Post-Program Reflection

Now that I have been back in the United States for about a month, I’ve taken some time to reflect on my SLA grant experience:

Even though I’ve studied languages in school since the fourth grade, this summer was my first experience of immersion in a foreign language environment. Unsurprisingly, the this made a significant difference in my language learning. At the beginning of the summer I could basically order food in a restaurant, with some effort; by the end of the summer I could navigate most daily situations once would encounter, and carry on a basic conversation without hesitation. The key to my learning was being willing to jump into conversations with native speakers in order to learn, knowing I would make mistakes. It was a choice I had to make everyday. Looking back on my learning goals, I believe I’ve met each one to varying degrees. Although I am still developing my translation skills, I am much less phased by complex paragraphs and sentences than previously. I can definitely carry on a basic conversation with a native German speaker. And I was able to travel a great deal of southwestern Germany, so I have a better sense of the landscape and culture of the area I study for my research.

I’d travelled and studied abroad before, but never in continental Europe. Being in Germany, especially during a summer full of major political events (Brexit, the US presidential election, the failed coup in Turkey, violence in both the US and Europe), was eye-opening. The geographical and cultural situation of the US can be isolating in terms of larger political developments. In Europe, this is simply not possible. What’s happening in another country directly affects the country you are living in, and you can’t avoid awareness of this. I’d encourage those applying for the SLA of preparing to study abroad to enter not just into the language but also the culture and politics of place they are studying. However, don’t get so caught up in following politics on the internet that you don’t actually go outside and enjoy being in a different place!

I plan to continue developing my German so that I can use it to discuss German language literature in my dissertation. I am currently taking a advanced German for research class here at Notre Dame, and will start digging into the texts relevant to my dissertation in the next year. I am also keeping up my conversational skills by practicing with my roommate, who is a native German speaker, and taking advantage of the many opportunities the German department at Notre Dame offer for conversation practice. Overall, the SLA grant has inspired and enabled me to push my research in new directions I’d never expected before.

Final Weeks in Germany

As with my previous post, weeks full of learning and activity have kept me from updating this blog as frequently as I would like. Now that I have completed my courses at the Goethe Institut and have a few more days of travel before I return to the United States, it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on my major experiences this summer: learning German, living in Mannheim, and acquainting myself with the culture and politics of Germany.

The final two weeks of my second Goethe Institut course, which ended last Thursday, went by so quickly they were hard to absorb. Unlike my first course, which had one instructor for all four weeks, this one was divided between two instructors who each taught a two week section. While my instructor for the final stretch did a fine job picking up where the other left off, it was nevertheless a transition that broke up the continuity of the course. Anticipating my return to the United States and the start of a new semester this fall also preoccupied me over the past two weeks, so my attention was divided as the last class approached. Despite this, I felt a real sense of achievement and camaraderie with my classmates on our final days of the course. I had studied with some of these people for my entire two months in Germany, and I will miss them and the unique international community that composes Goethe Institut. And while the busyness of the past two weeks made me question how much German I was learning, my travels after leaving Mannheim have shown to me how far I have come in my ability to use the language in daily situations, and to intuitively piece together what words and phrases mean even if I have not studied them formally. I’m grateful for the continued opportunity to practice speaking German as I travel a few days here before returning home.

Some of the people I have talked to have asked my why I choose to study in Mannheim. The city of squares is certainly not Germany’s most picturesque, so I partly understand why some would be curious about my choice. But looking back on my time in the city, I think Mannheim was a wonderful place to be introduced to contemporary Germany. While some might not appreciate its industrial business landscape (the city houses major corporations and manufacturers like John Deere, Daimler, Caterpillar, Siemens, and Unilever), these companies are a very real part of what makes Germany one of Europe’s strongest and most powerful economies. Whenever I walked along the Rhine, I saw not only cruise boats but barges carrying automobiles and other goods north. I appreciate the important economic realities that are more visible in Mannheim than in some of the country’s more picturesque cities. Another way in which the city exemplifies contemporary Germany is the significant role it has played in housing the thousands of refugees, die Flüchtlinge, that have immigrated here in the last two years. Mannheim was already a multicultural city because of the immigration from Turkey and southeastern Europe decades early, and once again it has become an arrival city. More than 80,000 refugees have passed through here in the past two years while being distributed through the region, and the city has given more permanent shelter to 12,000. While I did not necessarily sense this while walking the main streets (I did not to visit Benjamin Franklin village, the former US military base that now houses refugees), knowing that Mannheim was participating the refugee arrival process inspired me to research this situation more than I might have otherwise. Studying in this city helped me to get beyond the image of Germany as a country of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers), or of Oompah and beer halls (although I like those too!).

