Post-Program Reflections

It is time for me to reflect on my experiences as a student of German and as an American in Germany. What did I learn about the acquisition of languages? I believe that the most important factor in learning a language is time. Even though I lived in Germany and studied the language systematically, it still took time to acquire vocabulary and learn grammatical structures. Even more difficult was utilizing the vocabulary and grammar that I had learned to speak German, since real-time communication allows very little time to reflect on correct usage.

Even at the end of my stay in Germany, it was difficult for me to understand native German speakers for two reasons: first, they spoke too quickly for me to recognize all of the words and grammatical structures they were using; second, they used vocabulary that I did not know. My ability to speak German was also hampered by my limited vocabulary and incomplete knowledge of grammar. I also struggled to to recognize and formulate German idioms. When writing German, I would also “think” in English idioms and formulate German phrases with these in mind. I had to rely on someone who was fluent in German to show me when I had used an English idiom or when I needed to use a German idiom.

In my SLA proposal, I articulated several goals which I intended to meet after the completion of my eight-week course at the Goethe Institut:

  1. Internalize the morphological and syntactical principles of German such that I can recognize them effortlessly while reading German texts.
  2. Learn to easily comprehend spoken German and acquire the ability to competently converse in German.
  3. Be able to write German with sufficient competency to carry on written correspondence with German colleagues.

Although I am significantly more comfortable with German now than when I first arrived in Germany, I am still only an advanced beginner. Somewhat disappointingly, my course at the Goethe Institut did not cover all of the basic grammatical principles of German. Given what I did learn, however, both at the Goethe Institut and in my graduate German for reading course, I can decipher most of the grammar that I encounter, at least enough to grasp the basic meaning of a text.

Regarding my second goal of being able to speak German and understand spoken German: I cannot easily speak German or understand native German speakers for the reasons mentioned above. But my German for reading course did not teach me to speak or understand spoken German in any way, so I am definitely closer to competency in these areas than I was at the beginning of my studies in Germany. I believe that I have come closest to reaching the third goal of being able to write emails in German. When I am writing, I have more time to reflect on grammatical construction or look up words in a dictionary; I can also have someone else proof-read what I have written, in case I have made mistakes. I could not write anything especially elegant or complicated, but I believe that I know German well enough to communicate through writing on a basic level.

I found that humility is an essential quality when living or travelling in a foreign culture. It is disorienting to be a foreigner. It is uncomfortable to be faced with ambiguity. It is difficult to recognize the cultural preconceptions that often lead us to misinterpret cultural norms or interpersonal interactions. When I encountered situations where things were done differently than in the US, my initial reaction often depended on whether the change affected me positively or negatively. Eventually I learned to avoid judging the difference as good or bad and instead used it to gain insight into myself, my culture, or the culture in which I was a visitor.



Freiburg: Week 7

Amazingly, I have nearly completed my last full week in Freiburg. The last few days have been quite eventful. On Friday I was walking over to Huber, one of my favorite restaurants, to get a take-out. On the way I crossed through the grassy area in front of the Herz-Jesu Kirche, which is a popular spot for people to lie in the sun, have a picnic, walk their dog, and play with their children. Apparently, however, this is also the area in Freiburg where most violent crimes occur; it is not uncommon to see the police here, even during the day. I was approached by a young Afro-European man; initially he spoke in German, but switched to English when I said, “Ich spreche nicht gut Deutsch” (my fall-back when I don’t understand what someone is saying). The man, named Paul, told me that I was cool and beautiful, and that the only thing that would make him happy would be to spend time with me, to tell me about himself and get to know me. I told him that I was married (which he refused to believe) and not interested in a relationship. He responded that he was from France, and that he had moved to Freiburg because of a romantic relationship gone sour. He said that his heart had been broken many times by bad girls (both German and French) and somehow he knew that I was not that kind of person. He was like, it’s okay if you don’t want a relationship, I just want to go with you to dinner and accompany you on your errands. I refused to let him come with me, or to give him my phone number, and told him that I wanted to be alone. I had no way of knowing what kind of person he was, since we had only known each other for five minutes, and that I was leaving Freiburg in just a few days. It was a very strange and extremely uncomfortable exchange. Even though we were in a public place, surrounded by people, in broad daylight, I felt–for the first time since I’ve been in Europe–actual fear for my own safety. It was possible that he was telling the truth: that he was just lonely and sad and wanted a friend to talk to. On the other had, he might have stopped me simply because I looked vulnerable, and wanted to manipulate me for his own gain. I kept wondering, am I being paranoid or prudent? Paul seemed to understand why I wouldn’t let him come with me, but also insisted repeatedly that he had to see me again. In the back of my mind I kept wondering how I could extract myself from this conversation, and finally managed, after talking around the issue for several more minutes, to convince him that I was a lost cause. When I had finished running my errands I was concerned that he might follow me back to the Guesthouse. Again, I had no meter against which to measure this interaction, since nothing like this has ever happened to me before. But I decided to err on the side of caution, so I avoided walking back though the park and instead walked to my room another way, in the vicinity of the police station. That night I barely slept at all, simply because the event was so upsetting to me. I started to feel angry at the person for making me anxious, afraid, and unsettled. I have not seen him since, but I am now leery of walking through the park unless someone else is with me.

