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10.23.2023: German Peer Tutor Kaleb Writes About Studying Abroad in Freiburg, Germany

German tutor Kaleb writes about Studying Abroad in Freiburg Germany. Images of iconic landmarks and Kaleb in Freiburg are included in the image

Last semester, I studied abroad in Freiburg, Germany. From late February to late July, I experienced living in a foreign country for the first time. I chose to study in Germany because I have been learning German since high school and I am a double major in Germanic Studies and Anthropology. I also wanted the experience and challenge of living in a different culture. Despite having learned German for years, I couldn’t have been more nervous to speak it in Germany. I had heard stories on social media about how Germans will hear your non- native accent and just speak to you in English and I was worried that would happen to me. In the weeks leading up to my departure to Freiburg, I got anxious whenever I thought about speaking German in Germany. I had convinced myself that my speaking skills wouldn’t be good enough and that no German would speak German with me. I was even worried that if I tried to speak German I would just embarrass myself.

Despite those fears, I was determined to improve my German skills while living in Germany. I knew that this might be my only chance to live in Germany, so I wanted to learn as much German as I could while I had the opportunity to speak with native speakers. I therefore knew I had to speak German to native speakers despite my anxiety about it. In order to help ease my anxiety and to prepare for Germany, I studied a lot during my winter break. I primarily focused on building my vocabulary and improving my listening skills. I made flashcards with words I found through online vocabulary lists. I also watched several TV shows in German in the hopes that it would help me understand native speakers better when I got to Germany. I would also take new words I learned from those shows and put them onto flashcards.

I remember the first time I spoke German in Germany pretty vividly despite it just being an everyday interaction. It was at the Archaeological Museum in Freiburg. I had been in Germany for less than 24 hours. I went up to the cashier at the museum and asked to buy a postcard. It was a very simple sentence, but I’ll be honest, I messed it up. I messed up the syntax of the sentence by putting the verb in the wrong position. But it didn’t matter, because the cashier responded to me in German anyway. Despite my flawed grammar, I was still able to have a conversation in German. That was the beginning of the most important lesson about language learning I learned in Germany: you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be understood.

Something that is great about living in a country that speaks the language you are learning is that there are language learning opportunities everywhere. I had the benefit of taking a language class while in Germany and all of my courses were in German, but outside of class, my environment was also a classroom. Everything from train announcements to ordering food at cafes to grocery shopping was a learning experience. I noticed over the course of the semester that my ability to understand the world around me increased. For example, at first when I would hear random conversations around me while waiting at a tram stop or walking down the street, I would be able to pick out certain words, but I wouldn’t fully understand what the conversation was about. I remember the first time I realized how much my understanding ability improved. I was standing at a tram stop and there were two girls having a conversation a few feet away from me. I wasn’t trying to listen in on their conversation, but I realized that despite not concentrating on what they were saying, I could understand them anyway. This was a big deal for me, because before I studied in Germany, I would have to concentrate very hard in order to understand spoken German.

I would say that my biggest “achievement” while studying abroad was being able to have a tattoo appointment entirely in German. I had scheduled the appointment in March, but the appointment itself was in July. In order to schedule the appointment, I had communicated with the artist entirely in German through email. Writing in German is easier for me than speaking though and I really wanted to be able to speak to the artist in German as well. Since I had scheduled the appointment towards the start of the semester, I set this goal for myself. I wanted my German skills to be good enough by the time July rolled around so I could talk to my tattoo artist in German. When it finally got to the day of my appointment, I was nervous because I knew I would be disappointed with myself if I couldn’t speak German to her. However, my nervousness turned out to be unjustified, because we spoke German to each other for the entire appointment. I remember sitting with her as she showed me the tattoo design for the first time. I was getting a tattoo of a dragon. She showed me a dragon tattoo she had on her arm and we bonded over our mutual love of dragons. That moment is very special to me and I’m so glad I was able to experience it in a language that I love so much. Since this was towards the end of my time in Germany, it felt like the culmination of my progress in German over the course of my months living there. It also felt like a tangible “victory” because I had set the goal months prior to the appointment.

While I can’t say that every conversation I had with a German never switched to English because some did, I can say that the vast majority of conversations I had with Germans were in German. I was able to take an entire semester of courses in German, I was able to talk to my roommates in German, order food in German, and talk to my friends in German. I can say that I was able to speak German despite my fears and that most Germans were willing to put up with my mistakes and my American accent. I even got compliments on my German.

Overall my experience gave me the satisfaction that my years of studying weren’t for nothing. I might not be perfect and I may not be fluent, but I can speak German. Ultimately, language is about communication, not perfection. This journey in realizing that I am capable enough in the language has also opened potential doors for me in my future academic and professional career. I also study anthropology and I potentially want to pursue archaeology as a career. I am particularly interested in the archaeology of neanderthals, a species that was discovered in Germany. One of the post-graduation options I am exploring right now is doing an archaeological field school in Germany or potentially even graduate school. I am very excited to potentially be able to merge my study of archaeology and my study of the German language. If I had not studied in Germany and had that experience of speaking with native speakers, I would not have the confidence to pursue these kinds of endeavors.