Beyond the formal learning, and the cultural and political education I undertook in Mannheim, I’m most struck by the importance of my interactions and relationships with native German speakers. In fact, these interactions and relationships undergirded my formal learning and and education. Numerous daily conversations in the street or in shops not only spurred my language acquisition, but also forced me out of my comfort zone and made me more open to learning. Most important of all was the friendship that developed between me and my conversation partner who I met with to practice her English and my German once a week. After my Goethe Institut course finished and I had checked out of my apartment, I went over to my friend’s house for tea and a homemade cake, and then she gave me a ride to catch my train. A few days later we met for a final time in Constance where we both were traveling. That my departure from Mannheim and from Germany is marked by saying goodbye to a friend, and not just completing a language learning program, has been one of the highlights of my time here.

As my time in Germany winds down, I can’t help but remember Carol, the character in the 14e Arrondissement segment of Paris, je t’aime, as she reports to her French class about her trip to Paris. Her experience is funny and also touching for its portrayal of a language learner making her way through an experience abroad. I can’t say I’ve experienced a moment like the one Carol describes at the end of her report. But I hope that this summer will not be my last opportunity to be in Germany.

PS: I know this blog has perhaps been a little light on the photos. I’ve posted a selection from my time here below (click on each photo for better resolution). 

A boat in the Rhine

A boat in the Rhine

Benedictine Archabbey in the Donau River Valley town of Beuron

Benedictine Archabbey in the Donau River Valley town of Beuron

Banners commemorating the Hieronymus von Prag and Jan Hus in front of the Münster in Constance.

Banners commemorating the Hieronymus von Prag and Jan Hus in front of the Münster in Constance

Flowers on Reichenau Island

Flowers on Reichenau Island

Writing a postcard on a train

Writing a postcard on a train





Rounding Out My German Skills

In terms of my studies at the Goethe Institut, the past two weeks have been my best so far, which is perhaps why I have not posted in a while. I am now in an A2.2 course, which means—according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Langauges that Goethe Institut follows—that I am an advanced beginner. If my first month here was about getting my footing in a language I had studied but not had much practice speaking, the second month so far has been about consolidating what I’ve learned into a more well rounded set of skills. I’ve really appreciated the encouragement of the new instructor I had for the first two weeks of this course, who constantly reminded us that our classroom study will mean nothing if we do not also seek out contact with Muttersprachler, native speakers. This was a helpful nudge at a point in the summer when it would be easy to fall into the basic routines I’ve established and not push myself further. So I’ve continued to initiate conversations and try to throw myself into the daily situations I encounter. My favorite moment from the past two weeks was when an older German woman waiting at the light rail station with me asked what train I was waiting for, which led to a longer conversation about what I was in Germany. We were in fact waiting for the same train, and it was a delight to talk with her during our ride.

Besides continuing to practice speaking, I’ve sensed a significant improvement in my ability to write German during the past two weeks, something we did not practice much in my first course. As an English PhD student, it is especially satisfying to begin learning how to express myself in writing. As opposed to the improvisational nature of conversation, writing allows for time to think carefully about how to say something, and polish what you’ve written. For a language like German that has many moving pieces that all need to correspond to make a guten deutschen sentence, having a little extra time to think is especially helpful. Whether writing a paragraph about a topic in class, or composing simple emails to the German people I’m in contact with, being able to step back and look at what I’ve written, tangible evidence of my learning, has been an encouraging experience during my second course at Goethe Institut.

With only two weeks of coursework left I am hoping to finish well by putting as much effort as I can into my remaining classes. While I am reading and comprehending more German than I have all summer, I need to give more intentional time to translating academic texts that Goethe Institut has not exposed me too. When I get back to Notre Dame this fall I will be taking an “German for Advanced Research” course, so returning my attention more explicitly back to translation work will help me to transition from the more practical focus I’ve had in Germany this summer. Even though my time here has been wonderful, I’m starting to look forward to heading home in a few weeks.

Halfway through the Summer in Mannheim

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.


