Ich liebe Deutschland: My Personal Experience of Learning German
An Influential Nation
It is impossible to ignore the influence of this nation throughout history, for good or evil. Today, Germany is a hub of technological development, renewable energy and awesome industrial design. The people are hilarious, diverse and memorable, often speaking their minds in the most stereotypically precise and direct fashion. Ambiguity is almost impossible in Germany.
I returned recently from a month in Berlin, undertaking a language course at the local Goethe Institute, a fantastic organisation that promotes Germany and its culture around the world. Following previous travel experiences, language courses and exchanges, I felt that it would be appropriate to write about my passion for the country and the language on Medium, as I think I’m considered a bit of an oddball regarding this in Australia.
Why I Love Germany
My love for German began in Year 7 at high school, back in 2004. That year, every student was required to undertake half a year of German and half a year of Indonesian. I had already learnt some Indonesian during my time at primary school, and whilst I enjoyed it, German struck a chord with me. The sound of the language was fun. As an English speaker used to making somewhat minimal mouth movements, the precise, more exaggerated and forceful sounds of German felt cool. Every new word, every sentence and phrase felt like useful, tangible knowledge, which I could use to communicate with someone else. No other subject had quite the same effect. Sure, one can recall information from English, mathematics or science, but nothing feels as satisfying as expressing yourself in another language. My willingness to learn was also motivated by a distant German heritage on my father’s side of the family. The Feld family (a surname dripping with Teutonic heritage), came from the town of Frauenstein on the Rhein River many years ago. German was not only fun, but it also held a familial link. My interest grew.
My German teachers at school were excellent. Mr. Simmonds and Ms. Dive were their names, each with completely different teaching styles. The former was relentlessly humorous and spontaneous, waving flashcards and splitting chalk frantically against the chalkboard, always capturing and holding the interest of the class. The latter was softer, focused and precise, paying attention to the finest elements of language and somehow inspiring an interest in grammar, of all things. Over time, alongside school subjects like English and history, German became my favourite subject.
The time came in Year 11 to apply for a scholarship programme with the Society for Australian and German Student Exchange (SAGSE). With fierce competition, I never expected to receive it, but I did. The SAGSE programme involved a three-month-long stay with a German family, matched closely according to personal interests outlined in the application process. I was placed in the über-green city of Freiburg, located in the Black Forest in the wealthy state of Baden-Württemberg. There, my host Mirko and his wonderful family introduced me to various aspects of German culture, school life and holiday customs, as I spent Christmas and the New Year with them. This experience sealed my love for Germany, as I made many new friends, some of whom were also from Australia and New Zealand in the same programme.
Common Perceptions of Germany and Language-learning in Australia
The common stereotype of Germans, at least according to native English speakers, is that they are humourless, obsessively precise and perhaps even impersonal… this is not entirely the case. Germans are incredibly hospitable people, with fantastic global awareness, foreign language skills and knowledge of their own history and its impact on the world. Whilst their humour is different, it is not incompatible.
The unified Germany of today is vastly different from the stereotype to which many people still cling. This is perhaps most obvious to me when people have asked me why I learn German. This year, having completed my Honours in Communications in 2013, I decided to study German through a distance graduate diploma with the University of New England (UNE), based in Armidale, Australia. People would often ask me, “So what are you doing with yourself these days, Martin?”. I would respond with the appropriate explanation of my decision to study German. I was often met with somewhat befuddled expressions. People in Australia seem to find it strange. Why didn’t I have a full-time job yet? Why was I still studying stuff, and more specifically, why nothing but language? Why German?! The answer is simple: tangibility and self-fulfilment. As I mentioned before, there is something tangible about language-learning… the feeling of accumulating new vocabulary, mastering new grammatical structures, opening the door to new communicative possibilities with millions of people. It’s incredibly fulfilling. I am nowhere near perfect, but I love to learn.
