Thoughts on Empirically Learning a New Language

Since this is my first blog post for the business school, I’ll start by introduce myself.  I’m a 21 year old Computer Information Systems major from Edgewood, KY (a town in the middle of über-suburbian Northern Kentucky).  I am studying in Oestrich-Winkel, Germany at the European Business School for the duration of fall 2009.  Why did I chose to study abroad?  Originally, to figure out if I should, I asked myself the inverse question: “Why not?”  Since there were no outstanding reasons why not and way too many reasons to do so, I chose to look into options to study at a partner university.  To bolster our experience, my friend at U of L’s business school, Joe Huber, and I traveled around a large chunk of the Mediterranean Area for three weeks prior to arriving in Oestrich-Winkel.  For a verbose and extensive chronicling of that adventure, see Joe’s first post on this site.  I will not repeat his thoughts on the experience as mine are much the same, but I may write about random revelations on the experience in a future post.

So this brings me to the subject of this post: my experience with the German language.  Thus far, I have only taken German 121, or the introductry semester in the language at Louisville.  This class and it’s exceptional teacher (I have to mention Monica Krupinski.)  gave me a good basis.  This class and the limited use of the Rosetta Stone products led me to believe that I could handle the basic level of the intensive German class that leads off the semester.  (There are three levels: beginner, basic, and intermediate).

Last week I realized that I was quite wrong in this assumption.  On the first day the professor spoke 100% German and started issuing instructions for an assessment exam.  The test might as well have fit the cliché and been in Greek (and yes, we found in Greece that despite knowing the alphabet it does live up to the old adage as a very confusing language).  My professor cracked jokes when the tape player that directed the listening portion of the test did not work initially.  Most of the class laughed.  I did not understand any of them.

The process of learning a language is a slow one.  Through some miracle, I was not dropped to the beginner level after that first test, so it appears my German was not quite that horrible.  The first day of actual class I understood only an odd word here or there that my professor said.  I thought of asking to go back to the beginner level.  Two of my classmates in fact did very quickly.  I chose to stay and ride out the storm, since if I dropped down I knew I would not learn anything new at all.  Luckily a Hungarian friend of mine who is quite proficient in English explained the particularly convoluted instructions.

I just finished this Intensiv Deutschkurs this afternoon, so I can now look upon it with some very short hindsight.  Although I still do not understand a lot of what the professors say, some of it does sink in slowly.  The theory behind being taught entirely in German makes some sense because you associate new words with other German, rather than English or any other native language.  However, if you do not have the basic vocabulary, it becomes quite difficult.  Example:  On the first day of lecturing I did not understand the word “sterben” and asked my professor about it.  He started speaking about several synoyms, little of which I understood.  I feared that without the basic vocabulary I needed, I could never learn new words.  However, when he started to speak about the German word for death (Tod) and Michael Jackson, I caught the drift.  And indeed, the word meant “to die”.  It’s experiences like that make a word very easy to remember.

Learning German outside the classroom is also an adventure.  If you go up to any person in customer service and mumble something like, “Mein Deutsch ist nicht sehr gut…” (My German is not very good), most of them will launch into an English conversation with you.  However, where is the learning experience in that?  Sure, when I was in Turkey, Greece, or Italy I felt no guilt in having someone switch to English for me or use gestures to communicate, but the knowledge that I am in this country for an extended period of time motivates me to assimilate to the culture as quickly as possible.

There are some small victories involved.  I can go to the grocery store without incident (although there is little talking involved there with the cashier).  Last weekend I got my haircut in the nearby city of Wiesbaden.  None of the stylists spoke English.  My German friend who attended the University of Louisville, Martin Weckenmann, in the spring left to get a beer across the street while he waited for me.  I told him I would be alright.  I am proud to say that I came out of that day with a haircut that did not resemble any sort of lawnmover accident.  The process of learning a new language is a slow one, so just make sure that you have delved enough into a culture before you go anywhere near somebody with scissors.

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