The Philosopher's Walk along the Neckar River in Heidelberg

The Philosopher’s Walk along the Neckar River in Heidelberg

Triberg's Waterfall in the Black Forest, one of the Largest in Germany

Triberg’s Waterfall in the Black Forest, one of the Largest in Germany

Germany, Britain, and the European Union

As part of my time in Germany this summer I am trying to learn about the country’s political situation along with the language. While the acceptance over the past year of over a million refugees is the major event shaping German politics currently, Britain’s recent referendum on its membership in the European Union (EU)–which is not unrelated to the matter of refugees and immigration–also has received significant scrutiny here and likely has serious consequences for the country. As one of Britain’s strongest allies on the continent, and as one of the EU’s leading nation’s, Germany’s perspective on the UK’s referendum decision to leave the EU highlights some of the central issues at stake in this major development.

Britain’s EU referendum (often referred to using the neologism “Brexit”) is a difficult phenomena to summarize. A motley cast of political actors are allegedly involved: fear-mongers, technocrats, cosmopolitans, a disaffected British working class, immigrants, racists, nationalists, the young, the old, Little Englanders, Europeans, patriots, economists, globalists, and a politician nicknamed “BoJo.” In spite of this carnivalesque scene, however, there are two basic takes on the British referendum that can be illustrated by way of reference–since we are talking about Britain–to a pair of famous Monty Python scenes. On one hand, Britain sounds like the leader of the People’s Front of Judea from Life of Brian, naively and pompously asking, in spite of a long list of benefits, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” Understood in this spirit, the vote to leave the EU is a foolhardy, small-minded, even ethnically motivated repudiation of the broader human flourishing brought about by its membership in the EU. On the other hand, Britain’s choice also recalls the anarcho-syndicalist peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who tells King Arthur that “Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses,” and when threatened by the monarch cries out, “Help, I’m being repressed!” If the peasant’s perspective is taken as a guide to Britain’s decision, it becomes a matter of a democratic country reclaiming its national sovereignty back from an elite bureaucracy out of touch with the lives of the people. Both of these examples are too simple to stand on their own, but taken together I think they illustrate well the questions animating Britain’s EU referendum decision: what sovereign powers and privileges should nations in a supranational organization like the EU possess, at what point should the inevitable limits of a political relationship be considered as ground for terminating that relationship?

For those who consider the EU a self-evident good, a glorious international project built on free trade and free movement, it would be good to turn away from Britain towards the continent and remember the national interests that drove the formation of the EU’s predecessor organizations, for example, France’s desire for a political platform to spread their interests across Europe, and Germany’s concern to establish a new role for itself post WWII. Along with recognizing the persistence and even dominance of national agendas in the EU supposedly supranational framework, liberal critics of Britain’s referendum decision should also take into account arguments in favor of Brexit coming from the left, which question the ability of the EU to be a working against inequality or to be reformed democratically. The EU is not the institution many, especially Americans, perhaps, imagine it to be, and I think Rachel Donadio of the New York Times is right to say that the referendum “signaled the definitive end of the era of transnational optimism.”

The again, the EU is probably not exactly what Britons voting to leave imagine it to be either. Just as the anarcho-syndicalist peasant, however justified in his grievances, probably overestimates the nature of King Arthur’s hegemonic power, so too Britain may overestimate the EU as a monolithic institution. Thinking about the continent again, specifically Germany, is helpful here. While it is true that some leaders in the EU such as the President of its executive branch, Jean-Claude Juncker, wish move towards a superstate model where national powers are transfered to the EU, the current attitude towards Brexit, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, is that elected national leaders should negotiate the terms of Britain’s departure, not EU officials. Germany takes this stance to a great extent out of self-interest: with the EU’s largest population and strongest economy, Germany can maintain its position of strength and influence by advocating for the autonomy for EU nation states, emphasizing cooperation rather than integration. Britain’s decision to leave the EU is a great loss for Germany, which shares with the UK a more democratic and capitalist outlook that its other major ally (and rival), France. And while French President François Hollande has pushed for Britain to make a quick exit, Merkel has cautioned Europeans leaders to “avoid drawing quick and simple conclusions that could further divide Europe.”

