The question I expect everyone will ask me when I return home, and the question that I had asked every other person I knew who had studied in Germany, is: have my German language abilities improved? Put simply: yes!
I came in at the intermediate level and was placed in the most advanced German class in this program (German 351). I can’t speak to all of the German classes because I know they differ since each has a different teacher. However, in class we speak only in German and basically just try to talk about as many different topics as possible to test where our vocab strengths do (and do not) lie. This is certainly good practice for German and for identifying holes to study while you’re here or when you go home; I think for me the biggest knowledge gap was terms for the kitchen, like bowl or pan or fridge. We also covered different grammar patterns, like verbs that take certain objects or the genders of nouns.
Outside of class you get to decide how much you practice. Although some menus and things at the supermarket have labels and descriptions in German and English, almost everything is only in German. Similarly, although most people here do seem to speak at least some English, many of them would prefer to speak German. This is especially true of people who are immigrants to Germany, since German is often their second language and English their third.
Whether or not your host speaks German will depend on you and your host. I know some people’s hosts prefer English (which is good for those who know very little German), but many will speak to you in German if you ask or will not be able to communicate in English at all. Of course, you often have to go out of your way to talk to your host, as opposed to staying in your room and sleeping (which can be very tempting at all times!).
With all of this practice my German has naturally gotten better. My ability to talk without preparation is better, by which I mean both vocab recall but also the ability to form grammatical structures without having to think about it. Native speakers often explain grammatical rules as just sounding better, and through being here and talking to native German speakers, I have gotten an ear for some of those structures. Although pronunciation is still difficult, I also have a better ear for what the pronunciation should be, so I can tell when I am saying something incorrectly.
I have always wanted to learn some of the interjections that Germans use in their colloquial speech (such as “um” or “you know?” in English); these are just things people say without thinking about it. They are difficult to learn without having a native speaker for a teacher. I’ve found that in German, or at least in Berlin, one of the most common interjections is “...oder?” at the end of a statement, to suggest that the speaker is unsure or seeking agreement from their audience.
One thing to note: speaking in another language all day is very tiring. Much more so than I had imagined. Of course it is naturally a more difficult thing to do than speaking in your native tongue, but at the end of the day when you’re tired, or you’ve had something to drink, your brain just doesn’t want to put in the effort to think about grammar or vocab workarounds––it’s just so much easier to speak in English! But when in Germany, that’s often just not an option––everyone else doesn’t suddenly know English because you’re tired, and this has been the most difficult thing for me.
In sum, if you’re looking to study abroad because you want to study a language, it is definitely a good idea. But you also only get out what you put in to it, so be prepared to try and keep in mind how much energy it can take.
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<p>I study Nutritional Sciences and Linguistics, with a focus in Dietetics and Sociolinguistics respectively, in the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State. I am also minoring in German and Korean. Outside of the classroom I volunteer with the Beekeeper's Club and LGBTA Resource Center at PSU and work part time for Hillel (delivering kosher soup, actually!). During breaks I like cooking, gardening, and playing D&D with friends. </p>