When I created this project, I told myself, my friends, and many other people that one of my main goals was to “improve my German.” I believe this is a good justification for traveling because it suggests a charitable attitude towards the country you are visiting, and that you are willing to humble yourself to the role of a novice in a place where practically everyone you meet will be an expert. But the problem with justifying travel with a desire to learn a language is that you are inevitably faced with another question: why do you want to learn another language?
Before I left for Germany, I reasoned that learning German had many benefits: it would be good for grad school in philosophy, for my resume, and for reading a few favorite writers in their original language. But after a few weeks here in Germany, I faced that question in a new, more urgent way. Learning German was no longer a distant or intangible goal – it became an absolute necessity for daily living. During my first week I was practically incapable of doing almost anything alone. Heck, even ordering coffee made me nervous. One time I stood in line at a busy café for so long that I lost my nerve and left without ordering. Only later did I realize that the adrenaline rush of being nervous had woken me up as much as a cup of coffee (try new 5-hour Nervousness – with as much excitement as a cup of coffee, and definitely a crash later).
Fear not, readers. I now only have brief panic attacks while ordering coffee. To be serious, I really have become more comfortable with speaking German on a daily basis, and that’s because over the last few weeks I’ve had to use German every day in a variety of situations. My learning has been spurred on by the need to communicate. So now I have an immediate, real answer to the previously posed question: I need to learn German in order to function in everyday life.
But that got me thinking. If I justified traveling with learning German, and then I justify learning German with having traveled somewhere (namely, Germany), then haven’t I just reasoned myself into a circle? Have I actually no real reason for learning German?
No. But I was confused about one very important truth: one always learns a language in order to do something else. Language itself is a means, or a tool, good for accomplishing other things. But to suggest that learning a language is an end in itself is to misunderstand the essence of language. Not only is this detrimental to an individual, such as me, when considering why one should travel or study a language, but also to others by promoting that misunderstanding. So when someone is considering whether or not they should major in Spanish, or if they should spend a year in France to improve their French, we should always press these people further – why do you want to learn another language? If one has answers ready for that question, then one understands the purpose of using and learning languages, and is ready to study them.
And really, the stakes are higher than just misunderstanding what language is. When you’re trying to choose what to do with your life, it’s important to understand the choices you are making. And choosing to learn a language without considering the “what-for” can lead to crushed dreams and feelings of time well-wasted. But if you’re willing to admit to yourself that you’ve been thinking about your language studies all wrong, you can adjust your thinking. All that is necessary is to consider what you want to do with German, or Spanish, or any language, pat your naïve past-self on the head, and move towards a real goal.