I feel that there is a problem with the attitude towards language-learning in Australia. Whilst Australia is a multicultural nation with many diverse language groups (Aboriginal Australian and as a result of immigration), there is still an enormous bias towards English. The compulsory time for students to learn a language is short and somewhat pointless, for the most part. There is no consistency in language options around the country. Whilst I love German, however, I would not push it onto others. Why aren’t there mandatory language like Mandarin, Japanese or Indonesian for all of high school, to not only encourage cultural awareness and tolerance, but also arm our students with awesome linguistic skills useful for international business and education? It just seems very backward to me. We live on an isolated island in the middle of nowhere, so why bother learning something else?
Foreign languages seem to be reserved for the ‘artsy-fartsy’, or people who grew up in migrant families with an automatic second language from their formative years. Once you finish your formal schooling or a degree, the expectation is that you will work immediately. I was working, albeit casually, but wanted to pursue my own linguistic endeavour. The attitude in Germany is completely different. During my time on exchange, I met people who were learning English, French and Spanish simultaneously. Some were even learning Latin! It was truly fascinating, and they were learning so much content so much more quickly than I had ever seen in Australia (the lessons were also conducted in the languages being taught, except for Latin of course).
Recent Experiences in Study and Travel
At the beginning of this year, I had the chance to visit Germany and my original host family with two friends after a European tour. It was fantastic to see them again, and it only heightened my excitement to learn the language again. Unfortunately, I had experienced a German language drought for three years of my undergraduate degree. My former university, the University of Wollongong, has a great range of languages available to learn, but did not offer German.
Following this travel opportunity, I enrolled at UNE for my graduate diploma, and undertook six subjects via distance, using Moodle and Adobe Classroom. Whilst it is ideal to share a physical classroom with people when learning a language, this digital space was a wonderful way to foster my independent learning skills further, and the support from the teachers was fantastic.
With much doubt and guilt, I organised a personal trip for a month during October and November to Berlin, to undertake an intensive course at the Goethe Institute. I felt that I deserved the chance to refine my language skills in a state of immersion (I’m still nowhere near as good as I’d like to be), plus I wanted the opportunity to experience Berlin properly. I had visited twice before, but both visits were fleeting. I wanted to experience the culture, the street art, the people and the madness.
Well, I did it, and I’m grateful for the experience. The Goethe Institute, for a start, was fantastic. I had the opportunity to speak nothing but German all day in challenging, interesting lessons with people from around the world. I made new friends from countries including Brazil, Switzerland, Slovenia, Bulgaria, England, Canada and Colombia. In addition to this, I learnt the layout of the city, made friends with two new hosts in the wonderful Bezirk (district) of Friedrichshain, saw some awesome places and had the opportunity to participate in a well-curated culture and history programme. I saw ballet, the German Symphony Orchestra, street art, monuments, cultural and historical lectures, everything. Hearing the history from specialists and residents themselves was fantastic.
My visit also synchronised perfectly with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. You could feel the spirit and excitement in the air as the city filled on the special night. Berliners and visitors alike lined the streets, watching thousands of lit balloons ascend into the air, which were released from the former sites of the wall, running through the city.
The only negative of this entire experience was missing my loving family and girlfriend. I won’t lie; I wept before I left. One month isn’t a long time, and I’ve been away for longer before, but I treasure the time that I share with these people in my life. I felt that I had made a very selfish decision to go.
Having now come back, I can reflect on my love for this country, and my commitment to further improving my German skills. I love their precision, their brands and their pursuit for sublimity. Whether its the precise industrial design of an Audi, the thoughtfulness of typeface design, the punctual and extensive train system or an awesome classical concert, just about everything in Germany feels considered and purposeful. Nothing seems to be accidental.
I hope to visit again sometime soon, preferably with others. I want to show people around and instil the same passion I have for this amazing country in them. Every country has something special, be it cuisine in Italy or ancient ruins in Greece, but the history and excitement in Germany is very real and very recent. Even today, walking through the streets of Berlin, for example, one can still see and feel the effects of years of war, political separation and reunification. You can see it in the architecture, the food, you can hear it in their voices.
If you haven’t visited Germany before, you’d better hurry up.