Learning a New Language in My Seventies


August 20, 2019 by Jean

germany-flag-mediumI’ve never considered myself very good at learning languages. I learned Quebecois French in elementary school, but when I tried to continue my French studies in high school and college, I discovered that the teachers expected everyone to sound like a Parisian. Every time I spoke, my Quebecois pronunciation or vocabulary was corrected, with the result that I lost confidence and spoke the language less well with each passing year. In my adult life, I learned a little Spanish when I worked as a social worker in Southern California, and again before a visit to Costa Rica in 1989. I’ve also brushed up on my French in preparation for visits to France or Quebec. I can generally make myself understood in these languages, but have trouble understanding what others are saying to me and can’t carry on a conversation.

In my choral singing with the Maine Music Society Chorale, I’ve discovered that some knowledge of languages other than English is helpful. Three of the four classical music concerts I’ve sung with the chorale (Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Bach’s B Minor Mass and Mozart’s Requiem) have been settings of the Catholic mass, with Latin text. These have been easy for me; I grew up Catholic at a time when the Mass was still in Latin, and I went to Catholic schools where Latin was a required subject. The chorale’s holiday concerts each December have also usually included some Latin music as well as some traditional Quebecois French carols – again, relatively easy for me.

I faced a greater challenge the year our holiday concert featured Hanukkah music in Hebrew and Yiddish. I particularly struggled with the Yiddish, which is a dialect of German. Last year, our December concert featured a mix of holiday songs from a variety of different countries and included lyrics in English, Latin, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Polish and German. Once again, it was the German I struggled with most. One German Christmas carol gave me fits. I had trouble getting my mouth around the German language sounds and, because I had no idea what the words meant, I kept getting lost among the four verses.

Then our director announced that next year’s big classical concert will be Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Beethoven is challenging for singers, and the text of this symphony is in German. I decided that I need to learn some basic German before we begin rehearsals in January so that I’ll be able to concentrate on learning the music rather than struggling with the language.

After looking for German courses at local community college and state university campuses and realizing that I would have to travel an hour each way twice a week and pay several hundred dollars, I decided to check online options. After reading some reviews and trying some sample lessons, I signed up for a subscription to Babbel.

My goals are modest. I’m not trying to prepare myself to go to Germany and converse with native speakers. I just want to be able to look at German words and know how to pronounce them and to have some idea what they mean. Babbel’s “newcomer” level, which focuses on basic vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, is perfect for me. I’ve been working on it for 10-20 minutes per day, five or six days per week. In my third week, I’m about one-third of the way through the two-course newcomer level. I like the way the lessons focus on a combination of listening, reading, speaking and writing and the way that review materials are customized to focus on what I’ve been having most trouble with. I find I need to do most lessons twice, but the self-paced online courses make it easy to do that. Already, I can look at a sentence I haven’t seen before and have some idea what it means. I’m also starting to get the hang of German pronunciation and grammar.

I wasn’t sure I was capable of learning a new language at seventy-something, but I’m finding it easier than I anticipated. And it is giving me a sense of accomplishment. I will probably go on to the “beginner” level courses when I’ve finished the newcomer level, and I may even take advantage of my Babbel subscription to improve my Spanish or French or to try another related language like Italian or Portuguese.

5 thoughts on “Learning a New Language in My Seventies

  1. Jean R. says:

    I’ve always heard it’s good exercise for our brains to try to learn a foreign language. It’s encouraging to know you found it fun and doable. This Christmas maybe you can find a video of your choral group at work to post on your blog.

    • Jean says:

      Hi Jean, As one of my friends says, this is the kind of mental activity that “really gets those synapses snapping.” It has been encouraging to make as much progress as I have in just a few weeks. (Working on it for a few minutes just about every day helps.)
      My choral group is not allowed to make recordings of our performances public because that would require paying expensive royalties to composers (in some cases) and arrangers. But the chorale member who handles the Maine Music Society FB page always puts up recordings of one or two rehearsal pieces just before the concert; I can probably find I way to link to those. Thanks for the suggestion.

  2. Diana Studer says:

    Another way to strengthen your new German muscles could be reading a garden blog.
    I enjoy this one, especially since her comments show me that German speakers enjoy her use of language.

    • Jean says:

      Diana, What a great idea! I think it will be a while before my skills are up to this. Right now, I’m working my way through Babbel’s “Newcomer” lessons, which are the precursor to starting the “Beginner 1” course.

  3. Dr Sock says:

    Jean, I practice learning a second language daily using the free Duolingo app. Currently I’m studying French, but I also worked on on German prior to my trip to Germany, Portuguese before I went to Portugal, and Greek before I went to Crete. I have studied French, German, Spanish, and two First Nations languages when I was younger (in high school and at university) but never became fluent in any of them. I think in order to become fluent, I would need to study the basics of a language, and then spend some time living somewhere where I would be immersed in speaking the language.


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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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