Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Learning German in Kaiserslautern: one expat's journey

One of the best ways to immerse oneself in one’s new home as an expat is to learn the local language. In a previous blog entry, I talked about some of the benefits of doing so. However, one might be left with the question: where do I start? For those living in the Kaiserslautern Military Community and wishing to learn German, below are some of the options.

First of all, one must decide if she wants to jump in feet first with lessons totally in German (immersion) or start with lessons that describe the language in English. The first option offers the benefit of an environment where German takes the center stage. However, it has the downfall of being more difficult, especially when grammatical concepts are being explained. If one starts German lessons that are conducted in English, it can be a more comfortable environment where complex German grammatical constructs can be explained in a familiar language. The downfall to this approach is that one might not speak as much German in the beginning. While one will learn the grammar well, one’s speaking might not develop as quickly as it could.

I have taken lessons in both forms. I am serious about learning German and I want to be at least intermediate, if not fluent, in the language. I started German lessons through various KMC organizations. About half of the teachers were native Germans (but spouses of Americans) and spoke very clear English to explain the grammar. Of course they also used excellent German when it came time to in practice! These were what I’d call “baby” classes in which we learned the alphabet, numbers, vocabulary, and some speaking. It was a good introduction and gave a general introduction to how the language functions. Could one have a detailed conversation after taking these classes? No, but one could order at a restaurant, ask about bus tickets, etc.

I followed the beginner’s classes by enrolling at an American university to get an Associate Degree in German. During those studies, I took four classes to learn the language. My teachers were Americans and the majority of the class was again in English to explain the concepts. We did practice speaking German about half of the time. I felt that this format worked well for me since we covered some rather tricky grammar items and I learned it well; I’d say that the four classes would put one at about a B2 level, which is intermediate. However, I did not feel confident in speaking German since I didn’t take all the opportunities to practice that I could have.

After I finished my degree, I was ready to immerse myself in the language and take lessons in the local German community. I took classes both from the Volkshochschule (which is similar to a community education center) and from an association at the Technical University in Kaiserslautern.

At the Volkshochschule, I was in a class with other adults who are foreign. Most of the students were either spouses of someone who works in Germany or were employees themselves. I had a variety of teachers and all of them were native Germans. The entire class was in German but once in a while the teacher would answer a question in English (though I tried to avoid that since the focus is definitely German). I started taking lessons at the A2 level (advanced beginner) and was initially worried about handling such an influx of German. Since I already had a good foundation, I did fine once I acclimated to having to translate so much German. I do feel that the course content runs very slowly though.

In addition to Volkshochschule classes, I started classes offered by the association for cultural understanding at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern. These classes are intended for foreign students at the university so they can prepare to take their subject area courses conducted in German at the university. Community members who have no affiliation to the university can take the classes too, provided there is space (which hasn’t been an issue for me so far).

I have found these lessons to be extremely useful. The entire class is conducted in German; in fact, my intermediate-level teacher told us she speaks no English! I think she actually does, but she was passionate about us learning the language and if we didn’t understand something, she’d use simpler German words to get us back on track instead of taking the easy route and using English. The focus of these classes is grammar and lots of speaking. It paid off; in one semester, my ability to speak German improved exponentially.

With all of these experiences, I felt that I learned the most from the American university classes and the German university association classes. I am most interested in the phonics approach and I’m one of those strange ducks who wants to learn the grammar and learn it well so I sound reasonably educated when I speak a foreign language. I found what I was looking for in the university environment. The less-intense beginner classes from the military community and the Volkshochschule classes have been helpful too. They are a great start for someone wanting to gain some basic German skills for travel and parts of everyday life. From there, the keen learner can progress to more advanced levels at other organizations.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Friday, November 20, 2015

My week: November 8 ed.

This week, my schedule returned to being super busy again. The German class at the uni began. I noticed that our teacher held a doctorate degree so I resigned myself to the idea that we might be stuck in "siezen," which means using the formal manner of address and I'd have to call her Frau Doktor Sowieso or something like that. For language classes, I don't feel that aids communication; it creates such a formal environment and students might not feel so free to speak.

