Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an Adult

Thrifty Travel Mama | Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an AdultWhy, hello there. Didn’t think you’d see me ’round these parts again, did you? It has been a long time. And I’ve played out this reunion in my head many times. Has there been too much space and distance? Well, let’s just let it be awkward for a minute and then be done with that.

Over now? Good, moving on!

In case you’re new here, nearly four months ago I excused myself and backed away from this blog, forcing myself to turn and take one shaky step in the direction of serious language learning.

Fighting the this is never going to work fears and I’d rather be blogging thoughts, it took all I had in me to walk in the door of the language school near my boys’ kindergarten and ask what they had available.

You see, in our little city, the options for learning a language are as follows: (1) take an intensive course at a language school which means 5 days a week, four hours a day, (2) take a course at the community college for two days a week, two hours a day, or (3) find a private German teacher and pay through the nose.

That’s it. Take your pick.

What do you think I chose? What would you choose?

Like many bloggers, I’m an introvert. I despise group work and small talk. Busy work for the benefit of the whole class kills my desire to learn. Plus, I’m a mama, and I know from my previous experience taking an intensive course that there is just NO WAY I can manage being gone all morning, every day of the week, plus do homework at night for more than one week at a time.

The second option is just too slow. Plus, I honestly had no clue what level I was or which class to take.

Believe it or not, I swallowed my thrifty ways and tossed an incredible amount of cash at a private teacher.


But, old habits die hard, and I could not pass up an offer I found for two weeks of nearly free German classes. The catch? It was every night from 630-830pm, the absolute worst time of the day to leave my husband to solo parent. I love that man.

Over the course of nearly sixteen weeks, I took over forty hours of private German classes as well as eighteen hours of group classes. In between that, I struggled to finish my homework with one hand while warding off the laundry, dirt, and stench beasts with the other. We may or may not have had pizza and chicken nugget dinners every other night..Thrifty Travel Mama | Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an Adult

Learning a new language as an adult is incredibly humbling.

I watch my sons chatter away auf Deutsch, and I can’t help but be a tiny bit envious. It’s true that they essentially are in their own intensive course while at kindergarten four hours a day, five days a week. But, they also have no inhibitions. They’re not self-conscious at all when it comes to making mistakes or speaking with an accent. Ah, to be six again..

My German classes literally brought me to tears on several occasions because I felt so unbelievably stupid. Why is this so hard?! I would ask myself. My brain is just not wired to learn foreign languages.

Undeterred by the snotty nose and runny mascara, I kept the end goal in sight: I am doing this for my sons, to help them keep up the gift of being bilingual as well as for own enrichment and mental health (ha). So, here I am, still plowing through, one umlaut at a time.Thrifty Travel Mama | Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an Adult

Despite the difficulty, I’m happy to say that the payoff has been huge.


Before these classes, I would shrink away from any opportunity to even attempt speaking German when it wasn’t absolutely necessary. I started almost every encounter with, “Do you speak English?” Now, I do my best to tuck that question away and only pull it out for serious situations like doctor visits and the like.

Just yesterday, I met with another mom from my church that I barely knew. I was aware that she spoke English, but I made myself start things off with, “Wie geht’s?” (how are you?). I occasionally had to explain a few things in English, but I steered the conversation back to German after each detour. Thirty minutes of this kind of mental workout left me exhausted and literally sweating.

Oh the things I never thought I’d do!

Here are a handful of other examples that just a few short months ago would’ve been impossible..

  • Argue with a police officer about why I was breaking the rules (if you must know, I was riding my bike on the sidewalk with my kids at a dangerous intersection).
  • Select, order, and pay for festival tickets over the phone (no hand gestures!).
  • Read an entire parent letter from the kindergarten without the assistance of my pal Google translate… and understand what I read.
  • Sign up for a tandem partnership with a total stranger.
  • Consider asking all my German friends to only speak German with me (okay, I’m still on the fence about this one..).

Sounds amazing and like I’m doing swimmingly, right? Well, don’t believe everything you read.

Some days, the words won’t come. Other days, I won’t let them because I just don’t feel like it.

In between those thoughts, I wonder why I am doing this. Why am I learning another language with the intention of becoming fluent? Why am I learning German?Thrifty Travel Mama | Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an Adult

And, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there’s a downside. There’s always a downside, isn’t there?

