fluent (and already spoke Schwäbisch), I went camping on the beautiful island of Rügen, in the far north-east corner of Germany. It's stunningly beautiful up there, the natural landscape undisturbed by "modern" development, with slow, rolling hills and the houses have thatched roofs. One morning it was my turn to go get rolls for breakfast so I hopped on my bike and rode through the campground to the small outdoor building where a local baker was selling bread and pastries. I asked for what I wanted, but had literally no idea what the saleswoman was trying to tell me.

I asked again.

She responded, what must have been with more pronunciation effort on her part.

But I still had no idea. Absolut keine Ahnung.

She was speaking German, that I know, and I could understand the other people in the campground when they spoke slowly enough, but this woman opened her mouth and it was like listening to the teacher from Peanuts. Wah-wah-wah-wah-wah... Except it wasn't funny. It felt like running flat into a wall with my entire body and there was no one else there to help me. I was alone in the little shop.

We must have gotten our messages across somehow because I did pay her and she did give me the rolls, but all I really remember is getting back to my campsite and breaking down in tears because I literally had not understood a single word she said. Not even the word "Euro." Nichts.

It was as if every lesson, every minute of homework, every speaking exercise had failed me. Every technique I'd learned, from watching a person's mouth to following the melody of the speaker's sentence was inapplicable. I couldn't pick out any individual words. Not a single one. It was heart-breaking.

What that experience taught me was 3 things:

1. It happens. So let it happen.

Sometimes, you just don't get it. You just can't understand the person speaking, everything sounds mumbled and garbled (wah wah wah wah wah...), and there is nothing you can do to understand that person better. Maybe you didn't get enough sleep, maybe that person is being mean and is speaking even deeper in their dialect because they think it's funny that you can't understand them. (Yeah, this happened, too, but that's another story.) So here's what you do:  have the emotional reaction you need to have. If you are frustrated, go beat on a pillow or a mattress. If you are upset, cry. If you feel you've been treated unfairly, just switch to your native tongue and tell them. Let it out.

2. Let it fuel you.

When this type of frustrating/upsetting/seemingly-stupifying incident happens, let it fuel your progress. Instead of letting it beat you, let it fuel you to say "next time, I will be able to understand 25% of the words." Or let it help you discover a new dialect, a regionalism, an idiom, whatever it was that seemed to stop you in your tracks. Let it really get your goat--so much so that it fuels your studying, learning fire.

3. Remember the story.

Even though they are really difficult at the time, it is these experiences and these kind of stories that tell you later how far you've come and how much you've grown, in particular in German. It's a very logical language and it is a challenging language, however it can be learned. And when you can share these experiences with other German learners, you not only see your own strengths, but you can bond with others and create a comraderie of learning.


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