Yesterday I went with a group of students from the Goethe Institut to Colmar, France. The city had a magical, dream-like quality, almost like the setting for a fairy tale. The weather was perfect, and the intense sunshine made the colors of the city even more brilliant. I felt like Dorothy landing for the first time in Munchin-land, in the Land of Oz. I had a change to shop, explore, take pictures, and visit the Musée Unterlinden, which was absolutely fantastic. The museum is housed in a 13th century convent and contains both archaeological artifacts and works of art from the 11th to the 21st century. I found it very strange to be surrounded by people speaking French (although I love the musical quality of spoken French); knowing that I could not speak to them in German was somehow unnerving. I must have underestimated how comfortable I have become with German.   


Freiburg: Weeks 5 & 6

The last two weeks in Freiburg have been much the same as the previous weeks, yet also different. The city has become familiar: I no longer worry about getting lost; I less frequently seek out new places and focus more on getting from one destination to the next. The daily routine of class, homework, and free time has become predictable. In some ways the familiarity makes daily life less stressful, but it also fosters a certain amount of boredom. With fewer distractions, I feel a greater degree of home-sickness. Some aspects of German culture irritate me more than they did at first: the brusqueness of waiters in restaurants and of cashiers in the supermarket; everything being closed on Sunday and on public holidays; the constant vigilance required to avoid getting hit by bicycles; punks obtrusively asking for handouts; the need to pay for almost everything with cash. Learning the language is an agonizingly slow process, and even though I spend the greater part of each day in class or doing homework, I find it discouraging that I can only sometimes understand native German speakers. I feel I would have to stay here at least another four months just to cover all the grammatical bases and to acquire a functional ability to speak German and understand spoken German. Since putting my life on hold for that long is not an option, I remind myself that first, I don’t need to be fluent in German–I live in the US, after all–and second, that I came here specifically to improve my ability to read German.

I find it interesting that, although I am living in Germany, most of the people with whom I interact on a daily basis are not German. For example, none of my classmates are German, nor are any of the students whom I have met at the Goethe Institut. My teacher is also not German, though she has lived in Germany for many years. I am, however, extremely fortunate to be part of such a diverse community. Everyone has their own story: where they are from, what their home country is like, where they currently live, why they are learning German, what they hope to do in the future. They share their views about Germany, about world events and politics, about America. During a conversation over lunch about American’s role in various Middle-Eastern and European conflicts, the US presidential election came up. Several people in the group expressed their opinion that Americans have a particular responsibility to take an active role in politics, specifically voting in the upcoming presidential elections. In their view, America possesses great wealth and power and therefore exercises considerable influence on world events. Americans ought to choose their president with care: they have an obligation not only to themselves, but also to others. I was taken aback by this view, since I have always regarded politics with considerable skepticism and a degree of apathy. I wondered if they could be right, and whether I should re-consider my own involvement in American politics. I especially appreciated this conversation because I have been curious how people from other countries think about the States. When I was preparing for my trip to Germany and informing people that I would be away, the response I received was overwhelmingly positive: “You are going to Europe?!”; “That’s so awesome!”; “You are going to have a great time!” I don’t get impression, however, that the feeling is entirely reciprocal; for example, when we learned about places to which Germans like to travel, the US definitely did not top the list. Germans prefer to vacation in their own country, in Spain, in Italy, in Greece. When the people in my class talked about places they would like to visit, no one mentioned the US. Of course I cannot generalize based on this limited sample size, it did give me pause to consider that not everyone thinks that American is the coolest place ever. It’s kind of like, “America may be a big player in world events, but we think our own countries are pretty awesome, thank you very much.”