The truth is, I now feel like I can’t speak any language well. I often trip over words in my native language, often forgetting what common items are called in English (!). I end up stuttering and then scrunching my face up in frustration because I just can’t manage to squeeze the right words (in the correct language) out of my brain.

I mean, I love bargains and all but the whole “buy one foreign language, get a free speech impediment” thing wasn’t exactly what I had in mind..

And when I’ve had a conversation with my tandem partner, for instance, I can’t seem to turn the German off and end up jabbering away in German to my husband who would rather just understand what his wife is saying, thankyouverymuch. The Deutsch monster just won’t shut up once it has been awakened.

So, what now?

Well, I simply keep on keepin’ on. At this time, I am done actively taking classes, at least the expensive private kind. I feel like my German is at a level now that I might be able to handle a regular group class (though my introverted, anti-group-work self will surely protest this possibility).

Thrifty Travel Mama | Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an AdultI bought a textbook and workbook with a DVD to keep up my independent study. But, really, what I need now is to just practice speaking as much as possible, hence the tandem partner.

And, in between all of that, I’m going to try to hang out here at Thrifty Travel Mama more regularly. But, don’t worry, I won’t start blogging in German any time soon.

Though I have missed blogging at TTM, I’ll admit it’s been a good thing for me to have a break, to refocus and, honestly, to decide whether I would like to continue writing. I’ve come to the conclusion that I do really enjoy blogging, because I often feel I have something to say either with the intention of helping others or simply throwing my two cents at the blogosphere.

So, pull up a chair, add me back to your Blog Lovin’, feedly, or subscribe to posts by email and let’s do this Thrifty Travel Mama thing again!

I often think to learn a second language you need as many of these things as possible – time, money, youth, and a live-in dictionary/language tutor. What do you think?

And, if you’ve learned another language as adult, how was your experience? Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

26 thoughts on “Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an Adult

  1. Welcome back, my dear. I’m glad you wrote about this and I’m glad I’m not the only one who cries/d in foreign language class! I hope to write about my experiences someday but right now unfortunately it’s still a bit too raw. Maybe after this term is finished? Anyway, consider my chair re-pulled-up.

  2. Congratulations! That is a huge step, learning a new language. I have given up on French (we live in Luxembourg) because we’re short timers, but most days I wish I hadn’t. One thrifty tool I found really helpful is a free online program called Duolingo (no I’m not affiliated them). It’s no substitute for actual conversations, but it’s useful for learning the vocabulary that makes conversations possible. Keep up the good work!

    • Hi Shannon, thanks for your kind words. I am familiar with Duolingo, and I like the program. I just haven’t been able to make time to sit down and use it regularly. But I am adding it to my rotation of possibilities to do as part of my one little thing a day to keep on keepin’ on. 🙂 Btw, since you live in Lux, you should check out my friend’s blog ( if you haven’t already.

  3. I’m so proud of you. I completely understand how you feel trying to learn Chinese though I didn’t go the traditional intensive route. You’re right you’re English becomes totally worse because you start thinking in inverted word orders. Language is an ongoing love I’m sure it’s an exciting for you after four years of not just “picking it up” much love to you

  4. Good job and keep going! Happy to read your blog,it gives me hope to start again with learning a language. It is true what you say (hard work for a mature mind) but don’t you think is also a way to stay fresh and elastic? I am Italian and English is still not good as I would like but then I’ve added a little Chinese (I live in shanghai) but could not go to full time classes. It is so nice to be able to understand other people speaking when you are not home and it is so funny to see the reaction when they hear you are speaking their language even if with bad accent or mistakes.
    Also so true and scary, after so much years abroad I’ve noticed that I am making mistakes on writing in my mother language and without even realizing that. I was writing the grocery shopping list for my mum last week and she noticed that one word was wrong and I had to think twice what was wrong. Sad I am losing a little of my country identity but feeling the world is becoming more part of my family and that’s ok.

    • Hi Stefania, YES, along with trying to help my boys keep up with the language, it’s also about my own mental health. It’s good for the brain 🙂 I liked what you said about losing a little of your identity that lies in your native country (and language) but becoming more apart of the world at large. That’s a big plus for becoming an expat!

  5. I’m so glad you’re back! I should really follow in your footsteps and do some proper language study (but it’s going to have to line up with all my other current ambitions so don’t watch this space too closely).

    I would love to have you back around for a bit as and when you can.

