Have you ever tried to excel at something and you just can’t do it? That’s my relationship with the German language. I comprehend it adequately and pronounce the words, but ask me to construct a sentence that sounds other than what a five-year old would say, and I fail miserably. I have intermittently pursued this hobby since I was 13 and have amassed 25 hours of college German. Impressive? I still can’t speak it fluently after 30 years of trying. How depressing! Ich kann nicht Deutsch sprechen sehr gut. 30 Jahre später, habe ich noch nicht. Wie Deprimierend.
Once I leave the classroom, I go right back to English again. Out of sight, out of mind. Aus den Augen, aus dem Sinn. I should attend German clubs. I should listen to German radio and watch German television. . . .
I felt an immersion program was the only strategy left for fluency. Practically, I liked the idea of obtaining a teaching endorsement. It would be fun to finish out my career teaching Deutsch instead of English and history. The day-to-day interactions would keep me from forgetting everything. With those goals in mind, in 2011, I applied and attended the University of New Mexico’s 36th German summer school at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico. http://germansummerschool.unm.edu/
With forty others, I vowed only to speak Deutsch with my roommates, at the dinner table, at social events—everywhere I went—only Deutsch for four weeks.
It was very clever of UNM to pick Taos Ski Valley as their summer school location. It was four hours from Albuquerque and remote; you can’t get away with speaking English unless you leave and go to town to pick up provisions. I listened to post-graduate students and professors give lecture after lecture about Friedrich von Schiller, the late-eighteenth century poet, philosopher, historian, and playwright–auf Deutsch. I took notes. I copied down words and tried to make sense of it. Later, I translated the words I didn’t know and then tried to write an essay about what I had heard—auf Deutsch. In class, we sang German songs and learned grammar. We read articles in Der Spiegel, the German equivalent to Time magazine, and we summarized and reported to the group and discussed the articles. Oh, how painful that was. The good news, by the grace of God, somehow I managed to pull off a B+, an A, and an A+. I earned six more college credits. When it came time to decide whether to take the proficiency exam to get the teaching endorsement, I did not. I was happy to walk away with the six credits. I was never so overwhelmed and in over my head. After a couple of weeks, I set aside my ego and relaxed and just did what I could. Yes, my abilities improved. In the evening, we watched German films. That was my favorite part.
The Wave began as a novel in 1981 written by Todd Strasser. Located at a high school in California, a teacher came up with an experiment attempting to explain how and why Nazi Germany came to be. Through slogans and uniforms and solidarity, students began to feel like they were in a club. Many students for the first time felt socially accepted and relished the feeling of community. However, the experiment goes too far. The allegory works and so does the film adaptation, and one I recommend, Die Welle (2008). In the film, a group of students are mesmerized by a dynamic teacher. The students become a cult and madness erupts. Directed by Dennis Gansel, Die Welle starred Jürgen Vogel.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006) was a German film set in 18th century France. Directed by Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run,) it was dark and decadent and starred Ben Wishaw as the murderer with unnatural olfactory abilities. The cinematography was amazing and starred Alan Rickman and Dustin Hoffman. It was a visual orgy. The film complimented the issues of morality favored by Friedrich Schiller. Looking for bizarre art in film? Check out Das Parfum.
When I needed a break from the German language I went on lengthy walks by myself. One day, I saw a herd of mountain goats. Of course, I left my old camera back in the room. During the summer, Taos Ski Valley is empty, green, and the temperatures are mild compared to much of the country. Taos is 9,000 above sea level and it looked and felt like the Alps, too. Was I glad I attended? Other than insulting the head professor by calling him a drunk–I tried to tell him he was the life of the party–I avoided him for two weeks, it was an adventure that helped me decide to make the cross-country move from Virginia to the southwest. The next summer, I moved to north central Arizona, and I am glad I did.
At my new high school, I teach conversational German in my Holocaust Studies/German culture elective class, and it’s a great fit.
Und so endet meine Geschichte. Tschüss!