Freiburg: Weeks 3 & 4

I can hardly believe that I have already spent four weeks in Freiburg! Although I miss my husband and family acutely, I am grateful that in a sense that I am only halfway finished with my language training. At the beginning of the course, I greatly overestimated how comfortable I would be speaking German after four weeks; I can interact with the local population on a very basic level, but I still must resort to English for any exchange of detailed or complicated information. At the same time, I feel more comfortable attempting to speak in German, even if I am not certain that my grammar is 100% perfect. Much of the information that I have learned in class has proved extremely useful for daily life, and the classroom also provides a “safe” place for me and my classmates to try new things, make mistakes, and learn how to speak or write correctly. We recently learned the dative and accusative cases, as well one of the past tenses, which greatly increases what we are able to talk about.

Around the beginning of the third week, I contracted a virus that was circulating in my class; although being sick was itself unpleasant, I had the opportunity to visit one of the many pharmacies (die Apotheke[n]) that dot the city streets. Germans cannot buy o.t.c. medications from the supermarket, as we do in America, which explains why there are so many pharmacies (whereas in the US, I find it a little confusing that there are so many Walgreens and CVS pharmacies, when we can easily get medication from grocery stores). Given my limited vocabulary, I could not explain my symptoms in German, but fortunately an English-speaking employee directed me toward the pain-killer, decongestant, and throat lozenges. Of course I had to take her word for it that these were the appropriate medications, since I could not read the labels, but I decided that the medications were likely quite safe, since Germany is such a modern and developed country.

In addition to attending class and completing homework assignments, I have had the opportunity to explore Freiburg, visit several of the city’s museums, and occasionally hike in the Scholssberg (although the prodigious amount of rain that we have received has limited the accessibility of the hiking trails). On April 20 I went with some students from the Goethe Institut to tour Freiburg’s Münster tower; the inside of the Münster is breathtakingly beautiful, as is the view from the tower. We were fortunate enough to visit the Münster on a sunny, clear day, and were able to see the whole city, as well as some of the surrounding region, from our lofty vantage point. I also later visited the Museum of Modern art, which is currently featuring the work of Peter Zimmermann, and the Freiburg Mundenhof. I look forward to visiting the Museum für Stadgeschichte and the Museum Natur und Mensch, as well as Staufen, the Titisee, and the Triberger Wasserfälle.

Freiburg: Week 2

My second week in Freiburg has been much more serene than the first. Although my teacher, Frau Klein, is fond of giving us tests, and sitting in class from 8:30-1:00 every day can be somewhat exhausting for the brain, I still thoroughly enjoy the challenge of learning to speak, read, and write German. Speaking and understanding spoken German remain the greatest challenges; I know so little vocabulary that I often cannot formulate complete sentences, so I end up having to speak to others in English. Additionally, so many people here know English that they immediately recognize my limited grasp of German and respond to me in English. I have enjoyed a few small victories, however: I am usually able to order food in German, or to ask if a vendor accepts credit cards, or to ask for directions. It is always thrilling for me to speak in German and have the other person understand what I’m saying!

I have also become much more familiar with the city of Freiburg during the past week, as I spend much of my free time wandering the streets and perusing the shops. Freiburg strikes me as a city in which the old and new are everywhere juxtaposed: sleek modern trains run in the midst of old cobbled streets and ancient stone or brick buildings stand side-by-side with contemporary glass-and-steel apartments and sky-scrapers. I have not often encountered this polarity in the US, although Charleston, South Carolina, the city where I was born, comes close. I hope to learn more about the history of city when I visit the Augustinermuseum and the Museum für Stadtgeschichte.

