A Day in the Life of a Language Learner

Yesterday was not my brightest or  boldest  in Croatia.

As I set off for my first day of a three week language intensive, I was feeling fairly confident and assured.  After all, I had done well on the placement test the day before and had made it into a respectable level.

I left 45 minutes before class started—the drive is only 20 minutes but the instructors had told me to be there 10 minutes early so they could assign the classes.   As soon as I hit the outskirts of Zagreb’s center,  I realized that the festivities’ remnants from the night before—Croatia had entered the EU—were still claiming many of the roads.

1.5 hours later,  sweating and irritable in a horrible traffic jam, I was still kilometers away from the university.  Finally, after my car had moved only a few car lengths in 20 minutes, I pulled into a parking lot, paid for parking, and ran to the tram.  After getting off the tram, I jogged the rest of the way to the university in my (slightly uncomfortable) flip flops.

Deciding that embarrassment was for wimps, I burst into two separate classrooms, panting and apologetic, before deciding to go the the language office.  Unfortunately, the administrators couldn’t find my classroom either, and together we wandered all over the halls.  Finally, my teacher picked up her phone and I showed up for the last hour of a 3 hour session.

Much to my chagrin, I realized I had been demoted to a lower class…and in fact it was only the next level up from the one I had passed two years ago.  I inwardly groaned when someone in my class asked for the meaning of the word trčati (to run).  How could they think I belong here? I raged internally.  I threw out some of my best Croatian sentences to try to impress the teacher.

After that session ended, I spoke to her about my concerns and she reluctantly agreed (The next class is quite a jump up) to talk to the other teacher. Apparently, she had neither been impressed or astonished at my speaking abilities in class.

Meanwhile, it was 11:30 a.m. and I had 30 minutes to go back and re-park my car since that particular lot had a time limit.  Running back to the tram, I  hopped on just as it was pulling away from the stop.  I looked at my watch:  11:40.  Am I really going to be late again?  I raced to my car and tried to find the free lot my friend had described.  Instead, I ended up outside an old man’s house.  I jumped out and ran over to him. “Please, sir, can I park here just for an hour?”

“Listen!”  he said forcefully, leaning on his cane. “You cannot!” (Literal Croatian translation).

“Okay, okay,”  I said, glancing at my watch:  11:55.  I raced down the road and pulled into another car lot, but I was still two tram stops away from the school.  No tram in sight, so I took off at a run, my flip-flops barely staying on my feet.  12:05 and I was only rounding the bend to the school’s street.  I finally appeared, gasping and sweating at the door of my classroom: 12:15.  The students stared at me like I was a strange apparition from a chaotic planet.  I can’t say I blamed them—I was making a terrible first impression.

“Melody, you can go and try out the higher class,” the teacher told me.  I meekly thanked her and found the other classroom.   The teacher asked me to introduce myself (actually asked me twice since I was too befuddled to understand the first time).  I stumbled out some simple sentences about what I was doing in Croatia.  Afterward, the students went around the room and briefly told me where they were from and what they were doing.  Rapid Croatian sprang from their lips as if they had been speaking it all their lives and I felt a pit in my stomach—I had moved to a room of formidable Croatian speakers.

The next hour I sat in a daze, hungry and thirsty, and tried to concentrate on what everyone was saying. I was having flashbacks from my Canadian university when I tried to pursue a French minor—all the students had grown up in French immersion schools and were breezily talking about French existential writers as I stared dumbly at my notebook, hoping my professor would not ask for my opinion on Camus.

Afterward, I limped out of the school, a shadow of my morning self, numbly hoping my car had not been towed since I had been unable to purchase the parking pass.  Surely, I thought, tomorrow will be better…

When you live cross-culturally, the hard days are bound to come—when you  feel stupid or misplaced or just long for something to be easy—but the hard days must be lived through in order to get to all the richness and growth that comes from living in another culture. Still…your prayers are appreciated!

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13 responses to “A Day in the Life of a Language Learner

  1. What a day!
    I very much appreciate your comment at the end:”the hard days must be lived through in order to get to all the richness and growth that comes from living in another culture”. In so many things I’ve read recently (not on your blog!), that aspect seemed to be missing completely. I appreciate people being real about the hardships that often accompany living cross-culturally. But there is also so much richness, beauty and growth that come with living overseas and it makes me desperately sad, when that is not mentioned and celebrated at all. So – thank you!!!

  2. Praying for you friend.

  3. What a day but so funny & interesting, Melody; I couldn’t help laughing! It reminded me of Mr. Bean. Indeed, such trying times are the hardest part of living in a cross-culture but it is also true that when people live in denial of such struggles, they miss the big picture. Bon courage!

  4. Wow. Crazy day…even for you, my out-of-the-ordinary sister-in-law! Hang in there. Praying that the Lord will help you learn more than you could have imagined possible in this advanced class.

  5. I hope you didn’t think that I was insensitive about your ordeal when I said that I could not help laughing. I should have said that I chuckled because that’s what happened (clash of language!). I actually had almost a similar experience when I was going for a job interview in Paris many years ago. I got off the metro thinking that I had reached but when I went outside and started walking, I found that I was very far, 4 stops away. Got in the metro again and reached 30 minutes late, puffing & found everyone waiting for me. Thankfully, I was the one who passed the interview & got the job.
    You’ll be the winner too. Encore, bon courage!

  6. You are so right: “embarrassment is for wimps.”

    Let’s do hope, though, you haven’t fallen back into some parking ticket vortex like the one that almost took you down in Pasadena.

    You have my prayers. Always.

    • Ha ha! That was a parking ticket vortex. Looking back, I can’t believe I tried to fight the parking tickets that hard!

  7. Ahh, I can TOTALLY relate! Except….what was supposed to be my first day of my Hebrew class last Sunday (a month after the class actually started…) looked like me racing to the school, taking a placement test, and then finding out that the class I wanted to join was “totally full.” So, my day ended with me in tears and no language class whatsoever. All in all, I think your day was far superior to mine!

  8. Pingback: Reflections at 5: Forays into weakness | Balkan Voices

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