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.