I always find it engaging to observe the people of Freiburg going about their lives. There are two or three spots in the city where groups of Goths congregate with their dogs; sometimes they are asking for money, other times they just seem to be hanging out together, listening to music. They are marked particularly by their creatively cut or shaven hair, which is often teal, pink, or red. Many non-goths also dye their hair (frequently red) and shave parts of their head, or wear facial jewelry. These aesthetic choices do not seem to carry the subversive undertones than they might in the US.

Freiburg is also notable for the number of bicyclists seen on the streets, and the traffic routes are designed to make riding or transporting a bicycle easier: nearly all the staircases have special grooves or ramps which can be used to roll the bicycle up or down, and there are numerous railings to which a bicycle can be bolted or chained. Walking around the city can be somewhat nerve-wracking because of the steady stream of bicycles whizzing by. This is less of a problem in the areas where the streets are cobbled, however, since cobbling is not so easy to ride over. I have also seen people using their bicycles to transport groceries; although this would not be feasible in any US city I have ever visited or lived in, there are at least eight small supermarkets within easy walking distance of my apartment, so I expect that many people buy fewer groceries more frequently, since the stores are so conveniently located.

My first week in Freiburg

My first week in Freiburg has been a roller-coaster of emotions and experiences. The flight from Chicago to Berlin left me completely exhausted, and my first impression of the Berlin airport was bewildering: I could not read the signs and the lay-out was quite different from any US airport that I had been to previously. I had a connecting flight to Stuttgart, but I accidentally exited the terminal and wandered around the airport until I figured out the gate from which my flight was leaving. I then had to go through the security check again before boarding my plane. Upon arriving at Stuttgart, I purchased train tickets to Freiburg (which was surprisingly easy), but had to change trains three times. I found it very difficult to figure out the train system, but luckily several helpful English-speaking Germans pointed me in the right direction. I remember that on the final train to Freiburg, I sat down at an on-train restaurant and heard a father and daughter next to me speaking English. I have never before experienced such comfort at hearing someone speak in my native language! After being so confused and awkwardly asking so many people to talk to me in English, I suddenly felt more at ease hearing them converse. My arrival at Freiburg, however, was the most difficult part of the journey. I had no map of the city, and no access to Google maps on my phone. I asked many people for help finding the Goethe Institute, dragging my gargantuan suitcase over the uneven cobbled streets, but received many different answers, though everyone said, “It is really close”! Hungry, thirsty, sleep-deprived, exhausted, foot-sore, and soaked with perspiration (and consequently smelling terrible), I finally found the Institute. At that point, all I wanted to do was go to my room, take a shower, and lie down. The staff at the Institute, however, expected me to immediately go through the initial orientation. I repeatedly asked to be taken to my room, explaining my situation, but it was some time before I got there: the driver insisted that we wait until some other people were ready to be taken to the hostel. My room was pleasant, but there were many small things that I found awkward: the door knob didn’t turn, the windows opened differently, the trash was sorted differently–nothing particularly difficult, but combined with everything else, the small changes exacerbated the stress of my initial entry, making me feel stupid and intrusive. The first night I felt crushing loneliness and fear, wondering, “Why on earth did I think this was a good idea?,” and “I can’t believe I am stuck here for two months!”

My first day of class at the Institute also brought many changes, but I soon found that my teacher and classmates are wonderful people. I was amazed at the diversity of people studying German alongside me: people from Spain, Italy, Saudi Arabia, India, Brazil, Mexico, Taiwan, and the US. After class on the first day, and in the subsequent afternoons, I spent many hours exploring the city and looking for various things that I needed to set up my room: food, laundry detergent, dish detergent, shampoo, a yoga mat, and the like. Figuring out what to buy was often difficult, since the labels were in German and contained obscure vocabulary (at least for me). I quickly learned that grocery bags cost 0,20 euros each, so everyone brings their own bags; you are also expected to bag your own groceries. Now that I have lived here almost a week, I feel much more comfortable. I love attending class and am encouraged by how much German I have learned, even in a short amount of time. The city of Freiburg is beautiful, and it will probably take me the better part of eight weeks to explore everything! The institute offers many activities, such as a concert that I plan to attend tomorrow. And I am slowly getting used to the way things are done here.