Europe is already, of course, quite divided, and this state is both a cause and consequence of Britain’s referendum: Perhaps the biggest mistake made by both Brexiters and European Unionists is to imagine the EU as a monolithic political entity. Living in Germany this summer makes me a little more aware of the country’s unique place in European politics. In some ways Germany and its recent open borders to refugees represents a major characteristic of the European project some British voters are wary of. Then again, Germany is much like Britain in that it maintains a strong interest in its own national sovereignty. It is therefore somewhat in the middle of Europe politically, as it is in the middle of Europe geographically. Whether the middle can hold together remains to be seen.

Work and Respite in the City of Squares

Today I completed my second week of classes at the Goethe Institut in Mannheim, which means I’m already a quarter of the way through my studies here. It’s been a full two weeks: my classes run from 8:30 AM to 1 PM Monday through Friday, and when I’m not in class I’ve been exploring the city and adjusting to life in a new place. My studies at the Goethe Institut have helped to solidify the German I’ve already learned while continuing to push me forward, especially when it comes to speaking. Goethe Institut has several great locations throughout Germany, but I am glad that I choose to come to Mannheim, a mid-sized city where I’ve already made a few wonderful discoveries.

The Goethe Institut was founded in 1951 with the purpose of providing additional training for foreign teachers of German in Germany. Today it serves as the Federal Republic of Germany’s cultural institute, teaching German language and serving as an ambassador for German culture broadly defined. Goethe Institut’s global reach can be easily deduced from my class’s international composition: my fellow students are from Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Ireland, Tunisia, Vietnam, and the United States. Our classes are structured around activities and interpersonal interaction (carried out completely in German, of course), so we’re consistently required to mingle with each other. This approach has been very helpful for my own particular learning. I started studying German this year in a graduate reading course that focused exclusively on translation into English. It was fast-paced, and I learned enough to competently translate German given enough time and a dictionary, but my knowledge was more broad than deep, and I could essentially only read. The intensive classes here at Goethe Institut have allowed me to develop a better grasp of some of the grammar I learned so quickly before, and the focus on interpersonal interaction has helped bring my conversational skills up to speed.

The grammatical area I’ve sensed the most improvement in so far has been the German case system, which I think is a significant challenge for English speakers. Whereas in English there is only one definite article, “the,” in German there are five, “der,” “die,” “das,” “den,” and “dem,” and they can signify sixteen different kinds of noun depending on gender, number, and case. That’s a paradigm shift! When I was learning to translate I had to have familiarity with the case system, but I could get away with a little guesswork: all I needed to do was translate German definite article into “the.” Being required to speak German has forced me to get closer to the case system, and to develop a more precise understanding of how the language is working. Overall, even though I’m still a beginner when it comes to speaking German, I’ve taken significant steps beyond the Goethe Institut placement interview I had to do upon my arrival. Then I could barely string a sentence together to say what I needed to say, and now I do this kind of thing on a daily basis in class.

Of course, speaking in class is different that speaking on the streets, but I’ve been doing some of this too. Mannheim’s streets, in fact, are quite distinctive. Much like Philadelphia, and built around the same time, Mannheim’s city center is laid out as a chessboard-like grid, a testament to the Enlightenment’s rage for order. Unlike Philadelphia, however, you won’t find a Chestnut or an Arch street here, not even a Goethe Straße: the grid is organized by letters and numbers, so blocks are referred to as “A4” or “K7.” This layout has garnered Mannhiem the nickname “die Quadratestadt”—city of squares. While this may seem a bit impersonal, Mannheim’s city center contains a number of public spaces and historic buildings, and is largely pedestrianized, so walking the city makes for a nice break from study. I suppose the Enlightenment was never as orderly as it hoped to be, and that here, there, and everywhere, it sometimes is hip to be square.

While Mannheim’s most famous sight is the Wasserturm, my favorite thing to go to downtown is Wochenmarkt, the weekly farmer’s market held in in the Marktplatz. Here I can take in the wide array of fruit, vegetables, breads, cheeses, and, of course, Wurst, that the vendors bring in from the area. Last week I approached one of the stands selling Wurst and asked for help selecting from the many kinds of sausage that were being sold. The vendor very patiently helped me, teaching me the names of the various sausages and giving me a summary of how spicy they were. I took several home and enjoyed them very much. Yet even outings like this on the city grid practicing my German can feel taxing at the end of the day. I’m learning how much energy it takes to make one’s way around a foreign place using a foreign language. For this reason I’ve been thankful to discover recently, completely by accident, that my apartment is a five minute walk from a heavily forested park that borders the Rhine river. At the end of the day being able to go here and stroll along the bank, passing other people by and not having to say a word, is a welcome respite.

