I’ve reached the halfway point of my studies here in Mannheim this summer. Last week my first Goethe Institut course ended, and I’ve had a five day break before my next one begins today. This break has been a good time to rest, travel, do some extra study, and take stock of how my learning has progressed over the past four weeks. On the whole I am cautiously pleased with what I’ve accomplished, which feels dramatic in some areas while being more modest in others. Now that I know how Goethe Institut courses work, and feel relatively settled into my routines of daily life here in Mannheim, I am looking forward to increasing the effort I put into my studies and trying to take advantage of the wonderful opportunities to learn that remain for me here.
Finding ways to learn outside of the classroom has been the most important step I’ve taken since coming here; this is, of course, the whole purpose of studying abroad. My most fruitful experience learning German outside the classroom has been meeting once a week with a local Mannheimer (as residents of the city are called), and talking over tea, coffee, and pastries. I’m doing this through TandemPartners, which matches native speakers of different languages together so both can both improve on a target language. Since I want to learn German and my partner wants to learn English, over the course of several hours together we switch between the two languages, or sometimes speak both at the same time. Along with this practice speaking, having a Tandem partner has also helped me to get a better understanding of the life and culture of the place I am living; my partner has graciously invited me on excursions to the surrounding area that I otherwise would not have known were possible. For example, last week we drove to the nearby city of Ladenburg, where my partner has a friend who is an official tour guide. Speaking in German I could understand, she showed us Roman ruins, medieval city gates, and the workshop where the first automobile was invented by Karl Benz. It was a wonderful tour–and the city of Ladenburg had not even been listed in my guidebooks! This just goes to show that to really learn a language and the lay of the land, you have to get to know the locals.
I’ve been getting to know locals in less in-depth but still significant ways by interacting with people while I am simply walking around Mannheim. The other day someone asked me where I gotten the bretzel (pretzel) I was eating. Another time I had to explain to a conductor that I had forgotten the pass I usually use to ride the streetcar (it’s amazing how quickly your second language improves when you are trying to avoid being ticketed!). Once a woman living on the street stuck up a conversation with me about where I was from and what she was doing that day. All of these interactions, just a few examples of many, are brief, but their spontaneous and colloquial nature help keep me on my toes.
Because of immersion experiences like these, it is my speaking skills that have improved most rapidly during my time here. However, because I am learning German for academic purposes, it is also important that I continue to improve my reading and translation abilities; this is something I’d like to focus on more in the second half on my time here. I’m going to start wrestling with an eighteenth-century text I want to translate (this was one of my perhaps overly ambitious goals for my summer learning), but I’ve also begun reading a less complex book titled Über das Meer, a undercover journalistic account of Syrian refugees crossing the Mediterranean to Europe (the English translation of this book was actually sponsored by Goethe Institut). Lately I’ve also enjoyed listening to and translating the lyrics of a German musician named Philip Poisel, whose music I was first introduced to in my translation course at Notre Dame. By adding these translating, reading, and listening habits to my routine here in Mannheim, I hope that by the end of my time here I will have seen significant improvement in multiple areas of German usage.
These first four weeks have gone by quickly, and I have a feeling that the next four will also fly by. I’m grateful that along with the language learning I’ve been able to travel to some beautiful places nearby Mannheim, such as the city of Heidelberg, or Triberg, a town in the *Schwarzwald*, or Black Forest. My language learning journey has been paired with travels along riverside paths and hiking trails (see photos below). I know that just as there is more to learn, there is also more to see. This blog has been a great way to keep track of what I’ve experienced in Germany so far, and I looking forward to updating it with more posts in the weeks to come.