I was very relieved when she asked us if we wanted siezen or duzen (the informal version). Everyone immediately chose the latter. Yay!

It was also a welcome reunion with one of the classmates I've known from two other uni classes. I also ran into two women from one of the social groups where I spend time. It's a small world, especially at the uni!

This is the first uni class where I've felt confident at the beginning. I'm not doing so much translating in my head; instead, I'm spending more time where I'm listening/thinking in German. With the previous classes, I had moments of panic while trying to understand the teacher. I do still get stuck without the vocabulary to express some more complex ideas in class but for most situations, I can say what I want to.

-My German tandem partner and I met up for dinner. The restaurant we wanted to visit was closed so we went to an Asian restaurant instead. The experience was a bit nuts. The staff working there didn't exactly speak English nor did they exactly speak German so we encountered a lot of misunderstandings as a result.

My friend asked for tea without sugar. Instead, she received tea with sugar so my friend told the waitress the tea was wrong. The waitress didn't believe her! To make the situation even more absurd, the waitress wanted to test the tea herself to see if there was sugar in it. This was after my friend had already drank some. I think my eyes just about bugged out of my head and my friend corroborated this later; she said that the shocked look on my face was hilarious.

My friend allowed the waitress to test the tea and grudgingly, the waitress agreed that there was sugar in the tea and agreed to bring a new one. All of this was for a two euro cup of tea. Of course I was in shock because what waitress in America would do such a thing -- she'd just bring a new tea and not demand to taste it to see if the customer was lying! Oh, Germany, sometimes you take the cake. Yes, the waitress is not from Germany originally, but I've seen German wait staff act as if the customer is always wrong too.

-I took Moo to the vet because he has a cyst on his lip and a fatty tumor on his hind leg. The vet will operate to remove both. He had a tumor on a different part of the same leg removed last year. I joke that he doesn't think that I spend enough money on him so he grows these tumors to give the vet some business. I hope the surgery takes care of everything.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Oh, the irony

This juxtaposition is very humorous. Sign #1: "Warm Welcome." Sign #2: Entering the grounds is forbidden.

Seen near the Mehlinger Heide.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Hiking in the Pfälzerwald: Weidenthal and Schwarzsohl

Waldhaus Schwarzsohl
Schwarzsohl, K38, 67475 Weidenthal
Situated between Kaiserslautern and Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, the paths near Weidenthal offer some easy day hiking through the Pfälzerwald. In addition, the Waldhaus Schwarzsohl offers forest enthusiasts an opportunity to grab something to eat and drink, rest, and park -- whether it's a car, a bike, or a horse! With beginner-friendly trails and a comfort station, this area allows one to hike without making many preparations.

Some friends and I took a day trip to the area. The hardest thing about the trip was finding the place - but once I knew a key piece of information, it was very easy to find. 

When driving from Kaiserslautern:
-Take B37 east;
-In Frankenstein, head south on B39 (staying to the right);
-In Weidenthal, turn right on Langentalstraße (the Evangelical Church is on the corner);
-Follow this road for 3.5 miles and Schwarzsohl will be on the right.

Parking is available at Waldhaus ("forest house") Schwarzsohl. In fact, the restaurant's website gleefully announces that there is room to park cars, bikes, and even horses on the property! There is a covered pavilion area for the latter two modes of transportation. 

Trails radiate from Schwarzsohl. Our group crossed the road to wide, well-maintained gravel paths. There were plenty of markers and some signs as well. The terrain made for an easy hike with gradual ascents; it's a suitable trip for beginners. It is important to pay attention to the path markers since there are so many converging.

After the hike, join the mountain bikers, hikers, and families at the Schwarsohl. It's a small restaurant that offers seasonal main dishes, regional fare, drinks (including beer, wine, and soft drinks), cakes, and light snacks. Most of the seating is outside, whether in the Biergarten area, under the pavilion, or on the front porch. Children can play on the playground located near the seating area. Those wanting to warm up after a chilly hike can find limited seating in the heated building.

