Goethe-Institut Week 3 (Regarding the balance of two foreign languages)

Although I am fully aware that I am in Berlin to study German, I am still speaking English from time to time to keep my English in use. Because both English and German are foreign languages to me, I should prevent both of them from getting rusty. Yet this week I noticed something interesting – when I was ordering a sandwich deliberately in English at a breakfast shop, my tongue felt stiff, and at that moment did not not how to describe the sandwich in English, which I usually refer to in German “die Baguette mit Schnitzel”. I then switched to German to clarify. It seems as if my German, although still far less proficient as my English, acquires more fluency and naturalness in this totally native environment.

According to my German teacher of the first week, this is a good sign – it indicates that one is starting to think in German, and consequently, one’s mind and speaking habits are more on the German track. According to her theory, when one studies a new language, this new language takes up space in the part of the brain that deals with foreign languages, and as one learns more than one foreign languages, these languages compete for the limited space in that part of the brain. As a result, when a new foreign language comes in, and a foreign language acquired earlier is not actively in use, this language would be “marginalised”. For this reason, she speaks different languages to her multilingual colleagues from time to time, to keep these foreign languages in a “balance of power”.

I don’t know if this theory is scientifically proved, but my personal experiences prove it to be true. My experience of difficulty in English at the breakfast shop at implies that German and English are not only two languages different in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation, but also more importantly, grounded in two mentalities, two ways of thinking, and two seemingly similar, but starkly different cultures. I would characterise my first two weeks as a confrontation with the exoticism of Germany. There are many things about Germany that I have not expected before I came here. Having spent one year in the US and adjusted to the American way of life, I have noticed many things particular of Germany, but do not typically exist in the US. Here is an incomplete list of examples thereof:

1) A highly mobile lifestyle especially in cities, characterised by the prominence of renting apartments, the wide use of bikes, and a highly developed public transportation system that connects every corner of a city and every town within Germany.
2) The practice of husbandry to protect environment, as in the cases such as you have to bring your own bag for shopping, otherwise the plastic bags in supermarkets cost; the rarity of air-conditioners to prevent further global warming; a refund of 25 cents as an encouragement for people to bring back empty water bottles to shops for recycling.
3) The predilection for bright colours, especially bright yellow, sometimes also bright green and red. Especially noteworthy is that yellow is the theme colour of many major companies and manufacturers, such as Lufthansa, BVG (Berlin Public Transportation Authority), Deutsche Post (German Postal System), Deutsche Oper Berlin (a major opera company in Berlin), Berliner Philharmoniker, Deutsche Grammophon (Classical music recording company), Jack Wolfskin (sport equipment and clothing). The combination of yellow and black is very favoured: some say it is reminiscent of the national tricolour, some say its simply eye-catching. In contrast, I recall that the prominent colour in the US would be a nostalgic dark blue or red in most cases.
4) The surprisingly casual dressing style. While most people would expect Europeans to be more conservative and probably “stiffer” than Americans, most people here dress with a, if not always casual, but a practical flair.

The list would go on indefinitely, but the point here is not simply to list cultural differences, but to indicate how different the two cultures, and consequently, two mentalities are, and implications regarding language learning are to be derived therefrom.

Most English-speaking German learners, including myself, are equipped with a German-English two-way dictionary. While this dictionary is helpful in most cases when we search for words that we know in English but do not know in German, this practice may lead to and possibly consolidate the habit, whereby one produces German conversation with an English mind-set by translating words from English to German, and in extreme cases, translate the English collocations and idiom awkwardly into German. As a consequence, traces of English cannot be more apparent in our German speaking. The German speech produced in this way certainly does not sound authentic, not to mention that Germans don’t say certain things that English-speaking people say. For example, although the greeting “How are you? /How’s it going? /What’s up?” has its counterpart in German “Wie geht’s”, it is only rarely used for greeting in slightly more formal situations.

The inclination to produce German with an English mind explains a lot of my speaking problems I encountered recently. I noticed that in extensive conversations in German, my speech gets stuck quite often. This indicates I am searching for an expression, and it is often exactly this English-speaking mentality that instructs me to search for an English expression in German. On the other hand, I speak much more fluently and assuredly when with natives, and this is probably because their German authenticity has a positive impact on me. I am still looking for ways to separate my English-speaking and German-speaking mind-sets, so that my command of German is no longer subordinate to my English speaking side. I believe that continuing reading German newspapers and books and collecting useful idiomatic expressions therefrom would definitely help. Also, I realised it is usually necessary to be a “big child”, and humbly ask natives what they mean if I do not understand what they say, or ask them how to say certain things that I don’t know know to say in German.

