The Dunning-Kruger Effect Meets Die Erkältung


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Part of being an artist is the willingness to look like a fool for just long enough to start looking brilliant.

Or so I’m telling myself.

Upon reflection, for much of the time that I’ve been singing, I have basically always thought that I was better than I was. That’s not to say that I was awful, but instead that I couldn’t accurately judge myself in the moment.

Thus I wriggle uncomfortably when I listen to past recordings or analyze much of my older work. Stuff that is obvious to me now clearly wasn’t obvious to me then.

Out of tune? Cringe.

Spread high notes? Moan.

No legato? Convulse.

More terrifying: I don’t know what I’m doing now that will horrify me in the future. It’s the artists’ version of the Dunning-Kruger effect: bad artists can’t know why they’re bad.

Or more kindly reformulated: growing artists can’t know now what they will know later. In fact, we probably wouldn’t even begin if we were viscerally aware of just how bad we are at the start, and this Effect is probably a blessing in disguise for this reason.

In my experience, the Effect is slightly different when learning a language, but it’s relevant regardless. On the one hand, I already speak one language well, and I know I speak the new one – German – comparatively badly. This is the case despite the enormous amount of work I’ve already put into learning it. No delusions there.

On the other hand, the task appears to grow larger as I learn more, which is in line with the Effect. Just how far I have to improve gets further away as I gain knowledge, and the depth of my unfamiliarity is more apparent with every new word and every idiom. It’s easy to forget just how much expertise I’ve gained in my first language compared to a second.

For example, phrasings that never struck me as particularly idiomatic in English are now simply wrong in German:

More beautiful. More and more. I’m cold. There is.

Chuck those wordings out the window, and be prepared to chuck more after that. Yes, one can find the same meanings, but it’s harder than simply looking at a German/English dictionary and finding the individual words. I am constantly surprised by what simply doesn’t translate, and the examples above are beginner stuff. The rabbit hole goes ever deeper.

Naturally, I would love to emerge butterfly-like from a cocoon of isolation speaking perfectly and wowing people with my incredible nuances of grammar and vocabulary, but “das geht nicht. I must speak now because I live in Germany, and there’s no time to wait for future perfection.

Thus I’ve had to accept that I will sound stupid some or even much of the time depending on context. Despite my best efforts, I will sometimes have a hard time communicating my needs or understanding others’ needs. Sometimes conversations will end abruptly due to my linguistic limits, and other conversations will simply feel vaguely unfinished.

This is compounded during cultural-difference-collisions. Some basic concepts just do not translate, and what’s required is a total rethinking of the world.

Take, for example, the common cold. Every country has their own understandings/superstitions of what a cold is, how one catches it and what to do about it that is unrelated to any of the actual facts about colds.[1] Germany is no exception.

Realizing that doesn’t mean that I grok those differences though. When people speak of becoming erkältet or having an Erkältung, they don’t always just mean the rhinovirus infection. Some people have told me that one can become erkältetjust from drinking cold water with ice or from the wind. Due to the multicultural nature of Europe and especially an opera house, a mixture of international opinions about colds is present alongside the German ones. Toss in the other words that have similar but not exactly the same meanings (Schnupfen for example), and you have a problem for a lil’ Ausländer like me.

Having had a cold recently, I went down to the local pharmacy to make my case for why I needed medicine. In Germany, most drugs are available only after convincing a pharmacist to sell them to you. This includes antihistamines and pain relievers, and the quantities are often quite small compared to those in the States. Turns out they don’t feel the need for buckets of pills for a family of four to stockpile through three winters and the Second Coming.

On the bike ride over, I practiced some words and phases I needed:

Husten. Erkältung. Ich erkältete mich. Und so weiter

I botched it almost as soon as I got to the counter. I inserted random verbs into the wrong places, apologized and tried again. The pharmacist, a smiling young Turkish woman, asked what other language I spoke. The way her look soured when I said “Englisch. Ich bin Amerikaner” revealed that my response was not the answer she’d been hoping for.

Continuing, I told her in German that I had a cold, was coughing and wanted something to help me sleep. Or at least I thought I had told her that. She suggested an expensive box of pills that was a general cold remedy under the theory that I could sleep better if I felt better. It was a fair enough concept, but I knew I didn’t want them as soon as I saw the big C on front, which signaled that these were a vitamin C placebo.

She must have seen me grimace and asked me to confirm if I wanted them or not.

“Do you have an antihistamine?” I prompted.

She looked incredulous. “Do you have an allergy?”

