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How you can dive into language: the experiences of an English student in Germany

Foreign Correspondent in Germany, Emma Wallace, writes about her experiences with languages abroad. As a Literature student, who initially knew little German, she explains how studying in Munich has given her a new, broader insight into languages.

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Back in October, I attended my first class on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. It was a first for many reasons: mainly due to how the lesson was conducted – much to my surprise, in both English and German. I knew that German would be spoken to some extent, I am in Munich after all, but when it continued past registration, I knew I would have to explain I was not proficient enough in German to follow. The teacher was surprised that I was there and, as an Erasmus student, had stumbled across a niche linguistics module that operated in both English and German; he adapted the lesson nonetheless so that I could contribute and encouraged me to persist. It has undoubtedly been the hardest module that I have taken so far – containing far less Troilus and Criseyde than the title suggested. I was drawn into the previously hidden world of Germanic linguistics, replete with all the vowel shifts and morphological details that I was unaware existed. My tutor’s surprise was understandable, and is one that has been mirrored by many people that I have encountered on my year abroad. Even when I explain the fact that I am an English Literature student studying in Germany with only a basic grasp of German, I have to take a moment to smile. It was a bizarre situation, but it was that selfsame class which illustrated the value of my decision to study in Germany.

Even when I explain the fact that I am an English Literature student studying in Germany with only a basic grasp of German, I have to take a moment to smile.

Contrary to common belief, it is feasible for you to live in mainland Europe, and Germany especially, without being proficient in the native language. Whilst my intention is not to endorse an apathy when it comes to learning a new language, I do want to dispel any uncertainties potential Erasmus students might have when it comes to living in a country whose principle language is not English. Even though most student job placements require a considerable fluency in German, I know many students who have been able to acquire work, varying from schemes that are in search of a native English speaker, to casual barista jobs, without such a proficiency. Indeed, unlike the U.K. and the dwindling interest in pursuing modern foreign languages in schools, the majority of the German students I have encountered are effortlessly familiar with English. It is something that is fostered in Munich, with a prevalence of bilingual nurseries, to the extent that many actually write their dissertations in English rather than German. I am taking German language classes whilst I am in Munich and, although I am in no way capable of holding a conversation, I have not encountered any obstacles that stem from my own elementary understanding of the language. If there is a barrier, myself and the other monolingual students do not agonise over it and we in no way attempt to subscribe to the idea that people should be forced to speak English, particularly in light of the fact that British infrastructure does little to accommodate other languages. Although my tutor offered to include more English so that I could follow the linguistic side of things, we agreed that part of the class would still be conducted in German. This class was undeniably the most constructive in improving my German, and has given me a desire to carry on learning the language.

Innumerable articles exist that list the benefits of learning a language and address its impact on your problem-solving abilities, critical thinking skills and even your memory. In school, I used to take Latin classes; whilst my decision to take this subject onwards did stem from a love of classical mythology courtesy of the Percy Jackson franchise, I noticed a simultaneous change in my understanding of English. Although Latin is a dead language that is mainly compared to romantic languages like French, aspects of it could be seen to lay the groundwork for the English language. It was a conduit, for me, to understanding my own native language, with the focus on grammar forcing me to improve my use of English. My Chaucer class achieved something similar. In this class, I was introduced to the West Germanic root, a theory which attempts to reconstruct the original language that preceded English and German. I had to take a present-day English verb or noun, coupled with its German counterpart, and compare both to work out its Germanic predecessor and then use that knowledge to identify the Old English and Middle English variant. There were many tears during these attempts.

It was hard, but undeniably worthwhile. When I finished my second-year at Exeter last year, I was mentally exhausted. Having encountered difficulties both settling in and acclimatising to the workload, I felt disconnected from my subject and was desperate for some kind of realignment. I struggled with the subjectivity of the marking system, how much it could hinge on whether a tutor could engage with my writing style, and my own perfectionist tendencies when it comes to crafting an essay. Although I ironically see my future in writing, I equally struggle with my own sense of trepidation and fear of inadequacy: I want to achieve that precision and clarity in my own writing, but the threat of failure so often holds me back from properly experimenting with language. Yes, being in classes that do not challenge me that much academically has given me breathing space, a small reprieve before the chaos of final year. It has boosted my confidence. It has, also, given me a new perspective on language.

Whilst I am a Literature student, the subject so often encompasses disciplines, such as History, Theology and even Art, in its attempt to understand different texts. Your interpretation, essentially, depends upon the lens you assume to analyse something and the factors that sometimes define your own situation. With the advent of Brexit, we are witnessing an unprecedented, transitional moment. It is an unavoidable topic of conversation anywhere, and it is fascinating to see the way that this has been negotiated in my various classes. Unlike my very Anglo-centric reading list at Exeter, my classes in Munich have entailed the analysis of literature that is occasionally unknown to my German classmates. We not only studied the literature but discussed it in conjunction with a wider, international outlook. Literature and language became a way to understand and access society. It reminded me why I applied for this degree, why I love engaging with literature and reading books with layers that can be dissected or language that can provoke questions. My year abroad so far has shown me not only how much I can survive and trust in myself, but how much I love literature in any language or any form.

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