Post-Program Reflections

Although tomorrow is the last day of my program, I would like to give my Post-Program reflection now, because it seems that September 2 is the deadline to upload it. Here they are:

  1. Reflect on your language learning and acculturation during your SLA Grant experience.

This two-month SLA experience greatly helps me with my German learning. It is the first time for me to be put into a German language environment. In the past, both in China and in the U.S., my German learning focused only on grammar and reading. This summer, thanks to the SLA Grant, I have to use German to survive, both in and outside Carl Duisburg Center class. I think it is a breaking experience for me, which builds my confidence to improve German in a more balanced way. The teachers in class made us speak only in German. It turns out to be a very effective method to develop the habit to “think in German.” I think I have basically met the goals that I set for myself before I started the program: now I not only have confidence to speak German, but also read German scholarly literature more fluently, because German as a language feels much more intimate to me.

  1. Reflect on your SLA Grant experience overall.

For me, the SLA Grant experience this summer is a learning tour, not only because I practice German sufficiently inside and outside class, but also because I have opportunity to personally put my feet on a lot of German places. European history is my academic specialty. This summer, besides Munich, I have visited Regensburg, Bamberg, Salzburg, Cologne, Aachen, Reichenau. In the past, I met these place names hundred of times in papers and books, but never saw them personally. Thanks to the personal encounter with the landscapes of these old cities and the historical remains preserved in their museums, the history that I study has never been more live to me after this summer. For those who prepare to start their own summer language study, I would like to suggest that you choose the target city carefully. Because I planned to visit several cities in south Germany, I chose Munich, and it turns out to be a right choice.

  1. How do you plan to use your language and intercultural competences in the future?

As I said, this SLA Grant experience has built my confidence to speak German. It is a good start. I need to keep learning and practice. In the past, every time I met German or Austrian scholars in conference or other academic occasions, I naturally chose to talk to them in German. In the future, I decide to try to use German in oral academic communication. Moreover, I am thinking about finding a language partner when I come back. This experience in summer has proved how important a language environment is for a learner. Though I cannot always stay in Germany, I want at least to take effort to create such a language environment – by speaking with a native speaker – at least a couple of hours every week. Lastly, I would like to try to apply for a exchange program (DAAD, for example) to do my research in Germany for half a year or a year. This summer, I have proved that I can handle living in Germany and study effectively here.

week 5 – Reichenau

This weekend, I paid a visit to an island around Lake Constance near the border of Germany and Switzerland: Reichenau. In the early middle ages, Reichenau was well known for its abbey. It was established by the Irish Saint Pirmin, and became one of the most important cultural centers in the Carolingian age.  The most famous abbots of Reichenau in the ninth century was Walahfrid Strabo, whose biblical commentary for Deuteronomy is one of the major primary sources for my dissertation.

Horticulture and vegetable cultivation are major business for Reichenau today, as it was more than 1200 years ago. Walahfrid Strabo once wrote a famous Latin poem Hortulus , Little Garden, describing and praising the different plants in the garden that he usually worked on. During my visit, behind the Münster of Reichenau, I found a little garden called Strabos Kräutergarten, created in memory of  Walahfrid Strabo’s famous poem:


Week 4 – MGH

From this week on, besides taking German class every morning from 8:30 am to 1:00 pm, I begin to work in the library of Monumenta Germaniae Historica every afternoon. MGH is one of the oldest and the most important institutes for medieval history:


It has being publishing critical editions of many crucial medieval documents. Its library and office is within Die Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library). The library is super large, with five floors, containing most books concerning medieval studies. It is a wonderful place for medievalists, like me, to work with. The reading room is very convenient to study:


It reminds me of the Medieval Institute of University of Notre Dame 🙂

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





Week 3

In the past week, besides regular German lessons, I paid a visit to Residenz – the former royal palace of Bavarian kings.

The palace itself is without doubt spectacular, as the following photo of The Hall of Antiquities witnesses as an example:


But what really impressed me in Residenz was the an item from the Carolingian era that are preserved in the Treasury of Residenz. It is the prayer-book of Frankish King Charles the Bald, the grandson of Charlemagne:


It is thought to be the earliest extant Latin prayer book for ruler. Before really having an opportunity to look at it in person, I had not realized how small it is: smaller than an adult’s palm. Its size hints that this prayer book was so portable and therefore probably was always carried by Charles the Bald with himself. On the other hand, The small font of the prayer book might also suggest that Charles the Bald probably did not really read it when praying, but used it as a memorandum, which confirms my positive evaluation about the degree of religious knowledge that Carolingian rulers including Charles the Bald had.

To me, as a Carolingian scholar, the visit to Residenz was so worthy, mostly because of the unexpected encounter with this Carolingian treasure!

Second week

This is not a quiet week for Munich. The shooting incident on Friday nearby the Olympia shopping center shocked everyone. When it happened, I was just leaving the Carl Duisburg Center and on my way back home with U-Bahn. The spot of incident is not far from the Olympic Park where the 1972 Summer Olympics was held. I played basketball there last Tuesday, and saw the monument in memory of the Munich massacre. The monument is in front of the building in which the tragedy happened 46 year ago:



The tragedy on Friday caused great panic in the city. I heard the siren outside the window for hours. But everything has been back to order since Saturday. 