My visible surprise at this question was probably interpreted as not understanding the words. As far as I know, antihistamines are perfectly fine for colds if you want to feel drowsy and dry yourself up.[2]

I couldn’t summon the vocabulary to explain myself though. The absolute best that I could have done in German would be something like, “But anti-histamine is for cold also good. Then makes the nose less mucous, and I could sleep ok,” and I’m sure I would have messed up the declensions.

Actually, that might have been a passable explanation, but I instead only managed a sustained “Uhhhhhh.”

Sensing trouble, another pharmacist – who was also an Ausländer– came over and began peppering me with questions. I explained again. Cold. Cough. Can’t sleep.

She said, “Ah, Reizhusten.

I have since looked up this word, and I don’t quite understand the distinction between it and Husten, which is “cough”, or why this was a “Eureka!” moment for her.

She then began mentioning the word for “juice” (Saft), and I had no idea what she was getting at. She held up a box and explained this would ease the cough, but it was only for evenings, and I’d have to drink a lot of water.

This one clicked. Cough syrup equals cough juice. Good enough.

“Yes, that’s what I want.”

But instead of expressing relief, they both looked doubtful.

The second one explained further that it wouldn’t cure the bacterial infection but would only suppress the cough. Not actually having a bacterial infection, I was confused by this statement. Again, I’m sure this was interpreted as my not understanding the words themselves.

I began wondering if I had I managed to communicate to her that I had something much worse than a cold? Pneumonia perhaps? Could this entire conversation be because they thought I was dying and asking for advice on how to sleep through it?

The first pharmacist wanted me to consider the pills with the vitamin C again. Skeptical; I asked what actual drugs were in it. She didn’t answer and instead asked if I had a sore throat. No. Headache? No.

She set it aside, picked up the cough syrup, tossed it on the counter and told me the price in a defeated tone. It cost less than half of the vitamin C pills.

As I pulled out my wallet, I saw the second pharmacist squinting at me. She leaned on the counter and insisted again that I only take it at night and drink lots of water in a tone that suggested she was entrusting me with something dangerous and important. I said, “Ja,” nodded and paid. She tightened her lips and sighed through her nose while the other put the box and some free tissues in a cute little bag. I smiled and thanked them as gingerly as I could.

They stared after me as I left.

The day before, I had spoken to my wife’s German teacher on the subway. Our conversation had been entirely in German, and we had discussed Haydn. She’d seemed impressed and had complimented me, and my wife later reported that she had even mentioned to her class how normal I sounded. Armed with this, I had walked into the pharmacy feeling pretty stinkin’ good about my German progress.

But walking out, I didn’t know what to think. During the bike ride home, I turned it over in my head. I had reviewed words before I’d gone over, hadn’t I? Yes, I had, but I hadn’t known what I hadn’t known. How can I look up words before I know that I need them?

There it was. The Dunning-Kruger Effect for languages. I hadn’t known going in just how over my head I was. But I had been, and this was a pretty simple situation. With this thought the vast wilderness of future growth stretched before me, and a sense of dread dawned as I considered future embarrassments and future regrets over present clumsiness. Endless…

“This is the process!” I crowed to my neighbors and myself from my bicycle seat making a decision to not let it bother me. “This is what people do when they want to get better at things.” We look stupid until we don’t look stupid, and our teachers are often the unwitting people who have to deal with us while we wonder when everyone started seriously discussing juice.

Or so I’m telling myself.


[1] Consider that you never hear the phrase, “Wash your hands, you’ll catch cold.”

[2] Funnily enough, when I asked a doctor the next day for an antihistamine, he asked the same thing.

Background song “Overreacting” by Brad Sucks.


  1. Karen Milliorn says

    You have hit the nail on the head about learning languages–one must be willing to sound foolish in order to learn–to be willing to take the risk, but it is so worth it!
    I believe there is a strong correlation between musical talent & learning languages well–although I’m definitely not a linguist–at any rate, in getting the accents correct! (My spouse, however, would seem the exception to that rule: he plays several instruments, but his Spanish spoken with a West Texas accent is absolute torture to my ears!).
    I really enjoyed reading this!

    • says

      Thank you so much, Karen! I think the musical training has helped with my accent and pronunciation, but the absolute best thing for me has been just speaking with my colleagues, who have shown an incredible amount of patience as I stumble through their language. It’s easy to try new things when you have supportive people around.

  2. Andrew says

    Oh boy. Then there’s drafts and Kreislauf. But, in any case, I’d find a different pharmacy.