The shame of not learning a language

For a long time a near-perfect circle of black grew on the wall next to my bed. It felt damp to touch and as it worsened the plaster started to bludge and crack. It was almost certainly mould, and it got so bad, as I knew it would, that I had no other choice but to take the piece of paper stuck on my fridge and call my landlord.

But I didn’t make the call, didn’t want to think about making the call, got anxiety when I thought about making the call.

Because the call would at very best go very badly.


The summer I arrived in Berlin, in 2015, it was uncomfortably (and, what I now know, uncommonly) hot. I spent those days daydreaming – lying drenched in sweat in the park, at Tempelhofer Feld, at the swimming pool or in my Airbnb room, sometimes writhing in discomfort – about the person I could still become. I thought about the book I would write and the praise I would receive in its published wake. Sometimes I fell asleep, or lost consciousness; it was hard to tell which.

I wrote and did little.

In all my imaginings about who I would become I was most certain about who I wouldn’t become. I wouldn’t be like the many other Australians living in Berlin and not speaking German. I – I – would overcome my ego and my fear of vulnerability and humiliation; I would apply myself and study hard and embrace small talk. I would get a tandem partner and form a study group. I would put aside the fact I had utterly no organic-forming desire to learn German. Because it mattered not. Berlin was to be my home for the foreseeable future and I would, for that reason alone, learn the German language.

I would learn the German language. That’s just what I would do.

For months I went to German class four afternoons a week, sometimes dragging myself, always brokering deals (if you go today you don’t have to go tomorrow), where I made slow but undeniable progress. My teacher had a sense of humour as did most of my classmates and we availed our personal humiliation and failures for the greater comic relief of the class. I made hundreds of colour-coded flash cards with nouns and verbs and adjectives and set about memorising all of them, and do that I did. I ebbed and flowed between hating the experience and loving it.

Once my classes became tedious and we stopped laughing and became, instead, flat-line depressed, I found a tutor and continued studying with him in the comfort of my kitchen every Tuesday afternoon. It felt like a cop out, since that’s what it was. He cancelled a lot, often due to what sounded like irritable bowel, and besides that he also loved to chat in English, which was exactly my problem as well. I liked him but we didn’t last very long.

And so again, eventually, I returned to the classroom.

Again I listened, participated in class exercises, did my homework and screened my classmates as potential friends. I tried – if not with everything I had, with a good something.

Yet every day, as soon as I stepped back over the classroom threshold, I returned to my monolingual self.

Rather than keep at it, I gave up, threw in the Handtuch and rolled around in that sickly sweet comfort of stunted growth, and stayed there I have.

Sure, I can do German if I need to, but I avoid it as much as I can.

This experience is true for a lot of my friends (Australian and not) who came to Berlin for various reasons but none of them to do with learning the language. Together we excuse our collective failure on account of laziness; a lack of time, motivation or desire (or all three); uncertainty about how long we will stay in Germany; and, mostly, the simple fact that it is easy enough to pass most Berlin days with English as the lingua franca.

When asked how long we have lived here most of us round down the number of years. Two becomes one, three becomes two, and so on.

Because, obviously, the shame.

The privileged, ugly shame.

I think about my sweat-drenched self three summers ago and I can’t get back to her. Too much truth and reality has passed between us. Three years, six apartments, a failed relationship, more secondhand smoke than I ever hoped to inhale and enough garbled German conversations to keep me awake for all the nights I have left are between us. And while all that life, I guess you’d call it, happened, I became the very person I didn’t want to become.

At this point in time, before four becomes three, I have the impulse to sell all my books for a euro a piece and move to another place, where I can begin again with a revised idea of who I think I should be and another language I should learn (Spanish). But instead I’m going to stay. I’m going to begin again, not from the start but from where I am here. I’m going to sign the papers to my new (seventh) apartment and return again to the classroom. Not as a failure, just as another person struggling with a near-perfect circle of black that keeps growing and growing on the other side of their turned back.


Image: ‘Tempelhofer Feld (6)’ / Maret Hosemann

Gabrielle Innes

Gabrielle Innes is a freelance editor and writer.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Hi Gabrielle! I have been living in Germany for almost 8 years now. I failed learning the language at first but started again 5 years ago. I am fluent now, so there is hope! You go girl!

  2. Hey Gabby,
    Don’t sweat it.
    Try going to japan after four years university study and not being able to even converse with a four year old!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *