I have recently started learning to speak German. Now, I will freely admit that I’m useless at languages. I had to take my French and Latin GCSE twice to get a decent mark, and to this day I could swear that the very patient professor at my University, tasked to try and teach me Ancient Greek, retired back to Oxford to avoid a fourth year of torture.
Still, having spent a large part of Christmas in Berlin with my better half and her family, it had become more and more apparent that I was going to have to try. Whether it was the rather fixed smile of yet another shop assistant apparently politely asking me if I required any other service, only to receive embarrassed silence in return; or my girlfriend’s father tugging me towards a local park to show it off, only for our conversation to falter after a few words because neither of us know the other’s language. It was time to really bite the bullet, stop making excuses and start learning the language properly.
I had already made a little start using Duolingo (other language apps are available of course). I have no complaints about it, in fact I think the way it tries to teach you is rather neat. It even tests you on your speaking skills. However, it lacks the one thing I really need, rigor. I have no willpower and found lots of excuses to leave it to one side. So now I have signed up at my local college for a beginners evening class.
It was with some trepidation that I turned up for my first lesson. I got off to a good start by failing to even find the right room. However, I eventually found it and quickly realised I had landed on my feet. The lecturer looked straight at me and explained with a deadpan face that she was running a class in Russian. She almost had me going, and it was only when another of the newbies rescued me that I caught up.
I immediately started to relax. Here, I surmised, was one of life’s eccentrics and I was going to spend the next twenty weeks being taught by her. This is my idea of heaven. I am always at my most relaxed around fellow quirky types. Especially if they have a good sense of humour. Being around me usually requires it.
I haven’t been proved wrong. She throws balls at us, makes us chant answers back as a ‘choir’, and went speedily through most of the slides of the interminable official induction PowerPoint going ‘blah, blah, blah.’ This week we were learning everyday objects, and I don’t think “Das ist ein Apfel…stupido!” is, strictly speaking, the way the books deal with it. However, it made us all laugh. Laughing while you learn takes all the stress out of it. I wish my language teachers at school had realised that. She cheerfully tells us to learn with our ears, stop worrying about tenses and cases and all that boring stuff. Just to listen, repeat learn and yes, laugh. And I am learning, faster than ever before.
Laughter is also a good antidote for the malaise that falls upon me at this time of year. Endless dank days. Wet roads, grey skies and a damp cold that gets into your bones. It slowly saps all my energy, until I find myself floating through the waking hours, waiting to go back to sleep again.
This is the danger time for me. I have a stressful job at times, and it is easy to develop a tunnel vision, with the rest of my life taking a back seat. Unchallenged, it is a path that will eventually lead to me shutting down altogether. However, with the patient help of a really good psychologist, I have learnt to recognise the signs before things go too far. I was able to observe that I had stopped writing, had stopped engaging with people around me more than I had to.
Reaching out again beyond the tunnel walls is the hardest thing to do. It involves a mental effort that you simply do not feel capable of. However, it is always worth it. For the hours of weary effort it took to persuade myself and enrol on the course, I got rewarded with feeling wonderfully buoyed. I found myself talking excitedly about how it had gone and actively looking forward to the next lesson. My girlfriend is coaching me on the side (taking I might add an inordinate pleasure in correcting all my many mistakes!), and that also brings a valuable injection of laughter and pleasure to my life. It has also given me the energy I needed to reconnect in other areas of my life. This weekend I have my book club, next week perhaps a chance to go boardgaming with friends at my local pub, and of course I am writing this blog.
This winter will continue to drag on, but now I have a bit of sunshine inside myself to counter the worst of it with.