Concerning my study, the past week is quite productive for me. I can feel that I am getting more and more accustomed to speaking German!


Final Thoughts

  1. Spending two months in Germany taught me a lot about how I personally acquire language best. I have always been on the quiet side, and this experience really pushed me to talk as often as possible with as many new people as possible. Aside from speaking, being constantly flooded with German songs, writing, and people definitely influenced the rate of my improvement. It was very helpful being in class most of the day, where I received a steady and consistent amount of German grammar and practice. I believe I have reached most of my goals, such as speaking more comfortably and with less hesitation, making less grammatical errors when speaking, and improving the overall level of my German in writing, reading, listening, and speaking. But I know that I am still quite far from fluency, which I wish to continue to work towards.
  2. Living in Germany taught me about communication with people around the world. There were plenty of people who spoke English but for the most part, everyone opted to use German instead. Being able to communicate with people from different countries provided me new insight about the world; I feel that my world view has broadened greatly. There were always different cultural expectations from country to country, but generally, being polite or friendly was never difficult. I also just learned a lot about the way other people view the United States, as well as how other people view Germany. I never really thought about what the USA looked like to other countries, and I now have a better understanding of other countries’ world views. I would definitely advise someone applying for an SLA grant to be respectful and they will pick up on social cues and norms as they become more accustomed to the country they go to. Just speaking with people and making a best effort to get along goes quite far.
  3. I bought quite a lot of books when I was in Germany, and I am slowly tackling my way through them. There are so many words I don’t know but reading the book helps me remember my grammar as well as improve my vocabulary. This experience has made me want to return to Germany and hopefully become fluent in the language some day. I will begin TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) classes soon at Notre Dame, and I am excited to potentially work with the German language after college. Being abroad taught me to take more responsibility and also be less afraid to take steps forward even when I am unsure of myself. I believe the things I have learned from this experience will apply greatly to my continuing experience at Notre Dame and I will continue to keep the lessons from my experience in Radolfzell in mind as I move forward in my education and in the future.

Goethe-Institut Week 2

At this point I have been studying at the Goethe-Institut Berlin for two weeks. Although I am still on holiday, the intensity of life is comparable to any day at Notre Dame, being strictly compartmented into morning German classes at Goethe-Institut, afternoon piano practice at Steinway (I am a music major), (from now) evening study at the Berlin State Library, and weekend cultural explorations including organized cultural events organized by Goethe Institut. Due to the highly developed public transportation system in Berlin, everyday routine has been efficient; due to a surprising lack of access to Internet, I was paradoxically free from many distractions.

At the placement test of Goethe Institut I have been placed into C1 under the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, meaning I am at the lower lever of the advanced level. The result of my written test and my oral response at the interview showed my area most in need of improvement – Vocabulary. Due to a limited vocabulary, I could not grasp the subtlety of meaning in some texts, and cannot express my true personality in normal conversations. The interviewer suggested wide reading as the best way of accumulating a large vocabulary. Indeed, I recall so many times when I am in a German bookstore and flip through books related to my interests, frustrated that my reading was hindered significantly because I had to look up new words from time to time. How wonderful it would be, I thought, if I possessed a large vocabulary, so that I could read about Wagner’s life, Schiller’s poems, and German history in their original!

As it turned out, vocabulary is a common problem in my class. In order to improve our vocabulary and familiarize us German journalism, our teacher has been guiding us to read a newspaper article daily. Everyone needs to buy a newspaper and read an article from it of interest, look up all the new words and present the central content to class the next day. I have been reading American presidentship election, dispute in China southern sea, Rigaer Street demonstration in Berlin, Attack in Nice etc. all in German, and I found this method very helpful, since reading provides vocabulary learning with a meaningful context to help us memorize the words. Recalling my earlier days of English learning, I remember I was similarly driven by a desire to read about music in English. In those days I was reading The Unanswered Question by Leonard Bernstein, and I was reading extremely slowly, but learned hundreds of words from it.

Other areas of the class are mostly concerning topic-oriented discussions, and the vocabulary and grammar highlights from the textbook chapters. I am glad that today we have a new teacher, who not only has perfect pronunciation, but also pays great attention to the nicety of language by constantly correcting our words into more authentic German expressions. Along with this method come collocations, idioms, and word usages. Besides coursework, I am self-working on a German grammar book, because I firmly believe that the factor that really elevates one’s command of language is Grammar. Without advance in grammar, one’s linguistic sophistication would always stay at the same level, no matter how fluent one sounds. Again, I recall the milestone in my English learning was the summer of 2012, when I read through an Oxford Grammar book. I want to do the same this summer, this time Hueber instead of Oxford.

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.