To have another language is to possess a second soul.


Everything has things that they just get. Almost intuitively, a subject can click and effortlessly give way to internal expansion. For me, one of these things is learning languages.

I was born in the United States into an English-speaking family with American parents. English was all that I heard, consumed, and spoke. My mother recalls fondly talking to us constantly as babies and toddlers, opening a world of literacy and language for my sisters and me.

In the U.S., there is an inclination towards monolingualism, and learning new languages doesn’t necessarily hold significant relevance within the larger culture. Many Americans prefer to speak English alone, as the expectation lingers for others to linguistically accommodate us. (There is no singular official language in the U.S. It’s primarily a combination of English and Spanish, though chiefly the former.)

I wasn’t exposed to new languages besides Spanish until sixth grade (age 11), when the abysmal public-school systems only began to offer language courses. In hindsight, this makes my blood boil. If you’re made to wait until after the age of about 10, language acquisition becomes considerably more difficult. (In contrast, private schools here start offering language courses as young as six years old.)

Starting at a disadvantage, I felt both intimidated and inspired by the concept of speaking a nonnative tongue. I had four options to choose from: Spanish, French, Latin, and German. I ruled out Spanish and French—though too many of my peers had chosen these and I wanted to be different—as well as Latin, as both of my sisters took it.

German was perfect. I knew nothing about Germany besides my limited knowledge of World War II (an unfortunate antecedent), and I had no idea where it was located on a map. But it was guttural, unique, charmingly severe, and it had my full attention. A real match made in heaven, if you will.

Learning German was relatively unremarkable for about three years. I learned structure and vocabulary but didn’t know how to utilize any of those skills to communicate ideas.

My immersion was diluted until the ninth grade when, as my luck would have it, I became best friends with a brilliant German American girl at my high school. Born in the U.S., she had a German father who taught her and her sibling fluent German as infants. She was the epitome of coolness, and I deeply loved our friendship.

Her house was a magical place. She spoke German around the house with her father, and it served as my first proper exposure. I held onto every word they spoke with excitement at those few words used that I knew. It was at her house that German became a real, living, breathing entity to me. It wasn’t just a subject at school anymore, and that’s when things started to revolutionize in my young brain.

I started taking German classes much more seriously and even signed up for a summer school trip to visit Germany, Switzerland, and France in the summer of 2016, after my sophomore year of high school.

We arrived in Munich first alongside another group of students, and I was instantly overwhelmed. Up to this point, I had never used German outside of the context of my friend’s house. I initially assumed the overwhelm could be chalked up to fear, but it soon unveiled itself as inspiration.

I’ll never forget that time I went off by my lonesome on that trip to a shoe store—the first time that I tossed my crutch to the side and used broken German to communicate with the woman working the shop. Walking out with my new sneakers, I was grinning from ear to ear.

German kept becoming more real! And even better, I was becoming a part of it, too. I’ll always remember this day at the Schuhladen as a day of proud accomplishment and being able to show my stubborn brain that transformative growth was in my hands.

After the trip, I was officially enamored of the process of learning a second language. I dedicated myself to practicing and dreamt of fluency. I’m lucky to have had an incredible language instructor as well, who believed in me and my abilities and nominated me for the chance to attend Governor’s School to study German.

I applied to the program and got it in the summer before my senior year of high school. The program was rigorous: four weeks of complete, total German immersion. A group of roughly 30 peers and I took classes and learned the maypole in ornament Dirndls and Lederhosen.

The one rule at camp was that, under no circumstances, you were allowed to use English. If you did, you were kicked out and sent home. They adopted the methodology of letting you struggle as you talked your way around an idea, and it was slowly but surely metamorphic.

Being at Governor’s School was a month-long experience that skyrocketed me closer to fluency, and I followed up the program immediately by moving outside of Munich for the rest of the summer with my friend and her grandparents.

With increased skills and confidence, I thrived in my new environment, able to absorb so much of what was going on around me. I asked questions, was transparent about my weak spots, and pushed myself through embarrassment and fear.

The summer of 2017 will always be an especially predominant memory of my life. Every experience in my life up to that point posited me toward a direction I was certainly, without a doubt, meant to go in.

I’ve been back to Germany several times since and kept up with advanced German courses at university, and today I tune up my language abilities by consuming German TV, movies, podcasts, and books. I think of bilingualism now more as maintenance rather than retrieval.

I plan to move to Germany as soon as I possibly can (!) in my 20s to continue building my life and nurturing the dream that came out of an otherwise dark time of childhood.

My language journey with German is far from over, of course, but I embrace opportunities for growth and safe, shame-free vulnerability. As for my journey with French, well, it looks a bit different since I didn’t begin learning until age 19, but I’ll get there soon.

I wouldn’t be who I am today without German. This expansion permanently changed my life and opened entirely new worlds for me that I didn’t know existed. If you want to get to know yourself—learn a new language.