My time in Germany…..

My 7-8 weeks spent in Radolfzell, Germany can be described as a great triumph. Speaking German, in almost any situation, became easier and easier. Several times people asked me where in Germany I grew up, only to reveal for me to reveal that I am not originally from Germany at all. One time an acquaintance even commented that she could tell I spent time in Stuttgart by the way I spoke or some dialect phrases I occasionally used. The ability to assimilate both linguistically and culturally—the ability to blend in like an ordinary person—is ironically a grand accomplishment in the process and years-long commitment of learning a language and a culture. I have been learning German for more than half of my life: a delightful adventure that will only continue. 

“Music alone is the language of the world that does not need to be translated” – Berthold Auerbach

During my time in Radolfzell, however, a great reward for my efforts became apparent—in the most simple, everyday ways. With each day in Radolfzell, I felt more “at home.” This revelation was deeply personal, as growing up both in Germany and the United States permanently changed my identity, future plans, language, and habits. However, besides my language studies, I remain in the United States somewhat disconnected from Germany, a place I would consider my second home. But being in Germany and partaking in everyday “normal” life felt not only familiar but right for me. I felt more and more comfortable and felt that I was supposed to be there—no longer did I have to “earn” my way, but rather I was able to be there and participate in the community just normally and comfortably. No longer did I feel like an obvious outsider, but rather just normal in the surrounding society. 

A significant advantage of studying and staying in Radolfzell was the constant immersion. Even when revealing that I came from the United States or having unexpected difficulty with conversation, my colleagues and counterparts would always speak German to me. No one switched to English for the sake of ease, but rather, many locals were adamant to speak with me and other language learners in German, which allowed us the opportunity to struggle a little and consequently learn. Those hard-won new phrases and words imprint themselves better in our memory.

For instance, during my second week in Radolfzell, I ventured into a local clothes shop and eventually asked one of the owners for a changing room. However, right when I asked that, I simultaneously realized I had no idea what the word “changing room” was in German. I could use medical- or literature-specific words in German, but I found several ordinary words, imperative to daily situations, missing in my vocabulary. I stumbled over my sentence, ultimately asking in German: “Do you have….anywhere where I can try on this dress?” She laughed, gauging that I was a foreigner, and before pointing me in the right direction, kindly told me the word for dressing room: “Die Kabine.” Over the next few weeks, I visited various stores, often shopping with friends, and each time, I re-used this word so often that it became effortless to retrieve from my vocabulary.

Swedish Cross on Insel Mainau (Mainau Island), an island in Konstanz

Each word learned in a foreign language has a story or a memory, especially when learned in an immersion setting. And the associated experiences allow these words to be more accessible when speaking, writing, and understanding—to the point of being effortless. When reading, writing, speaking, and hearing German, I no longer have to translate anything into English, for I automatically process it in German, even if I don’t completely understand it. It is almost ironic how one meticulously studies grammar and dissects sentences to then understand the inner workings of a language and then often “feel” how it should sound or read. Right now, my brain feels like an absolute mishmash of German and English, which is delightful. Even as I write this entry, I think of German words that would fit sometimes before coming to the corresponding English word. But that is with such a triumphant feeling because the language contains its own expression and feeling that one somehow, after much hard work and exposure, understands and can use comfortably. 

Now I will do my best to recount my adventures, describe Radolfzell, and summarize my time there. 

My host family was a lovely older couple, and I lived on the top floor of their four-story house, with my own little one-room apartment. Although I expected my host family to be much more involved, I actually favored the relatively “hands-off” attitude of my host family. My own space allowed me to build my own schedule and exercise my own independence, reaching a great balance between personal freedom and reliance upon my host family. For instance, weekend adventures during my time in Radolfzell became nearly habitual, and I was able to notify my host family in advance that I would be heading off to Freiberg, Konstanz, Stuttgart, or even Zürich, Switzerland, and Straßbourg, France with peers from the language institute. 

My independence and self-reliance bloomed during my SLA study. I was able to undertake adventures safely, experience once-in-a-lifetime sights and travels, and still prioritize my studying and learning. My time abroad accelerated my blooming independence and self-reliance that naturally has grown throughout college, which only prepares me better for my following years at Notre Dame. I am confident in my ability to tackle both expected and unexpected challenges while also taking care of myself and nourishing my faith, future opportunities, friendships, and enjoyment in life.

