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Taking classes in German

My brain needs more RAM

I took German from 3rd through 11th grade, took a few classes in college to ward off complete obsolescence, and found the occasional conversation partner when possible (it is not exactly the most common language). In recent years I have played with German texts as Musil and Wittgenstein caught my interest, and have spent a few months in Germany if you add it all up. . .

But I have never taken university-level classes carried out entirely in German. Last week was my first-ever experience of that. It was at turns challenging, frustrating, exciting, humbling, thought-provoking, and absolutely disheartening. Here’s how it works.

I usually understand 90-95% of what the professor and other students say, depending how much background knowledge and subject-specific vocabulary I have. So that is a decent start. Caveat – that drops to around 25% if I get very tired, which is liable to happen in the late afternoon and early evening. But let’s assume I am still pert and alert. In English, I am a pretty good note-taker; I can jot down the essence of a lecture or conversation plus interesting sidebars while still following the thread. In German, however, the moment I go to write, my auditory processing quite simply ceases. I cannot seem to do both at once. If it takes me a minute to write something down, I will just rejoin the discussion one minute later lacking the last sixty seconds of context. It also takes longer to write, as I am trying to take notes solely in German. I think more slowly in German, the words themselves seem a lot longer, and there is a fine motor aspect because even my hand does write the letter combinations as readily. But I am going to the trouble of taking notes in German because this seems to me one way of internalizing some of the expressive vocabulary I hope to gain. Nay, need to gain.

Which brings me to the most emotionally frustrating aspect of the past week: I feel utterly incapable of talking in class. For one thing, I am usually so focused on merely understanding that I lack the extra processing power to turn the material over in my mind and come up with questions or comments. For another thing, even when I do have the occasional insight I might want to share, I start trying to formulate it in German, and by the time I am halfway done we are way past the point where my comment would have been relevant. Finally, and worst of all, even if the class would stop and wait for me to get my thought out in German, my ultimate expressive ability is nowhere near the level of sophistication I am accustomed to having in English. Compared to the other native speakers and even second-language speakers around me, I feel like a kindergartener making crude crayon drawings. I have a whole new level of empathy for anyone who has ever studied in a language that is not their mother tongue. It is brutal.

I am often inclined to look through rose-colored glasses, find the silver lining, etc., so I now find myself wanting to put a positive spin on all this… and what do you know, there is one. It is as follows: After one week of class, I can already feel myself processing academic German a little better. Also, my words now come more easily in casual conversations with friends and roommates (though remarkably enough, I have dramatically disparate ‘on’ days and ‘off’ days, much like turns in ballet class). Last but not least, although I read comparatively v..e..r..y….s..l..o..w..l..y in German, I am enjoying tackling my readings, and find myself wanting to stay up late following spin-off threads and tangents. I think this all just might work out... and I just might enjoy it.

Posted by sbw2109 13:44 Archived in Germany

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