In January I joined an advanced German class at the language school near my house. I’ve really been enjoying the class; in fact, the highlight of our international moves for me has been studying the language of each new country. But with German, I have a special history. In fact, as a friend pointed out this summer, though in my lifetime I’ve spent less than one cumulative year in Germany, I’ve traveled to this country during each major phase of life; childhood, high school, college, and adulthood. I turned 13 and 21 in Germany!
TIMELINE OF MY REPEATED, AND PERHAPS NOT ENTIRELY COINCIDENTAL, TRIPS TO GERMANY
When I was in seventh grade, my father’s work took our family to northern Germany. For two months, I attended a German school. I was the only American in a special class for students who did not speak German as a first language; this meant that for the whole school day, I learned German alongside students from South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Nobody else in the class spoke English as their native language, which is perhaps why I learned as much German as I did in just eight weeks. It was a matter of survival!
Hoping to maintain what I learned in seventh grade, I continued studying German in high school and ended up on a two-week exchange trip to Würzburg, where I ordered–but did not finish–a liter of beer at Munich’s famous Hofbräuhaus, followed my host sister to discos at odd hours, and was interviewed on a television show aired to highlight our exchange program. I don’t remember what I said.
Still filled with Lust to study German, I spent one semester in (amazingly sunny) Freiburg, where I idolized three things: my trusty three-speed bicycle, Victoria, which transported me faithfully on my ten kilometer round-trip journeys in and out of the city each day; the Black Forest, whose dark hills rose only a quick walk across the river bridge from my dorm room; and my German professor Klaus, who lectured for hours on Kant and Hegel in between extolling the virtues of unfiltered (versus filtered) Camel cigarettes. Though I also took two other courses at the local university, the majority of my instructional time was spent with Klaus, who handled my grammar class as well as Intro to (German) Philosophy. Klaus’ focus was to make his gaggle of American exchange students feel they were capable of discussing complex philosophical principles in German, and he succeeded. Though it was tempting to lapse into English with my classmates, I befriended one girl whose devotion to exclusive German speaking won me over. We often took our philosophy readings to a nearby cafe and ordered milky coffees served in bowls.
Now! All grown up…I guess
I use English all day at work; interacting with my neighbors and going to the grocery store only consume so much time, so I was worried that my German wouldn’t improve much at all. If anything, I felt less confident with German just before moving here in August as I ever had. Not only had I not visited the country in over a decade; I’d spent three of the interim years studying Chinese and Spanish. Fortunately, our school funds six months of German lessons for each of its teachers, and I was happy to find a course that seems perfectly suited to my needs and abilities. Nearly twenty years after those first anxious days in a German classroom, I’m struck by this similarity: again, I’m the only English speaker in the room. My fellow classmates come from Romania, the Ukraine, Turkey, and China, so when a word or expression needs definition, nobody whips out the English version. We concentrate on our teacher’s German explanations until the meaning swims into focus. English is spoken commonly enough in many countries that I think a lot of English speakers expect they will be able to use it whenever they want. But being in a class like this gives me a tiny glimpse of what it might be like to immigrate to a place where nobody speaks your language. Sometimes I find myself grasping for explanations in a way that feels quite similar to treading water in the middle of a pool and reaching in vain to grab sides that aren’t there. But it’s all good practice.
Our teacher has decided that the best way to structure the class is to mix some advanced grammar exercises with informal conversation. The latter usually ends up taking 90% of the time, which is good, because there’s plenty of opportunity for correction and “Well, that’s not exactly wrong, but we just wouldn’t say it that way. This way is better…” Tonight, our teacher decided to put each of us on the spot to discuss our home countries. We were to field questions from our fellow classmates, but the questions could not, she said, be “conventional” ones. She did not want to hear discussions about land mass or population density. We only had time to discuss one country– Turkey– and I learned a lot. Our Turkish student had to talk about the political climate in Turkey, whether or not Turkey was really set on joining the European Union, and whether or not Turkey’s booming economy has lessened the number of Turkish immigrants to Germany.
Turkey’s political climate has grown increasingly conservative, my classmate said. While this trend began perhaps after the Cold War, he feels it has intensified since the Iraq War, which had negative consequences for Turkey. He sees Turkey as intent on avoiding war with Iran and aligning itself more with Russia than with the United States. Whenever I have political discussions with people from other countries (any other country, really), I hear essentially the same sentiments. I always feel like everybody realizes something that the United States is completely missing. Lest you view this statement as a blanket criticism, however, may I offer the following story. My classmate went on to say that while many Turks still immigrate to German for unskilled labor jobs, people from the educated, academic classes tend to return to– or stay in– Turkey these days. There are simply more opportunities for them there. The Western European sentiment towards immigrants, he said, is still pretty hostile. My classmate’s Turkish friends who go to the United States, on the other hand, have all decided to stay. “They don’t feel unusual or uncomfortable there,” he said. “Nobody makes a big deal out of the fact that they are Turkish.” Though Americans know immigration is still a controversial topic in the U.S., America is, in the end, a country re-established by and for immigrants, where at least in the ideal consciousness, possibility exists for all. Faults aside, this is a trait we can celebrate.
A lot has changed since seventh grade, but I am for many reasons thankful to once again find myself in a German class, speaking with people from all over the world in the only language we share.