Insel Mainau German Gardens

Monday through Friday I would attend the Carl Duisberg Centrum (CDC), just six houses down the street (the location of my host stay was truly perfect for walking to school, to the Altstadt / Old Town, and to the Bodensee. My classes started at 8:30 and ended at 13:00 on Mondays through Thursdays or 12:00 on Fridays. Each day we would have a half-hour break, which I would usually spend chatting with other students or grabbing a coffee nearby. After class I would return to my homestay and prepare lunch for myself to later study, meet with friends, take bike rides, and so on. 

At CDC, I encountered some unexpected frustrations with my language study. Upon arriving, I was informed that they were not offering my course level anymore, as two other participants could not obtain visas in time to travel to Germany. Therefore, I was put into a course below my level, which tested my motivation and concentration. I did not feel challenged, and many of my classmates surprisingly did not actively participate or even attend classes regularly. However, I still recognized the value in the class for me—I could shore up gaps in my language learning, grammar, and vocabulary and smooth over anything I had accidentally misunderstood. After four weeks, our course officially progressed to the C1 level, which comfortably challenged me. Two new classmates who attended German Gymnasium (high school) arrived for a week or two, adding new energy to the class, and I learned a lot from their excellent speaking and vocabulary. For the remaining few weeks, our teacher unexpectedly changed, but our new teacher was very passionate about engaging us in conversation and teaching us to mastery, which I really enjoyed. This was my favorite stage of classes at CDC, for I felt that I was able to not only learn new information but also process it well and master it. While at CDC I elected to take the telc C1 examination—the level required to study at German universities and apply for interaction-intensive job/internship opportunities. I simply wanted to test my ability, and though I was nervous as the exam approached, I actually enjoyed taking it and felt confident. 

My favorite part about CDC was the fellow students—from nearly every corner of the world, with different backgrounds and stories. We all were experiencing the commonality of being foreigners in Germany, navigating the language and culture. Therefore we experienced a strong sense of camaraderie and formed solid friendships quickly.  

Schlosskirche St. Marien (Palace Church St. Marien)

My moderately long summer study allowed me to develop a routine in Radolfzell, further establishing a sense of belonging and comfortability in Germany and German society. For instance, I rented a bike from CDC and would go on biking adventures, as well as just biking for errands. I joined a gym and would go on weekdays before my classes. I would regularly frequent certain cafes after classes (often with Sarah Van Hollebeke, another SLA participant!), becoming familiar with the staff and owners and often having pleasant conversations. A small town like Radolfzell accelerated a fairly easy adjustment, as it was easy to navigate and easy to explore. More opportunities for eating, shopping, and entertainment were nearby in Konstanz and even Zürich, Switzerland (about 1-1.5 hrs by train). For instance, I saw Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro in Zürich: an absolutely amazing experience, especially for me as a musician.

During holidays or weekends, I would go on day or weekend trips with friends from the language institute to: Freiburg (three times!); Hohenzollern Castle; Oberammergau; Linderhof Palace; Stuttgart; nearby Konstanz and Insel Mainau; nearby Singen; Meersburg; Triberg in the Schwarzwald (Black Forest); Ulm; Strasbourg, France; Zürich, Switzerland; Mount Rigi, Switzerland; Schaffhausen and Rheinfalls in Switzerland; and Mount Säntis, Switzerland.


Perceptions of the USA and Americans

Many Germans engage in political discussion without hesitancy, yet without rudeness. It seems less taboo to talk about politics, and disagreements are anticipated—but so is understanding, the synthesis of ideas, and reconciliation. Of course, arguments about politics undoubtedly still occur, but in general, I have experienced Germans asking me clear questions about American politics, or simply American life in general. Somewhat unexpectedly, however, I interact in Germany primarily with fellow foreigners than with Germans. Since other foreigners attend the language school, I know other students from the US, students from South America, from Africa, from other parts of Europe, and from Asia, all with whom I primarily speak German. Similarly, however, they have asked me clear questions about America and American life, especially after events that make headlines, such as the tragic school shooting in Uvalde, Texas or the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade. Many people ask for details, experiences, or a more comprehensive picture, whereas some have first offered praise or critique, wanting to open a discussion or discern the “why” or “how” behind headlines and news stories. When answering, I try not to generalize, try to provide different perspectives, and try to clearly communicate what stereotypes or misconceptions may blur perceptions of America or Americans. I offer my own opinion if appropriate, but it is not the subject of the discussion—if so, I would not only feel uncomfortable but also misrepresentative of a comprehensive issue or matter. 

