“Learning” German

At the beginning of seventh grade, Dorseyville Middle School students were instructed to choose a foreign language to master.  Students could opt to change their language of choice in high school, but the idea was to pick something in seventh grade and stick with it throughout your senior year; by the time you graduated, you’d have mastery of your foreign language of choice.  The options were French, Spanish, German, and Latin.  Beautiful people took French, smart kids took Latin, the vast majority took Spanish, and a smallish group of clueless indifferent students decided to take German.

I took German.

I didn’t exactly have a reason for taking German other than I had to pick something and I have a bizarre fondness for deep guttural hissing, but I stuck with that language all throughout high school.  By the time I graduated I had completed German V AP.  In my six years of “vigorous” German training, I had picked up a handful of coarse phrases, some basic grammar rules, and several simple questions (i.e. “where is the bathroom”, “could we eat something”, and “where is the post office”.)  While my friends across the hall were discussing organic chemistry and Bolivian genocide in Spanish class, chattering away in a blaze of rolling r’s and upside-down exclamation points, I found myself sitting in German class trying to translate the original Brother’s Grimm version of Little Red Riding Hood for the third time.  Something just didn’t feel right.  We had both started our respective language studies at roughly the same time, so what was the deal?

For a while I blamed myself.  I’ll admit it, I didn’t exactly try very hard in German, but just being there had to have counted for something, right?  I knew a couple of kids taking Spanish who couldn’t tell you what a direct object was that were nevertheless practically fluent in their foreign language.  I then turned on my teachers; surely their ineptitude was at the root of my problems.  If only I had had Senora Fontes to teach me my German, maybe I would have learned it better.  Somehow, that logic didn’t seem right either.  Eventually, I came to the conclusion that my deplorable lack of German proficiency was a result of both my own laziness and my sort-of-lousy teachers, but that it also had something to do with all of those wasted lessons that we had discussing German culture.  There were times when we’d go through a whole class just listening to Herr Richards ramble on (in German) about Oktoberfest, and this is a waste of time.  I would have much rather learned about the German language itself, not the flavor of German culture.  If we had spent more classes learning cases and vocabulary than talking about the Brothers Grimm and Angela Merkel, maybe I would actually have something to show for my six years in German other than a few curse words and a bad attitude.

What were your experiences with foreign language throughout high school?

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18 Responses to “Learning” German

  1. Jane says:

    I took French. (I’m flattered.) My high school only offered French and Spanish. From what I heard, not much substantial learning went on in Spanish classes. After taking French for four years, however, I still have a pretty good grasp on the language. I am happy to say that I am able to converse with a friend who is a native Frenchman and just came here this year.

    With weekly vocabulary and verb conjugation quizzes all four years, my vocabulary and mastery of the language was constantly improving. We also had regular oral exams, for which we would be given the general topic of conversation and would need to prepare to discuss it and answer pertinent questions. By senior year, we weren’t allowed to speak in English in my French class; it was absolutely forbidden. Madame Nugent didn’t mess around.

    I’ve noticed that it is infinitely more satisfying to speak a new language without worrying about the mistakes you’ll make, trusting that the person with whom you’re speaking will understand you. If I didn’t know a word, I could usually find a synonym or define it. If I didn’t know which tense to use, I’d just talk more quickly and/or quietly. I found that, as long as I made it sound pretty enough, I could usually get by.

    There is something so fascinating to learning a new language! At the time I’m sure I didn’t appreciate it, but now I’ve come to be thankful for the rigor of those four years of French classes. Not only can I ask where the bathroom or post office is, but I am pretty confident I could hold an intelligent conversation with (patient, perceptive) French natives. But when it comes to reading, that’s a different story. Even Le Petit Prince is a challenge…

  2. maria23 says:

    I too was forced to undergo the pain and agony of learning a foreign language. The first half of my 7th grade year, I took French. I wasn’t a huge fan of the language, but after discovering the second semester that the Spanish teacher was crazy (and I mean batshit insane), I settled on French. I had always been so good at English, diagraming sentences, writing papers, learning vocab words…I was not a fan of doing all of this in another language. It was difficult for me, like learning how to read all over agian at the age of 15. I found myself constantly hating French class, until about halfway through my sophomore year. Once all of the foundational French language principles had been established, my teach began incorporating French history and culture into our daily classes. I found that with these additions, it became easier for me to understand the French language. This leads me to think that there is a significant connection between literacy and socio-cultural influences.

