Life in Germany: Part 4, An AU Student Abroad

The following depiction is a composite of persons, experiences, and reflections. The names have been withheld to protect the innocent.

Der Deutschunterricht

The German lesson begins at 08:50. I have already fortified myself with coffee. One student wanders in late, having spent much of the night among the collection of nightclubs, live sex shows, and pornographic cinemas that one finds on the notorious, yet colourful and lively, Reeperbahn. Another student does not show up at all during this particular class, perhaps for the same reason.

The students are all foreigners here in Germany. The composition of the class changes frequently, as students can register for a week at a time if they choose. At the moment, it includes a Japanese, a South African, a Mexican, a Russian, a Turk, an Italian, a Korean, and me, a Canadian. Some of the students are learning German so that they can attend university here, while others want to work here or get a better job than the one they already have. A couple of students are in relationships with German citizens.

German grammar is very difficult for us foreigners. Often, the instructors remind us that the German language is systematic and logical. For example, the verb is in the second position, unless, in other cases, it on the end goes! Thus, I frequently find myself confused by German word order. I remind myself that the language is systematic and logical. This does not seem to help me.

Interestingly, most of the people here in Hamburg know English. I have been told that for a German to learn English is generally not difficult. For an English speaker to learn German is generally not painless. As a matter of fact, a friend, who happens to be a native to Hamburg, joked, “life is too short to learn German.” Still, I attend my classes.

During the class, one student greets every new twist in German language with enlightenment, “Ahhh!” Another student meets every success or obstacle in our language exercises with an exuberant “Super!” I have to admire the sense of insight and enthusiasm that these two express, “Ahhh!” and “Super!” throughout the five periods of instruction.

One instructor tells the class that the school provides only 20 percent of the training required to learn German. We have to work on the other 80 percent by ourselves at home. By my calculations, I should be spending 20 hours per day learning German. If I stop sleeping, this goal may be obtainable.

Another teacher asks if anyone has a headache. He explains that headaches are good. They indicate that the neurons are growing and making new connections. “If the German lesson results in a headache, you are learning! Good for you!” For some reason, this causes me to recall that the individual for whom Masochism was named, L. Ritter von Sacher-Masoch, was a German. Ahhh! Super!

In another class, the instructor had suggested that listening to German radio is one way to get more exposure to the language. It does not take long to realize that most of the pop songs are in English. Canadians such as Celine Dion, Alanis Morrisette, Nellie Furtado, and Nickleback are popular here. During the late summer and early fall, Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” was in especially heavy rotation. Canadian or not, that song is starting to annoy me. I will have to rethink this learning strategy.

I explain this radio content problem to one teacher. She suggests that instead of commercial radio, I should listen to a public station, NDR Norddeutscher Rundfunk (the North German Broadcasting Corporation). Soon I am hearing about bird flu, the unrest in France, and the attempts to stitch together a ruling coalition from Germany’s disparate political parties. That I can put together something from a foreign language news service must be a good sign. I savour this small victory. Ahhh! Super!

From my German lessons, I learn that Germany is not nearly as uniform as Canadians tend to think. Hamburg, like the rest of Northern Germany has nothing to do with the stereotypical “German” that North Americans think of, that is the Lederhosen-attired mountain people of Bavaria. And, as my Northern German teachers like to emphasize, the Northerners speak “German” not that quasi-German spoken in the South.

In my struggle to learn the language, I turn to philosophy. The German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche wrote, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” He did go insane, however.

The class ends at 13:00. Sometimes I leave feeling somewhat overwhelmed. I may even be getting a headache. Ahhh! Super!