It is refreshing, as political discourse in everyday life within the United States has become increasingly tense and increasingly hostile. People have mentioned and inquired about American lifestyles, the American government, American politics and Americans’ political views, environmentalism and climate change in America, crime, social justice, drugs, medical care and insurance, activity and diet, and so forth. 

Simultaneously I have encountered stereotypes about Americans, particularly regarding monolingualism and education. Several students joked on several occasions that Americans only speak English and lack thorough knowledge of geography and the greater world. Though intended as jokes, these statements nevertheless perpetuate negative American stereotypes that often create barriers of misconceptions, especially toward Americans abroad. I lightly intervened, as the Americans (including me) at the language school countered these overgeneralizations simply by being there and learning a new language—part of our goals and our identities. I would also describe the diversity of languages and backgrounds within the United States, which may be overlooked in broad generalizations. 

Overall, the attitude toward the United States that I perceived was primarily curiosity, which I welcomed. When people would ask me direct questions—not skewed or loaded—I was more than happy to answer to the best of my ability, with my opinions only in the background and more of a discussion in the foreground. 

Migration in Germany: Cultural Diversity

Many regions of Germany have been influenced by immigrants and refugees, especially by Turkish, North African, and Middle Eastern settlers. New cultures have impacted popular foods, available restaurants, religious worship, the composition of neighborhoods, spoken everyday languages, and so on. Instead of only typical German culture that is foremost perceived by foreigners and tourists (i.e. Oktoberfest, drinking beer, German cars, Dirndl and Lederhosen, etc.), German culture continuously evolves with the diverse backgrounds of many Germans themselves or refugees/immigrants to Germany. Now, with many refugees from Ukraine, Ukrainian can be heard spoken in supermarkets, on public transport, or simply along the street. One of my good friends here speaks Russian and can instantly recognize Russian or Ukrainian being spoken often around us in everyday life. 

In years prior, many Syrians fled to Germany as refugees, and their presence within Germany is noticeable in current German culture or in daily life. For instance, at the gym, I started up a conversation with a woman on the treadmill next to me—a Muslim woman, older than me. We had a lovely conversation, two foreigners both conversing in German, our second language. Further in our conversation, she told me about fleeing to Germany, her difficulties in learning German, and her goals here in Germany. She was 30 years old, here in Germany with her husband and two children. We realized that we are both studying for the same official German exam (C1), and she is studying for that same level (C1) in English, so that she can attend the University of Konstanz nearby. Besides the trauma of her and her family fleeing Syria, she expressed her difficulties integrating into German society, especially because of the pandemic. As she was nearing the C1 level of German (advanced), the pandemic halted much person-to-person contact outside of her family, making contact with locals difficult, if not almost impossible. She lamented how her German had regressed after the lack of interaction, and she equally lamented how the pandemic had isolated her. Though well connected with her immediate family and some Syrian friends, she still said she did not feel integrated into German society even several years later after settling in Germany, given that she had been unable to interact outside of her own cultural, linguistic, and religious circle due to the pandemic. With much of her time spent caring for her 3- and 11-year-old, she then simultaneously teaches herself German and English, unable to afford the language courses offered locally. Therefore, her free time to engage within the surrounding community is minimal. She noted that she found many Germans very welcoming, but questioned why, during the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, she continued to experience difficulties making German friends and speaking German often. 

We later exchanged phone numbers so that we could practice our German together and that she could practice her English with me. Despite our common situation of learning German, we otherwise face dramatically different circumstances and struggles. However, our common pursuit of another language and our desire to integrate into another culture helped form a friendship, as we embark upon our goals together, able to help one another and make “outsider” situations not so alienating. 

Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, oh my! 

