When I was sixteen, I moved to Germany for a year, without my family and without any friends.
I knew how to say “bathroom” (damentoilette), grapes (weintrauben) and “Hello, my name is…” (Hallo, meine Name ist…)
I also knew I needed something to break out of the rut I was living in. So, I uprooted my life, found a host family willing to take me in for twelve months, packed a suitcase and left.
At the time, I lived in suburban Georgia. I’d had the same friends for my whole life, I’d been to the same school since I was young, and to be honest, I felt like I wasn’t being challenged as much as I knew I could be. I was coasting.
“Challenges enable you to do things that may be uncomfortable, challenging or difficult; this may be learning new skills, adopting new habits and experiencing new things.” — Janice B. Gordon, Business Growth Expert
I moved in with my host family in a city called Oldenburg, in a very dreary and rainy August.
I started at my new school. I made some new friends — not many, because I didn’t speak any German. I learned the route to school, riding my bike every day.
And honestly? For the first six months, it sucked. I’d envisioned myself easily charming the whole class, learning German in a flash, impressing everyone at school.
In fact, I was lonely, isolated, homesick and full of doubt. I didn’t get along with my host sister. I hated the weather.
I’d never been challenged like this before. I hadn’t realized it, but I’d been coasting my whole life. I’d never learned resilience.
The only thing that kept me from packing up and going back home was that I hated proving right the little voice in my mind that said I couldn’t do it.
But this meant the next six months loomed ahead of me: a trial to be endured, just to show I could hack it. I was prepared to force my way through, to grind the six months away. I didn’t anticipate enjoying any of it.
After half a year of struggling in a way I’d never had to before, something changed.
I went on the school ski trip and forgot my iPad.
This meant I didn’t have a way of getting in touch with my parents or friends on Facebook (this was before I got a smartphone). I couldn’t read my books in English.
I had to speak with German people, in German. I had nothing else to do.
And something clicked that week. I had learned some German before, but that was the week I really started to pick it up. At the same time, I pushed myself a little bit further out of my shell and started using my broken German to try to make friends.
Before, I was too embarrassed by my shoddy German to even try. But now, I had nothing else to do. I couldn’t retreat into my shell, because my safety blanket was gone.
And as I reached out, I realized that these people weren’t be snobby about it — lots of them had learned English or multiple other languages, and they appreciated the my effort to speak their language.
This one week of total immersion really helped me click with the language and the people. When I got back from skiing, I had made lots of new friends, I had plans to have coffee, pizza, a night out. I started reading books in German. And it only got better from there.
By the time I was flying home, I was devastated to leave behind the incredible experience I had that year abroad.
But I knew I could handle whatever came next.
Here are the three key things I learned from dropping everything and moving to a new country where I didn’t speak the language:
1. Change is scary but necessary.
To grow, you need to change. If you have to choose between stagnating in your current environment, or leaping into the great unknown, always pick the jump.
It is beyond terrifying to start something new, to leave your comfort zone behind, but the bigger the challenge, the bigger the rewards at the end.
2. Full immersion is the best but most challenging way to learn.
Whether you’re learning a new language or picking up any other new skill, the best way to learn is to fully throw yourself into it. Paint yourself into a corner. Create a situation where you sink if you don’t learn to swim.
I’d always wanted to learn German, but it wasn’t enough to do a few classes here and there, or just make vocab cards. I had to put myself in a situation where the only way to enjoy my time was to learn German as quickly as possible, surrounding myself with the culture, the environment, and the people.
3. You’re more resourceful than you think you are.
Six months in, I had given up. I was resigned to going home, speaking a bit more German, with maybe one or two new friends. I was convinced that was all I could do.
I was wrong. I could do so much more than that.
But it took removing that last security blanket to find that out. Once I spent a week without being able to read in English, or speak to my home friends in English, I found I was more than capable of making new friends and learning German faster. I just needed to stretch a little farther.