Sunday, June 17, 2012

Chapter 5, In which some reflection occured

It strikes me that I have been here for 6 weeks, and I haven’t really written much about the actual academic experience, e.g. about the Goethe-Institut itself. I’ve spent a fair bit of time traveling around, and I’ve talked about that plenty, so this post will be about that experience.

I arrived in Germany on a Monday. I took a taxi from the airport to the Goethe Institut, and my experience must start there. When I walked in, I was uncertain where I fit into the system, how I’d be placed, and just how much success I might have here. These uncertainties were taken care of, if not in short order, then in a reasonable time frame. I left my luggage in a (locked) side room, and proceeded to testing. I was given a multiple choice test intended to test my control of grammar. Following that, I was asked to write a short passage on a topic of my choice (intended, I believe, to test my ability to formulate logical constructions). Finally, I was given an oral exam – this was pretty straight forward. I was asked a few basic questions, allowed to answer as I saw fit, and then asked a couple of leading follow up questions. At the end, I was placed into my level: B1.1.

A brief interlude to explain what this level system means. There are three levels: A (Beginner), B(Intermediate), and C(Advanced). Each level has two subparts, and each subpart has at least 2 classes, each of which takes 4 weeks of intensive study. Thus, the levels are:


My level is bolded. This means I was placed as if I had spent 4 months studying German 4.5 hours per day, 5 days per week. This is interesting, but only inasmuch as it provides context. When I showed up to the B1.1 level, I was surprised to find that I had already learned at least 50% of the grammar for the level, and that my oral skills were significantly above par. In fact, I was showed my scores, and my grammar/writing placed me squarely in B1.1. But my oral skills were significantly higher, and this deserves some explanation.

When I arrived in Germany, I teleported. It was as if my brain was waiting for the immersion. My vocabulary obviously didn’t change, nor did my grammar. But my speaking changed overnight. It was like hearing other people using German amalgamated my understanding. All of a sudden I found I could formulate real sentences, and communicate. I’ve spent some time thinking about it, and the explanation that I now give is this. In the US I would spend great periods of time thinking about each sentence, they’d generally be planned. The problem with this is that you can get so caught up in correcting your articles, endings, and declensions that you forget where you were actually going, get frustrated, and abandon ship. Here in Germany, my approach changed. I do not plan my sentences in my head – I begin the sentence, and allow it to flow where it will. Thus, the sentences frequently exit my mouth without my actually thinking them inside my head. The result is twofold: (1) I make mistakes. (2) People can understand me. This seems contradictory, but it’s actually not. The mistakes I make are small: I mistake articles, but it’s the type of funny mistake that makes us chuckle without interfering with the understanding of what is actually meant.

So, back to Goethe. I chose to sample the B1.2 level, to see if I might be better placed there. What I found was that the class size, and the individual teacher are both very important. My B1.1 teacher was terrific – she was very nice, and very good at engaging the class. It had the feeling of a very well-rehearsed dance, when she taught (she was in her 60s, and had been teaching for a long time). The B1.2 teacher spoke WAY too fast, and the material just blew me away. By which I mean, on that particular day, she basically gave out tables of verbs and said “Practice!” I knew only about 50% of the verbs, so it was ugly.

I chose to stay at the B1.1 level, and it was a really good choice for me. The small class size (only 10 or so people) meant that I actually got to hear more about them. And that was one of the more interesting things. I felt like it was truly a new experience, in that my peers were people from really tremendously different backgrounds. I sat at a table with an Indian businessman in his early 30s who had immigrated. At the same table was a young Greek pediatrician deciding whether to emigrate, and do her specialization study in Germany. At the end of the month, she went back to Greece. She confided in me before leaving that it was a very hard decision – one would leave behind friends, family, and the familiar. And it’s truly, tremendously difficult to live in country where the language is foreign. Goethe would tell you something pithy (to be clear: Goethe, the author, not the institution) like “He who knows no other languages knows nothing of his own” but I call Goethe’s bluff. Goethe clearly never had to live in Germany without speaking enough German to be able to pay at a restaurant hassle free.

I’ve obviously finished with the B1.1 level, so I can report on how it went. The actual grading for the class was interesting. We took 2 written tests, and had an oral exam at the end of the semester. I found the written tests to be very very short. At first, this seems a blessing, but you quickly realize it’s not. When you have a 33 point test, each point counts a lot. The Goethe Institute also favors a type of question I now despise. True/False questions are my newest archenemy. The problem with the questions is that they’re a nightmare for anyone who trained for the SATs. I read the questions, I read the problems, I read the questions, and I analyze the text. This can get me in trouble. For example, the text tells you that “being able to think from someone else’s point of view improves teamwork.” The question says: “having reflected on one’s own self improves teamwork. T/F?” I read this and think that this might be true, but the text does not clearly support this conclusion – it’s an extrapolation. I reply F. The answer on the key is, of course, T. The answer comes directly from this line, and is the cause of my aggravation – it’s not such a tight system. I can say, “Yes, I saw that it was MENTIONED, but these are different things!” Doesn’t do much good.

This is a bit of culture shock, but nothing too terrible. The oral exam was interesting – always stressful, but not too interesting. In the end, I definitely passed. Here’s my class (I apologize, this is a picture of a picture)!

My B1.1 class

In fact, I passed really, really well. After 2 days in the next level (B1.2), the teacher approached me, and asked me if I might like to try the B2.1 level, as this level seemed too easy for me.  

I agreed, and tried B2.1 for a day. That was June 8th, and I’ve been there ever since. It’s a nice class – we’re 11, including me. It’s a different demographic than the people I saw in B1.1. Here, most of the people are thinking of studying in Germany. For example, I’m sitting at a table with a nice Ukrainian junior studying German and English (she speaks Russian, natively). She’s thinking about living in Germany, and maybe doing her graduate work here. There are also a pair of chemists studying German while they do their master’s work. It’s an interesting change, and I think it reflects the division between B1 and B2. The B1 certification is required to be naturalized as a German citizen. The B2 level, however, is a transitory point on the way to the C1 level (the minimum certification required to study at a German university. Sort of like passing the TOEFL for the US). As such, the B1 level was much more concerned with grammar, and simple construction and understanding. The B2 level is more concerned with abstract texts, and speaking! At this point, I’ll include clips of the level specifications (you all luck out, I photo’d the English versions, so you don’t have to read the German).

I can attest that my German has really noticeably improved since I arrived. My metrics are not very complicated, it’s generally a feeling that I have. For example, I really love Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – especially the choral movement. I’m now able to understand most of the German. Talk about exciting! In the B2 level, I was also introduced to a German band – Wise Guys. They’re an a cappella group, with excellent diction. Point is, I can actually understand them, and I would for sure not have been able to do that even a month ago. (For an example, look up ‘Sorge dich nicht’)

The entire experience has been something that I could not have imagined. The people I’m meeting are totally different from those I’ve met before – they are a different class. In fact, I’ve come up with a theory as to why the age demographic is as it is (generally, students seem to be early 20s to early 30s). I would hypothesize the following: the most people taking these classes are considering emigration or immigration. These are people who have decided that there is a serious problem with their home country or location that only moving can fix. The more precocious of them figure it out by early 20s, but many take somewhat longer. Once they’ve decided, they begin the process of committing, but it’s a long process.

Take home message: one may think that immigration is a quick process. One packs up, moves out, and arrives at a destination. But the truth is something quite different. The actual act of immigration is quick, the process is much longer. To truly immigrate is a process of at least a decade.

Just my thoughts.