We entered the ordering area by turning left in the foyer. Staff gave us a beeper and our food was ready quickly. To pick it up, we entered the door on the right of the foyer. Give your empty dishes back in the center.

Easy hiking, regional specialties, and a short drive (half an hour) make a day trip to Weidenthal and Schwarzsohl an attractive destination for a day out in the forest.

Waldhaus Schwarzsohl

Trails abound!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Where Easter eggs come from

...at least according to German artists. I saw this at a store in Leipzig.

Seems legit.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Moo is always helpful

Moo the Cat's sense of helpfulness cannot be overrated.

After all, he always wants to keep me company. When I write, he provides purry, happy support by cuddling up next to, or on, me. In this case, he laid on my legs to give me fodder for blogging. Isn't he sweet?

Sunday, November 1, 2015

My week: November 1 ed.

This is my last week of "freedom" before my university German classes start again. It was also still the holiday for my Volkshochschule class so I did some lazing around. Next week will start an intense schedule as I will work on learning German four nights a week after work. I did this last year and was stressed. It's a good thing I was able to laze around a bit in advance of this!

-I had my regular meeting with my tandem partner. My brain is broken because I said "sheeps." Dangnabbit. I've been hanging around with Indians too much (not that my tandem partner is Indian). The funny thing is that I was on a roadtrip once with two Indian friends and they said, "oh, look at those cute sheeps!" and I was like, hehehe, that's cute! They were not so happy with their Indian teachers back home who told them that sheeps is the correct plural use. I have no idea why I said sheeps when I was speaking with my tandem partner, other than I think my brain was revolting against bilingualism. Naughty brain.

-We've been having a ton of teleconferences with our US HQ at work lately. With an upcoming worldwide database merger and software upgrade, we have more than enough to work on -- in addition to our daily workload. I am very happy to be working more closely with the other office; I think it's silly to duplicate work where it's not needed and our collaboration is reducing that and is improving customer service too. The other really cool thing is that I've coordinated a vendor visit for training at multiple locations and I've invited some of our colleagues from another Service to attend. They were thrilled and the vendor was, too; she'll be able to reach more of our overseas staff. I'm a nerd and enjoy making connections for people, especially ones that help them learn.

-A friend stopped by one evening. She still had on her "clothes" from work, where they had dressed up for Halloween. I have nosy neighbors who are always looking out the the windows and I'm sure they got quite an eyeful of someone wearing a wet suit and ski mask visiting my house. Heck, I'm not quite sure what she was supposed to be, myself, but dug the weirdness.

-For Halloween, I didn't do anything other than eat some candy. I didn't feel like rustling up something to do or to wear. I regret nothing.

-My friends C and K from Neustadt invited me to go hiking. I had some reservations because several weeks ago, my foot was hurting which in turn caused my back to ache. Once that improved, my asthma kicked in so I haven't been in rare form lately. Since C and K were fine with potentially keeping a slower pace I met them at Schwartzsohl, a Waldhaus in Weidenthal. It's a place to park, grab something to eat and drink, use the restroom, and start one's hike along the forest trails.

Though the day started out foggy, by noon it cleared up and we were even treated to some sunlight streaming through the forest. The trees were lit up in beautiful fall yellows and oranges, glowing in the crisp air. I love this time of the year; I'd much rather bundle up a bit than deal with heat.

I was happy to keep a decent pace. Neither my foot, back, or breathing decided to revolt; instead, I was able to enjoy the company of C and K. We haven't hung out since this summer and were happy to meet up again to catch up.

After a five mile hike, we circled back to Schwartzsohl for lunch. C had homemade pea soup and C and I ordered Knödel (a dumpling) with chestnuts, meat (pork? not sure), and a gravy with mushrooms. Normally this isn't my kind of food since I don't like stewy or gravy dishes, nor meat so much either. C tried some and felt that it had too much of "gingerbread spices" for his liking. The dish is mostly savory but indeed had a touch of nutmeg and something else. It wasn't too overpowering but I prefer not to have it in savory things. (When I make Spätzle, I never add nutmeg.) It tasted decent enough after hiking though. After finishing our meals, we parted, with some plans to meet up again soon.