Mannheim's Water Tower

Mannheim’s Water Tower

The Rhine

The Rhine

On the Road to Mannheim

Herzlich wilkommen to the first of a series of posts that will report on my two months as a student at the Goethe Institut in Mannheim, Germany. I’m grateful that Notre Dame’s Summer Langauge Abroad Program has enabled me to dedicate this summer to improving my German, and I am excited about sharing my experiences on this blog. I am also hoping that people will enjoy reading and thinking about life and language learning in Germany, and I invite any readers to give me feedback—my email address can be found on my SLA profile page.

The road to Mannheim has been an eventful. Even though I’ve only just arrived in this industrial city at the confluence of the Rhine and Neckar rivers on Monday, I’ve already been in Germany for a week and have had some significant experiences with the language. When I found out that I would be able to study abroad this summer, I decided to arrive several days prior to my classes starting so I could have some time to recover from jetlag and to travel. So rather that flying into Frankfurt in the southwest corner of Germany near Mannheim, I decided to begin my journey in the capital city of Berlin located in the northwest corner of the country. From there I made my way via train to Köln (anglicized as Cologne), and then Mannheim.

In terms of speaking the language, I arrived in Berlin fresh of the humble achievements of ordering my beverages in German on the plane (Ich möchte ein Wasser mit Gas. Haben Sie Wein?), but I once got into the city, I grew more shy. I found myself slipping into English at cafes, whispering a quiet thank you instead of saying danke. It’s easy to do in a place like Berlin where so many people know English, and I was initially inhibited by a fear of making mistakes. This feeling was probably compounded by the size and sprawl of the city, and I was staying in Alexanderplatz, a part of town near, but not close to the central Berlin. Alone in my hostel at the end of my first full day I felt disappointed that I’d given up on speaking German so easily, and resolved that the next day would be different.

The next day was different. My first real success, ordering a meal entirely in German, came at Konnopke’s Imbiss, a sausage kitchen that has been serving wurst from a location underneath an elevated U-Bahn track since 1930. I read through the menu, practiced what I was going to say, and approached the counter. Once I ordered my currywurst the cashier smiled, asked a followup question to which I gave a brief answer, and that was that. Similar scenarios continued to occur the rest of the week, each time requiring me to think less about words and phrases I had already used, while also giving me opportunities to try new things. One particularly good experience came at a little cafe in Köln, where I had a leisurely, relaxed meal of spaghetti with pesto and a glass of red wine after a long day of visiting the city’s famed cathedral and many smaller Romanesque churches. I interacted with the waiter several times, and he seemed to enjoy these exchanges as much as I did. I suspect the learning curve will be steeper once I begin classes, so I’m grateful to have had encouraging moments like this on my way to Mannheim.

In the midst of my rudimentary success with speaking German here I’ve also been reading a new book by the philosopher Charles Taylor called The Language Animal, and as the title suggests it is quite relevant to my current experiences. Taylor emphasizes language’s constitutive dimension, its capacity not just to be referential but to be creative. More than a functional tool, language is very medium that facilitates our sense of what is real. For example, when I sat down in that cafe in Köln and spoke with the waiter in German, together we initiated and participated in a different reality than we would have if we had spoke English. Rather than playing the role of a tourist committed to speaking what in Germany is a familiar but foreign tongue, I stepped into the role of a traveller curious about entering the vernacular world of the place I was visiting. Reciprocally, the waiter exposed a different dimension of his own self to me than if he had spoken English. German speakers consistently say more than I can possibly understand, underscoring the fact that the reality I’ve entered into by ordering in German at a restaurant is much larger than my current capacity to comprehend it. This fundamental characteristic of language learning (think of the gap in language abilities between parents and children just beginning to speak), more generally describes our larger human predicament of trying to understand a world that we consistently realize is larger than we thought. Furthermore, our ability, through language, to come to terms with this predicament depends on maintaining continuous conversation with others, what Taylor calls “bouts of shared attention,” or “communion.” The German waiter and I were only able to navigate the complex predicament of an American walking into a German cafe because we gave our attention to each other and to our conversation. I’m hoping that small “communion” we shared will not be the last one I experience during my summer in Germany. In my next post, I will write about how some of these themes are playing out in my Goethe Institut classes in Mannheim.



TV Tower in Alexanderplatz, Berlin

Köln Cathedral

Köln Cathedral