    As for the speech impediment – I’m sure your brain will rewire itself a little more gracefully in time. It’s definitely working overtime at the moment! Good that your friends will indulge your learning – getting people to talk to me in their language when they’re *sooo* much better at mine has been a hurdle for me. Then again, I suspect you’re streets ahead of where I ever was so that could help, too. 🙂

    • Hi Bronwyn! It’s great to hear from you. I’m looking forward to catching up on your blog. Have you posted on your language learning? If so, send me a link. Would love to know what it’s like for an English speaker in Singapore. And I know what you mean about trying to convince others to talk to you in their native language when they speak your native one better – not easy. I’ve had several instances where I keep speaking German to a native speaker (not friends, in restaurants or shops) and the other person keeps speaking English – grr!

  6. I learned English (my mother tongue is French) when I was 28 after moving to Toronto from Montreal. I had some basic knowledge of the language and could read it but was challenged to speak it. I needed to learn the language so I could find a job. I took an intensive class (6 weeks, 5 days a week, 6 hours a day) and it did kick start me on the right track. I became fluent the day I decided to stop worrying about making mistakes…It is tough to learn as an adult but not an impossible feat. Good luck with the rest of the journey to master German. (Suzanne)

    • Hi Suzanne, I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds learning a language as an adult really hard (especially the speaking). Doing my best to quit the habit of caring how it sounds and just go with the flow 🙂

  7. Chamisa,
    One, you are a very talented writer! Totally enjoy your blog.
    Two, congrats on the decision and follow through to learn German for you and your kiddoes. You will not regret it-I am speaking as a one language woman. You know I have a smattering of being able to say him bye, find a toilet and compliment in other languages, but not much else.
    Three, I was born in Heidelberg and have a heart for all things German, so enjoy a bit for me.


  8. Congratulations! Every little step helps. I’m fortunate in that I studied German in high school and college, but I’m not fluent. I love the language, but I hate practicing it in my town. I get very discouraged locally. I try it when I’m on vacation in another city, but I keep it to a minimum here.

    At my son’s Kita they’ve started talking to me more frequently in German. I’m just, eh, whatever. We keep the conversations simple enough. I understand more than I respond.

    I did have some interesting things happen to me recently, though. I was at a tourist attraction near by and ordered the tickets in German. The person told me I had an American accent. I was somewhat flattered because they didn’t try to just talk to me in English. I also ordered something while I was in Berlin. I spoke German, the guy responded in English, then felt bad and continued his side of the conversation in German. I switched to English, but he didn’t switch back.

    Anyway, yeah, keep on truckin’. and welcome back.

    • Thanks, Ann. Wow, I’ve never been told I have an American accent – nice! Why is it discouraging locally? I have heard the part of Germany you are in can be rather difficult for English speakers, but do you find that people don’t want to try speaking German with you? I’ve found that the parents at our kindergarten won’t even try to talk to me (in English or in German), but the teachers immediately switched to German now that they know I studied it for a while.

  9. I think my approach is quite different in the way that we grow up thinking learning languages is a part of life. The only one I’ve actually learned as an adult was Spanish though at 27. But one thing I can assure you of: every time I’ve learned more intensively another language and have also been living surrounded by it, there has been a phase were my both mother tongues have been effected, and the other foreign ones become impossible to speak. The new language even gets used in dreams. It’s only a phase though, and as you get more used to switching between languages the old skills return. Good for you for daring to take on the challenge! Sounds like you are doing well!

    • That’s encouraging to know that the old skills return! Not only for my only English skills, but I feel bad that I’ve forgotten nearly all the Russian I learned. And it’s such a picture of English (okay, American) culture that we don’t consider learning languages a part of life. Other cultures (like Finland) know that it’s just the way the world works. You’ll need to learn another language (or three) to be able to communicate well with others for travel, work, etc. Thanks for the heads up that it’s just a phase. I’ll be looking for my English to return ASAP! 🙂

  10. Pingback: Ketchup: The Past Four Months + the Future in 1000 Words (or More) | Thrifty Travel Mama

  11. Pingback: Review: Librileo Book Boxes for Kids.. auf Deutsch! | Thrifty Travel Mama

  12. Pingback: Expats Move Home : Farewell to Freiburg | Thrifty Travel Mama

We want to hear from you! Share your thoughts here.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s