Taking notes in English while thinking in Spanish and studying German

How to survive using three languages in a student daily basis?

A point of view of languages and their relevance in student life. An experience of a Spanish speaker student in an English master living in Germany.

When we decide to study abroad many doubts come to mind. One of the most resonant one is the language. Language is what allows us to understand the world, not only in a rationalization spectrum but also in a communicative one. It allows us to find in others actions ways that may seem innovative, interesting or even better than ours.

In her Ted talk, Lera Boroditsky a cognitive scientist, explains how the language shape our minds. One of her examples is the relevance of the subject in English in contrast with the action itself in Spanish. An English speaker would say “He broke the lamp” while a Spanish speaker would say “la lámpara se rompió” which means “the lamp broke” that is a very rare construction, not to say unused, in English.  She also speaks about different indigenous tribes in Australia whose language is based on cardinal directions. A greeting in that society could be “Where are you going?” and an answer could be “northeast, what about you?”. 

When I started studying German, I was surprised that several grammatical structures place the main verb at the end. At the end? That’s crazy I thought. Sure, it is weird for a Spanish speaker whose custom is to have the action of the sentence clear from the beginning. But maybe it is one of the reasons why Germans usually do not interrupt the speaker. Their language constructions make them listen to the end to have the complete message, a rare practice among Spanish speakers.

It also surprised me that German has different genres for the same objects and even a neutral one that we do not have in Spanish. And not to mention the different casus. Knowing whether an object is direct or indirect and changing their article and adjective accordingly. Something that I still do not fully manage and that I sincerely believe will improve with patience and time.

Learning new vocabulary is key

The methods that have been more effective for me to learn German are doing a list of words for every week and speaking in German asking to be corrected. Learning new vocabulary is key, so making a list of 40 words, writing them, reading them and repeating them during the week has helped me a lot. In the same way, forcing me to speak in German and specially to have an error corrected has allowed me to improve, since I remember the correction along with the moment when it happened.

Now, taking into account the differences between languages ​​and, above all, their relevance in everyday life and in their speakers. What are the consequences of studying in one language, living in a society with another one and that neither is your native? A harmless brain explosion I would say.

When I started the master in English it made sense to take notes in English too. My classes had technical words and some expressions that I did not understand, but since they were recorded, I could stop, look for the meaning, solve the doubt and continue. After a while I realized this method was not very functional for me. The class almost doubled in time and therefore I was a bit unhappy and very frustrated. I had a hard time simplifying the subject of the class when writing in English. For me, writing in English was adding a level of complexity to it.

I decided then to take notes freely, which improved my study rhythm. Although my notes are incomprehensible to anyone else, since they are a special mixture between English and Spanish, they work for me. Of course, this has been my experience and I am sure there are others very different.

Studying abroad is an enriching experience in several aspects. In the language-related one is especially rewarding, funny and challenging. Each language learnt is a new pair of glasses to see the world and that has to be one of the most wonderful things there is. Being able to have within your individuality a bit of several communities. And the most important, to understand that diversity is the beauty of our reality.

Abi Ledezma

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