The Bodensee, a large lake, connects southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Therefore, several different dialects of German exist within a relatively short distance. Schwäbisch in parts of Baden-Württemberg, „Schwyzerdütsch“ in Switzerland, and Österreichisch from Austria all intersect around the Bodensee, especially with many traveling during the summer months. 

The first obvious difference in communication (specifically between American and German styles of communication) that I noticed was German directness. I experienced this while living in Germany as a child, and I remember that it took a period of time to adjust to direct questions, direct answers, and direct exclamations, opinions, or complaints. However, this time, I quickly adjusted to this element of cultural communication in a matter of days. With each day easier to communicate fluently in German, I experienced more and more ease being politely direct in German and communicating effectively in different situations. 

Market at Rodolfzell

Directness could be potentially confused with impatience or coldness, but within German culture, it is more normalized in regard to practicality and efficiency. People are less likely to be superfluously chatty in everyday situations—say, at the grocery store, in shops, or in train stations. However, much warmth is shared between friends that develops after persistent communication and friendship. Also, in the south of Germany, there is a lot more “warmth“ in regards to how strangers communicate, although a little less than what would be usual and expected in the south of the United States, where my family lives. 

In regards to linguistic differences, various greetings will often distinguish from which country (Germany, Switzerland, and Austria) and from which respective region someone comes. When exploring Zürich or hiking in Switzerland on weekends, I would greet and be greeted with „Grüezi!“ instead of „Guten Tag.“ On such excursions, I noticed etiquette and communication differences between Germany and Switzerland—while in Germany it is more unusual to greet a passerby on the street, sidewalks, or trails, it is more commonplace in Switzerland to welcome one another or even start small conversations. Funnily enough, during one hike in Switzerland (on Mount Rigi), I accidentally (and unfortunately) stepped on a pile of cow dung. Simultaneously, an older Swiss couple hiked past, and we had a spontaneous conversation, making jokes about how I was „really experiencing nature.“ In public in Germany, people tend to keep more to themselves or to their group of friends. Each way of interaction is neither better nor worse, but rather just different. In each place, I tried to blend in as best as possible, so I would follow these unwritten communication patterns and standards. In doing so, I reflected on how I usually interacted with others, and I actually noticed my outgoing nature bloom, as I am comfortable not only conversing in different languages but also with different attitudes and styles of communication—all from which I have experienced lovely interactions and exchanges.


Awaiting my departure, I find myself both excited and nervous—less than a week away!

I have been gradually learning German for nearly half of my life. When initially starting German, my family and I lived in Stuttgart, Germany as a military family, and I embraced the linguistic and cultural immersion I experienced. Soon I developed the dream of one day mastering German and speaking like a “Muttersprachlerin.” For the next eight or so years, I did not have consistent formal German language training, so I often sought out summer language classes or short exchanges. After high school, I took a gap year to participate in the U.S. Department of State’s Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange; however, the in-person exchange was completely canceled due to COVID-19. I was devastated, but after the initial shock and grief, my resolve to study in Germany only increased. A year and a half after the exchange’s cancellation, I am finally about to study in Germany with this SLA Grant! I am elated.

I anticipate this study abroad to feel both familiar and different—familiar in ways that I have prior experience with German language and culture, but different as I have been away from Germany for nearly 9 years. Within everyday language, I expect some colloquialisms to take me by surprise, and I am eager to learn more of the “Umgangsprache,” or everyday language that is not as common in classroom instruction or classwork. In this regard, my interactions with my host family will greatly help me speak more natively, using common phrases or expressions. I am especially excited by my accommodation with a host family, for it ensures that I will be surrounded by German and be speaking German throughout my entire day, each day.

Although extremely excited about this study abroad, I still anticipate moments in which I might feel fatigued or frustrated by linguistic and cultural barriers. However, I embrace these potential moments as a crucial part of studying abroad, strengthening my resilience and patience, and the commitment of learning a language. I realize that there are “hills” and “valleys” throughout the days of studying abroad when facing and overcoming unfamiliarity or misunderstandings.

Therefore, my excitement about this study abroad applies not only to easy or fun moments, but also the challenging ones, for I am confident in my ability to meet such obstacles and grow as a student, language learner, global citizen, and person.

Here we go!

– Ella Maria