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Germany Through the Eyes of My Students

Redding, far right, with students studying Marburg's Elisabethkirche.

Redding, far right, with students studying Marburg’s Elisabethkirche.

Professor Greg Redding – It has become a Wabash tradition for students to write blog posts during their off-campus immersion experiences. For the first two days of our current study program in Germany, however, the students have hardly had time to catch their breath, let alone write about their impressions thus far. By tomorrow we will have settled into a routine, so student reflections will be forthcoming. In the meantime I want to offer a few observations from the point of view of a professor who is traveling abroad with students for the 14th time in his 19-year teaching career.

 

Redding and students with Elisabethkirche in background.

Redding and students with Elisabethkirche in background.

When one travels as much as I and so many of my Wabash colleagues have, it is easy for it to become routine. Germany for me is not a strange, foreign place: it is like a second home. So when I arrive in familiar places like Marburg, where we are currently studying, it feels like a long-awaited homecoming. The language and the culture are comforting to me.

This is not true for my students. They are young men traveling in a group, so of course they do not willingly betray any lack of confidence. But almost immediately things begin to happen that challenge their self-assurance, the most important of which is the language. The students on this trip have had from 2 to 4 semesters of college German. They’ve been exposed to all of the essential grammar, have acquired (in theory at least) an active vocabulary of more than 1,000 words, are somewhat culturally competent, and have many hours of situational language practice.

There should be no real difference between using German in Crawfordsville and using German in Marburg, but as one might expect it does not play out that way in those first few encounters with native speakers in context. The simplest exchange becomes cause for self-doubt, sometimes even panic. I have to admit, I find those first blundered transactions amusing, but only because I know that what seemed difficult on day one will be quite simple by the end of our stay. Each situation that the student successfully navigates shows him that the German he has practiced in the Detchon classroom really isn’t any different than the German he hears on the streets of Marburg.

The German 202 immersion experience is immersion in the truest sense of the word. The students are expected to live the language and the culture while they are here. They live separately rather than in a group. They have at least 7 required active hours of language practice per day, and more on some days. They pick up groceries and cook their own meals at home. They have assignments that are designed to get them away from each other, to discover Marburg on their own, to gather information and bring it back to share with the group — in German of course.

Already there have been some surprises. Any notions the students might have had about German stereotypes have been challenged by some of their language partners. Each morning they have 4 hours of formal instruction with an instructor whose heritage is Turkish. On Tuesdays and Thursdays they have an additional 3 hours of “on the street” German practice with conversation partners who have Mongolian and Russian heritage. Marburg is multi-cultural, a small university town with a strong international presence that for the next two weeks includes 9 students from Wabash.

By the time these 9 young men return to Crawfordsville, they will be well on their way toward becoming citizens of the world. Their next trip abroad will seem a little less daunting, and those first conversations in a language other than English will be approached with confidence. They will move forward while in Marburg, and I will move a little bit backward. Watching them will remind me of the time when speaking German was not natural for me, and when the culture seemed foreign. I will rediscover Germany through the eyes of my students and reclaim a bit of the excitement of the new for myself.