  3. hkkeene says:

    #1) TO MARIA23: It deeply saddens me that you found learning a foreign language a process of “pain and agony”! I believe that learning to communicate in a tongue unfamiliar to your own is one of life’s joys for many reasons, but above all for the opportunity it provides you with to transcend cultural differences and understand a place and its people in their own language. Example: imagine that someone is asking you for your feelings on the current Republican primary debates– but you have to speak it in your second language, over which you perhaps don’t have full command, or your testimony has to be transmitted through manual or digital translators (who have their own conversational style, tendencies in use of vocabulary, and agendas). You wouldn’t be able to express yourself in purely YOUR voice, and no matter how small those discrepancies matter. Furthermore, translation can only account for so much. There are beautiful concepts and phrases that exist in one language but not others. (Though perhaps not “beautiful” per se, the term “hair of the dog” is one of my favorite English language terms-that-have-no-direct-translation {<–what is the actual word for that?})

    What was I saying?

    Basically, languages open doors. Even if you never plan on stepping foot in Russia, learning their language can crack open nooks in your mind that would have remained unexplored if left to do so in the comfort of your mother tongue.

    #2) ON MY HIGH SCHOOL LANGUAGE LEARNING EXPERIENCE AND MY FEELINGS TOWARDS THE FRENCH: In spite of currently dedicating my life to acquiring a complete and flawless command of the Spanish language, I actually took five years of French, of which I remember: "Ou est ma chapeau" "j'ai faim" and "j'adore les chats" (all of which are probably spelled wrong, because French orthography is absolutely senseless– unlike it's awesome romance language counterpart Spanish, which everyone everywhere should learn because, as I previously stated, it's AWESOME.)

    #3) ON BAD TEACHERS: I think I may have shared this in class before, but on my last day of high school French before departing to study abroad for my senior year in Istanbul my French teacher told me, "I'm interested in seeing how this works out for you, because you're humanly incapable of learning a language." (How do you like me now, Madame Vary?!) From my experience high school foreign language study is in most cases pretty ineffective. I do however think that the cultural lessons that the mysterious "lexicon" feels were useless to his linguistic education indeed have valor. Like I was trying to get at in point #1: language reflects us as individuals, communities, cultures, and nations. Perhaps all the talk of bier and oktoberfest was just to help you acquire some cultural literacy :) I like to think of this example: in Turkish there is no verb for "to have" or "to be". In the case of "to have", the object is given a possessive suffix and then either the word for "exists" or "doesn't exist" is added. So instead of saying "I have two cats" I would technically be saying "Two cats that are mine exist". I always wonder what this says about people who have grown up speaking Turkish as their first language. Certainly the absence (or presence) of certain linguistic concepts must shape the one's behavior and views, right? How would my thinking differ if I never "had", what was mine only "existed"?

    Cool, right?!

  4. hkkeene says:

    P.S. I hate when computers automatically change colon + end parenthesis to an actual emoticon.

  5. moosey22 says:

    My high school also only had the options of French and Spanish. We started language our seventh grade year and were forced to stick with that throughout high school. For the first two years, literally all I remember is playing BINGO with vocab words. We would win candy and that was all there was to Spanish class (at least all that is memorable). Freshman and sophomore year I started high school with a new teacher, and then it became imperative for me to actually learn the language more than vocabulary. My high school teacher is from Puerto Rico and has barely mastered her English. At first I dreaded going to Spanish class because we had no idea what was going on and could barely understand my teachers explanations of things. But through many worksheets and two years of class, I finally felt like I was starting to grasp the language. Junior and Senior year were much more enjoyable because, like someone else said, we were able to start learning more about the history and culture of Spanish-speaking countries. Overall I found it very rewarding to learn another language, especially because I can still recognize many Spanish words and help my little brother with his homework today. I didn’t realize at the time how much the language was ingraining itself in my mind. I definitely am not fluent in Spanish and probably never will be, but I can speak and understand a bit and that is rewarding still. I realize that I have only been talking about learning to speak Spanish. Writing in it isn’t too difficult for me in Spanish, granted I have only ever written one essay that was over two pages, but reading is completely different, as Jane said. I have only ever attempted to read one Spanish book and that was during my junior year of high school. After five years of Spanish noone in my class could read the book without great struggle and assistance. I am curious why reading is so much more difficult to pick up. Perhaps it is just because we were not practiced in it, but I would definitely say that I struggle more with reading Spanish than writing and speaking it.

  6. Natalie says:

    I agree with hkkeene (sike, I know it’s Holly) about languages being canals from one side of the world to another. If we only study what we know, we will only ever know what we knew (or thought we knew/know). Once we begin learning another tongue, we are not learning words to translate, we are learning a different part of the same species and a part of the same land. To be able to understand people who use different words expands the art of communication beyond the comfort zone in which you once knew.

    Personally, I took Spanish for 5 years and took it seriously for two. I did not practice the language and shifted my attention to my engineering design projects and chemistry, but I wish I had balanced those books a little better. I dropped my class that was todos los dias and “lost” what I had learned. Perhaps it will come back now that I am finding beauty in the idea once again.

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