Overcoming Language Barriers in Germany

This is an excerpt from a larger piece for the Honors Program at Elizabethtown College. In it, Samantha shares some of the difficulties she faced and overcame during her year in Marburg, Germany, including the transition from using her German skills in a classroom to applying them in everyday life.

Although I wanted to study abroad for years, ever since I started learning German, and had applied to Elizabethtown College precisely because language majors could study abroad for a full year, being abroad caught me by surprise. I found myself wholly unprepared, not for dealing with the new culture or speaking a foreign language, but for dealing with myself. What caught me the most off-guard was my own ability, or, rather, lack thereof, to handle those things.

Prior to going to Europe, I’d only ever used German in a classroom setting with other learners of German, who were generally at the same language level as myself. I felt comfortable speaking German with my peers and with my teachers and professors and had reached a point in my language ability that required me to go abroad in order to continue to improve. My time in Vienna in the intensive language courses was a process of refining my language skills and using them far more than I was able to in the U.S. My progress reflected that, and I felt like I was improving faster than ever before, but I still didn’t have much direct contact with native speakers who weren’t teachers.

Once I arrived in Marburg, however, that changed quickly. Suddenly, I was immersed in the language and culture as much as one could be. In the dorm, in class, around town, I was mostly interacting with native Germans. They spoke so much faster than I was used to, and there were more slang terms and more new vocabulary than I could have encountered in classes before then. I knew then just how much more I had to improve before I could call myself fluent.

I struggled a lot at first. I had trouble keeping up in classes, where the professors and students spoke quickly and about topics that would have been new to me even if I were learning them in English. That first semester, my class notes were just a few scattered words I understood and new words I didn’t understand but could spell well enough to look them up later. I didn’t participate in class discussions the way I usually do, and I hardly spoke. For a long time, my ability to succeed academically had been part of my identity, something I took pride in. Being in Marburg took that confidence and certainty away.

It didn’t feel any easier outside of class. My dorm had many opportunities to socialize and get to know the other residents; it was a dorm aimed at making long-term friendships. There were weekly meetings where everyone would gather to talk about events, order new furniture, or discuss other issues. Every weekday, the chef Inge, who acted as a sort of grandmother and friend for the residents, would come to the castle and cook a massive lunch for the residents. I went to the meetings, the lunches, the group events. I joined their chorus group. But again and again, I found myself too scared to speak, worried they would judge me for where my German was lacking, worried they would find me stupid. When I worked up the courage to speak, my nervousness made me stumble over my words even more. I missed understanding and being understood.


As time went on, my German started to improve, almost without my noticing. By the end of the semester, I understood most of the class discussions and lectures, understood the weekly dorm meetings, and could participate in the life around me. Just how far I had come only fully hit me as I entered into the second semester and realized I could understand almost everything happening in class, and my notes weren’t just random lists of words, but detailed information about the content.

I found my confidence again, redefined myself, discovered what I could do.

This paper, and its associated presentation, is part of a series of study abroad narratives written for the Honors Program. If you are an Honors student, you too can earn four Honors credits through your study abroad experience! To learn more about the BCA program in Marburg, please click the hyperlink.

About the Author: Samantha Seely ’21 – 2018-2019 year in Marburg, Germany

Hello, my name is Samantha Seely and I’m a junior Mass Communications and German double major, and I studied abroad in Vienna, Austria, and Marburg, Germany for a full year in 2018-2019! Studying abroad was an incredible experience, and it’s an opportunity I hope many mores students can take advantage of! Through my time in Germany, I improved not just my language skills, but my general life skills as well. Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions! Whether they’re about what a language immersion program is like, what it’s like to be abroad for a year, what foods to try when you’re abroad, or something else, I’d love to chat!


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