Locks and Keys: A Language Diary Entry

If there is a lock, there must be a key . . . right? At least this is what I believe whenever I run into a locked door in my learning. Even if I never find the key, I have faith that it is somewhere out there.

Last month, I was lucky to find one key that I had spent a year looking for. It had a shape I didn’t expect at all, but it fit perfectly. Sometimes I know exactly what kind of key to use and sometimes I get surprised.

The Lock on Writing

One of the most frustrating locked doors for me was German writing. I could not understand why, after three years of German Saturday classes (excluding vacation and hiatus days), I wasn’t at least writing diary entries in German. I did try forcing myself to do this, as if the lock needed a crowbar rather than a key. But I soon saw it wasn’t working.

Last week, I reread some of those old entries and saw more clearly how bad they were. It wasn’t an issue of grammar, but of voice. I couldn’t “hear” myself in the lines. That is, I couldn’t express myself. I couldn’t say what was on my mind or in my heart. Although I had started to develop German ears, I had no German voice.

On my own, I thought the key would be reading. My experience with English has been that writing flows from reading — and indeed, during my school days I was both a huge bookworm and a talented writer. In the past year I had been reading so much in German, both class texts and real-world texts. But I wasn’t also writing in German. Something was wrong.

Thank goodness that someone understood what was wrong. I mean my current German teacher, who won me over when she complained to my former teacher that B1- and B2- level students from my old school often came to her unable to speak or to write properly. I thought immediately: “That’s me!”

The Key to Writing

My instincts were right: My new teacher had the right key for that lock. Within two days of enrolling in her course, I was producing clearly-structured essays that said exactly what I wanted them to say. My German writing style is still a little stiff, but at least it’s no longer behind a locked door.

The key was Redemittel or “useful phrases” — but not the arbitrary, generalized Redemittel of textbooks. Those always made me feel like a soulless parrot. With my new teacher, we don’t begin with canned sentences and try to shape our thoughts around them. Instead, we shape our thoughts in writing first, and then she shows us how we can make them clearer. She focuses as much on our meaning as on our grammar; she listens to us and not just to our words. I still call them “Redemittel” because we share — and she corrects — our essays on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom, and we end up remembering and using others’ “useful phrases.”

I should have predicted this. And maybe I did. When I worked as an English teacher, I had a similar teaching style — and one thing I often said as a German learner was that I wished I could find a teacher like myself!

Locks beyond Languages

Perhaps the only thing I ever wanted to excel at more than a foreign language is singing. Many different people have told me that I have a nice voice, which is great. But having fine tools doesn’t help if you don’t know how to use them properly. I know that I need a good voice coach — someone who will not just teach me the right techniques, but who will understand what I want to say with my voice.

But I also know how damaging a bad teacher can be. I was confident enough with respect to languages that I was willing to risk bad German teachers. What they could not give me in the classroom, I believed I could give myself through extracurricular study. And with the exception of writing, I was right! Singing is a lot like writing, but with greater risks under a bad teacher. Two different singers have told me that it is better to have a mediocre voice and no bad singing habits than a spectacular voice and terrible singing habits. I don’t want a teacher who will give me bad habits. Yet how do I find a good one?

The last time I felt locked out musically, I was playing the guitar. Some skills were fairly easy to acquire — like playing by ear, finding the right key for a song, and practicing scales. But I just could not unlock the skill I wanted most: Writing a bass line for a song. That is, figuring out which notes to use in a song’s “subordinate” melody. And how to arrange those notes them so that they best served the main melody. Perhaps even how to create more than one bass line for a song, depending on what you want to say with it.

But I never found the key to that lock. After months of geting nowhere, I sold my guitar at a garage sale and took up knitting.

The Key to Singing?

The good news for my musical dreams is that I can never give my voice away. The bad news (for now) is that my voice has been behind a lock for even longer than those elusive bass lines. While I can spend years despairing that I will ever find a key, I have also had some bright seasons of hope. And I happen to be in the middle of one right now!

It is impossible to listen to as many clips from German musical theater as I have, and not also to sing the songs. I started doing this only in my mind — because for a long while, I never had a whole song memorized. But now that I recall more and more lyrics, I also want to sing them aloud. And more importantly, to sing them well. Then I learned that Leontine Hass from our Extr@ Watchalong Party (Start here with Episode 1) is a voice teacher in real life, and it seemed too significant a coincidence not also to be an omen.

Maybe the same serendipity that led me to my German teacher will lead me to a voice teacher! Meanwhile, I am doing for singing what I used to do for language learning: watching voice tutorials on YouTube and in German. I don’t know if the key will be in one of them, but it won’t hurt to keep looking!

Have you ever felt your learning was behind a locked door?

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