Name: Rebecca Kiefer
Hometown: Canton, MI
Program: German Language and Culture in Mayen (Germany); Summer 2011
You don’t realize how much you need to say every day, just to get through routine encounters and transactions. People say hello to one another when they pass, a store employee helps you find an item, a server takes your order, maybe you meet someone new and have to make extended small-talk. All these activities are carried out thoughtlessly, because they are so routine. We anticipate what sorts of phrases will be used based on the situation, what responses are expected, how formal a situation is, what to say in order to sound “normal.” Ironically, even though I had been studying German for five years before I embarked on my six week program to Germany, these types of activities were the hardest to participate in while speaking my second language.
It wasn’t so much that people couldn’t understand me, it’s that I sounded odd when responding to everyday questions. When placing an order, we say “No, that’s all” or perhaps “Nothing else.” In German, the appropriate response is, literally, “That would be it.” All these phrases are clear enough when translated, but the cultural layering makes them sound off. Because of this, I was initially terrified of those times in the day when I would be required to speak in such situations. However, over the six week period, my confidence grew and I became less afraid of making mistakes. I went from being deathly afraid that one of my host family’s neighbors would say hello to me as I walked to class or that someone on the train would make a brief comment to me and I would have to respond to not thinking twice about going to stores and restaurants, asking for help as I traveled, and initiating conversations with fluent speakers.
This is something I could never have learned in the classroom. I feel the whole experience helped me grow as a person and to understand German better. The language itself only conveys so much, while the culture does the rest, and I had endless opportunities to absorb this while in Germany. Being able to navigate daily life in all its forms, beside just the language difference, made me feel more confident as a person and as a citizen of the global world. While other Americans I encountered would struggle on trains, not understanding the doors open manually at stops, I had mastered multiple different types of doors. When I saw other Americans needing to find English speakers to ask for help, I was able to initiate those conversations in German, even if we eventually switched to English. While other Americans I would see as I traveled struggled to cross streets, I knew that pedestrian right-of-way is respected in Germany and that I could cross at my leisure.
This is not to seem arrogant or to further re-enforce the “loud American” stereotype, but to demonstrate that my study abroad experience helped me move my experience and abilities beyond those of travelers similar to me. Speaking German and understanding Germany’s culture have better prepared me to engage with the increasingly globalized world around me with confidence and ease.