October 26, 2011

Translating learning across language

Knox students are fond of complaining (which quickly turns into pseudo-boasting) about their workloads, and I am no exception. In fits of self-righteousness, I like to pretend that I have no breaking point, which must have been why I thought taking five classes in the span of 10 weeks was a good idea. At first, the assignments seemed simple enough: read 20 pages. Give a five-minute presentation. And then, the caveat: do it all in German.

On the first day of my international relations seminar, my professor announced that the course would essentially be two courses: one to learn the material and another to learn the vocabulary used to describe the material. This has created an interesting problem, because while I now feel well-equipped to write a legislative resolution in German, I still have to look up the word for “pomegranate” because I have done a spectacularly awful job of explaining what one is to my German friends. Before I can ask my host mother where the strainer is, I have to figure out how to say “strainer.” Later, I eat my dinner while reading about the details of the German reunification process and don’t have to touch a dictionary once.

No matter how well I’m beginning to grasp academic vocabulary, however, the fact remains that I read and write much slower in German than I do in English. If you know me, you’re aware that “slow” is not something I do well or for which I have much tolerance. Spending two hours on a reading that would take me an hour were it in English is immensely frustrating, but I am slowly (argh) getting faster. Yesterday, I set aside three hours to read several chapters from a book about German views on the war in Afghanistan; I ended up needing only about three-quarters of that time. It was a small accomplishment but an immensely gratifying one.

In addition to adjusting to the workload, I’ve also had to get used to the teaching style here. At German universities, it is common for professors to stand up and lecture for the entire class period. While the professors in my program know that we are American students and thus try to adapt their teaching styles accordingly, the fact remains that I sometimes spend four hours at a time listening to a native speaker rattle on and on about topics that are complicated in and of themselves, much less in another language. My notes are an awkward conglomeration of English, German and arrows indicating concepts that weren’t clear or words I need to look up later. And while I copy down new vocabulary, I lose the next several words of my professor. Thus begins a vicious cycle of constantly trying to stay on top of the lecture.

But every day is a little easier. Every day, I process more. Every day, I know that I can do more. When my sociology professor recommends a German novel that would help illuminate the lives of Jews in Germany after World War II, my hand flies to my pen so I can jot down the title and pick it up later. When my international relations professor tells us to visit the State Center for Civic Education to buy a book for our term paper, I may end up buying three. (My political nerdiness has officially transcended the language barrier.) And when a tourist at a museum makes a remark to me in German, I smile and nod because I agree, not because I have no idea what she said. I am only able to visit the museum at all because I am finally confident that the loss of two hours of studying time isn’t going to be detrimental.

Later, I settle down in my favorite nook at the Humboldt University library in my Humboldt University t-shirt and try to remember that I’m not a real German student—that in three months, I’ll be doing the same thing on the third floor of Seymour Library in Galesburg, Ill. But right now, with my nose buried in German poetry and a dictionary nowhere in sight, I am quite comfortable where I am.

Anna Meier is Co-News Editor for The Knox Student.

Anna Meier

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