I’ll start with an anecdote.
I was twelve years old the first time I went skiing. Skiing was something I’d heard of, and, once my name had been pulled out of the hat to determine who got a space on the school trip, it was something I’d thought about, dreamt about, even, without really having very much idea at all of what it really was. My excited expectations were built entirely on pre-conceived ideas; on glossy brochures and friends’ photos and movie scenes. My daydreams were filled with blue skies and white snow; saloppetes and ski boots. I knew it was something I wanted to do. It didn’t occur to me that there might be more to it than that.
Our first day at ski school started at the foot of the main lift, that would take us from the small Austrian village, nestled in a valley of towering white, to “the slopes”. I stood, penguin-like in my slightly-too-big coat, staring up in awe at the mountain. This was it. This was how I’d imagined it. The lift was going to take us to the top of the mountain, I thought, and we’d slide back down. And we’d go up again, and back down again. This was skiing, I thought. I climbed onto the seat, ready to go.
It was only as the chairlift reached its final metres that the reality of what it was, of what it would be, to be skiing became clear. The single mountain peak that had been visible to us, with our necks craned from ground level, was not, it turned out, the highest. It was only once we reached the very top of the first mountain that the vast expanse of white behind it came clear. Mountain after mountain after mountain. A network of slopes, white, winding like rivers as far as the eye could see. It was a new world, with its own system of coloured road signs, of traffic rules, of accidents waiting to happen. There were cafés and bars and shops, and trees and parks and benches. And it was brimming with people, with colours, with voices. A whole world existed behind the top of that mountain, and it wasn’t until I’d nearly reached the first summit that I realised there were others.
My memory of how it felt to reach that summit and realise just how far there was to go resonates wonderfully well with my experience of year abroad so far, linguistically speaking. I arrived in Germany almost six months ago with the intention of “getting fluent”. It didn’t seem particularly implausible. My German was good already. I knew my verb tables, I had a decent vocabulary, I was clever enough, and I was determined to absolutely throw myself into everything. Why shouldn’t I be fluent after six months? But, just as I’d later laugh at myself for failing to imagine how a ski resort looked, I find the idea of fluency being attainable in six months, in retrospect, rather laughable. Of course I’m not fluent. I was never going to be. The problem was, I didn’t actually know what fluency meant.
My German has come on staggeringly since I’ve been here. I understand everything, everything, without really having to try very hard at all. I’m no longer caught out by spontaneous conversation; taking minutes in meetings is no longer frightening; even the dark, glottal saxon accent has become comprehensible. I can say whatever I want to say. I’m always understood. I don’t make many grammatical mistakes. But it’s only now that I’ve reached this point that I realise just how far there is to go.
Here, I drew it.
I’m standing at the top of the mountain of conversation. I’ve conquered it. I’m here, at the summit. Vocabulary and tenses and cases and verb tables and adjective endings – all of the things that have constituted language learning in my experience this far – are somewhere on the path behind me. I’ve trodden them. I’ve absorbed them. I’ve got this far and it’s a triumph in itself.
The view from the top, though, isn’t one I could have ever imagined from down below. Fluency valley stretches out in front of me. There are peaks still to climb. Idiom. Dialect. Humour. Attitude. Knowing where to inflect words and when. German is a language littered with ‘little’ words – doch, noch, eben, gerade – which are thrown into sentences, their meanings subtle and often of little importance. I try to use them too, and I wonder how funny I sound. Accent peak is a particularly treacherous mountain, towering, I think, above all the others. I wonder whether it’s worth even attempting to climb it. With my British-ness glaringly obvious, my German will never have the “near-native fluency” promised in the Oxford prospectus. Even the most German, the most casually idiomatic, of phrases sounds distinctly other when it comes out of my mouth.
Maybe, if I had longer than six months, I might find myself wandering towards those further mountains. I might even manage to scale a few of them. But time presses me. It’s nine days until I fly home, leaving Germany for good. For now. I’ll spend them here, atop my metaphorical mountain, basking in the glory of having made it this far.