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Nerves, Tears and a Breakthrough: 2 Weeks Without Speaking English [Mission Update]


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What’s it really like giving up your mother tongue?

If you’ve read my last update you’ll know that I gave up speaking English for 30 days to focus on only speaking German. My goal was to reach the B2 level by the time the Cologne Carnival came around.

As I write this, I’m in the midst of that challenge. The first two weeks have flown by and there are another two just waiting for me to tackle them.

But I’ll be brutally honest with you…

It’s been an emotional roller coaster.

There have been ups and downs. Snags and successes. And it’s been an incredible learning process.

Here at the halfway point, I want to share with you how the project is going so far and what I’ve learned from the process.

The More You Speak The Easier It Gets

I always found speaking German a chore. Not because I didn’t like the language but because, well…I had to think about everything I said.

That feeling can be quite off-putting when you’re first starting out. It can feel as though you’re going to have to put in a lot of effort for just a handful of words and phrases. And who wants to do so much work for so little, right?

Well after just a few days, the everyday words – the ones that really tie sentences together – just started to come naturally. The amount of actual thinking involved diminished almost to zero!

For example, on my first day I had to think about every word in this sentence:

Wir konnen spater einen kleinen Spaziergang machen, wenn du willst? “We could go for a little walk later if you want?”

But after a few days of using the keywords in the sentence, I didn’t need to think about how to say words like “we can” or “you want” and instead I only needed to really pay attention to the subject of the sentence.

Wir konnen spater einen kleinen Spaziergang machen, wenn du willst? “We could go for a little walk later if you want?”

That means you eventually spend less energy overall thinking about sentences and what words to use. They just fall into your head!

You can see that in this video that I recorded on day seven. The words that tie the sentences together didn’t take much effort anymore, but the cases and the subjects sometimes took a little time to think about:

And with time (I hope) that’ll become the natural progression where I don’t need to think about anything.

How to Get People to Speak to You In Your Target Language

When you’re an English speaker it can feel like a real battle to get people to speak to you in your target language.

It’s almost as though when they hear your accent they think, “Free English lesson!” and proceed to only speak to you in English.

In fact many of my first interactions were:

”Can we speak in German please?”
”Of course.”
”Danke.”
”Ich habe ein…new car, would you like to see it?”

Now instead of getting frustrated in these situations, throwing a tantrum and screaming to the god about how hard speaking is, you need to focus on what you have control over.

You have no control over what people say to you. But you have control over what you say back to them.

So what I’ve started to do to people now is just continue to speak to German regardless. And, if they’ve not returned to speaking German after five replies, then I say one of the following:

  • ”I’m really sorry but I need to practise my German, I live here now and it’s important for me to learn.”
  • ”I’m afraid if you can’t speak German with me I’ll have to speak to you another time. I need to make sure I’m only speaking German right now.”
  • ”Deutsch, bitte.” (German, please.)

And they eventually cave in, or I walk away and continue speaking German elsewhere.

It’s important here to flip your thinking on what you consider rude, too.

You may feel it’s rude to ask people to switch to their language because, after all, they’re trying to help you by speaking English. But, in fact, they’re the one being rude by ignoring your attempts to speak their language.

For example at the Rugby Club in Cologne I went to order a beer. And I must have ordered with a thick English accent because she instantly asked me, “Which kind of beer do you want?” in English. This was despite the fact I’d gone up to a German bar, in a German rugby club and ordered a beer in German. Who was being rude in that situation?

The Day I Cried About Speaking German

On the tenth day of the project I broke down in the kitchen and started crying.

I was midway through a conversation about something trivial. But, no matter how hard I tried, my brain just couldn’t do German anymore. Every word was just like white noise. And I just started to weep.

I think my brain had reached the point of burn-out. For the last 10 days I’d been translating everything in my head and it just became a little too much. So I took the evening to be alone, play my guitar and do no speaking whatsoever.

What was amazing about this though, was the next morning I stopped translating words in my head. All of a sudden the words I heard that I knew in German I just, well…knew. It was almost as though I’d reached the tipping point.

Spit It Out! How I Worked Through Being Nervous…

One of the most peculiar feelings so far is the constant nervousness before a new interaction.

When I’m talking with my German-speaking girlfriend at home I’m fine. I don’t even think about the fact I have to speak German. But when it comes to going outside, meeting new people and using my German, I’m overcome by nervousness.

I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is. It’s some kind of cocktail of embarrassment, failure and the other person wondering why this 24 year old talks like he’s a seven-year-old kid.

It’s a silly feeling, really. I’ve never had a conversation with someone where they’ve not complimented me on my German, or exclaimed about how much I’ve learned in just a five month period. Heck, one guy even told me my German now is better than his English of 20 years.

But still the feeling lingers in the back of my mind.

The key to defeating this has been just blurting out the first sentence that comes to mind. Seriously. It doesn’t matter how wildly off topic or grammatically incorrect it is. Just say it and get the wheels of conversation turning.

When you start speaking you begin to stop worrying about what you’re saying. You become involved in the topic and switch off when it comes to using proper cases or the correct preposition. Much like you would when you speak in your mother tongue.

I’m hoping over the next two weeks this nervousness starts to die away. But, for now, it’s still taking a bit of getting used to.

See you in a couple of weeks for the final report on my One Month Without English mission.

author headshot

James Johnson

Social Media Manager, Fluent in 3 Months

As well as managing our Facebook and Twitter feeds, James teaches people how to learn German, and move to Germany, on his blog Deutschified.

Speaks: English, Spanish, German

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