If Spanish was the first foreign language I learned, German was the first foreign language I learned well. Out of the four foreign languages I know, German is the one I know best. According to my German-speaking friends, I have a strong vocabulary, make few mistakes, and have an accent that usually (but not always) identifies me as being from the US- people have occasionally mistaken me for someone from the Netherlands. I also can easily read German newspapers (apart from a few unknown words from time to time), and have read several unadapted German books.

I started studying German when I was 19. It was my second year of university, and the university required that everyone study a foreign language for several semesters. I started to study Spanish, but quit the class when I realized I wanted to study something other than the language I had learned for four years in high school. Also, because I had studied Spanish for so long in high school, I was placed in a very difficult Spanish class and was afraid I wouldn’t pass. The way I chose German is kind of funny- there was a list of all the languages that were offered, and I simply moved my finger around the page. It landed on German, and I began studying it. (I would never choose a language in this way today!)

The first semester of German was quite hard for me. Having studied Spanish before, I was used to a language having a lot of common, mainly Latin-origin words with English. This was not the case with German- most of the words on the page, apart from some everyday vocabulary like “Haar” (hair) and “Apfel” (apple) was so different from English that it was unrecognizable. Another difficulty was how the plural of nouns were formed. In English, you add an “s” or “es” to the end of most words, but in German, plurals are formed in a number of different ways. Also, German nouns have not two but three genders, and the gender of most (but not all) words cannot easily be understood just by looking at them. Our teacher quite strongly advised us to learn every noun that we studied with its singular form, plural form, and gender. Another difficulty was sentence construction. German word order is quite strict, and in addition, each of the articles and adjectives that go with nouns change form depending on if they are the subject, direct object, or indirect object in a sentence. Also, if a sentence has two verbs, the second verb is the last word in the sentence. For example, if we take the English sentence “I didn’t know that you were so interested in astronomy” and put it in German word order, you would get “I didn’t know that you so interested in astronomy were”. As you can see, each German sentence and indeed many individual German words require a lot of mental gymnastics, especially for an English speaker.

Still, there were some things that were not so difficult about German. Pronunciation and spelling  were both completely logical, and there were a few words shared between English and German, although there were some sounds we had to learn that were hard to make and hard to distinguish between. Also, our textbook told us about an interesting phenomenon called the “Lautverschiebung”, or sound shift. Certain words in German looked rather different from their English equivalents, but in fact had once been been pronounced the same way in both languages- what had changed was the pronunciation of certain letters. For example, the /f/ in many German words turned into /p/ in English: German “Apfel” became English “apple”; German “Schiff” became English “ship”. There were many such pairs of sounds (/g/ and /y/- “gahnen” -> “yawn”; /t/ and /d/- “tief” -> “deep”; /s/ -> /t/- “Schuss” -> “shot”). These paired sounds helped me to make sense of a lot of German vocabulary that didn’t look too similar to English. Another thing that was easy forme was, believe it or not, the conjugation of verbs, which followed many of the same principles as Spanish verb conjugation. Also, the number of verb tenses was much smaller compared to Spanish.

My first semester German teacher was a native speaker, and he was quite strict. As you can see, there are a lot of rules in German, and he made sure we knew them all. At the middle of the first semester, I was not getting good grades, but I worked hard and managed to get a C+. I wasn’t completely happy with my grade, but I greatly respected how seriously the teacher took his job. The next semester’s teacher was also a native speaker, but he didn’t push us as hard. If I remember correctly, I got an A-, which honestly was better than I deserved. Looking back, I wish our second teacher had been a harder grader. After the second semester ended, I went to Germany for a summer semester. Before going, I realized that I couldn’t recall vocabulary fast enough and began to study very intensively. I made word cards with English on one side and German on the other. I wrote masculine nouns in blue, feminine ones in red, and neuter ones in green. I also wrote all the plurals of nouns, and memorized past and present forms of verbs. I practiced with the cards every day until I knew all of them, and also spoke a bit of German with my grandfather, who alone in his group of soldiers had learned some German before going to Germany- and still remembered how to speak it 55 years after the end of the war!

I arrived in Germany early in the summer to tour the country a bit and practice speaking, but found that just knowing a bunch of words from cards was at best enough to help me ask questions, but not enough to help me understand the answers. Most of the work we had done in the first two semesters involved English to German translation, fill in the blank, and sentence transformation exercises, along with some vocabulary. There hadn’t been much listening comprehension work and that weakness showed when I tried to understand spoken German. When the actual study abroad program began, I joined my classmates from the US in western Germany and began studying. We continued the same types of exercises that we had done earlier, and in addition we were assigned conversation partners whom we met two or three times per week. I was lucky- I got a conversation partner who actually spoke German with us. Not all the other students were so lucky- they got conversation partners who wanted to get paid to practice English with students from the US! It was about this time that I realized that, even though my German wasn’t all that great yet, I could already communicate and find ways around my weak vocabulary; I understood that I had a talent for German, and indeed my German made a huge leap during those six or seven weeks of the summer program.

The second year of German was easier than the first, and was pretty much a continuation with the same exercise types as earlier. A big change happened in the third year, when I realized that I had taken enough German classes to count German as my second major (specialization). I even combined my German studies with my first major of history when in the summer of 2002 I traveled to Berlin, entering the federal archives and Staatsbibliothek to study the role of German observers in the US Civil War. (Looking back, one of my great regrets is that I did not choose a topic of greater importance, something perhaps in political science, sociology, or international relations rather than history.) One great thing that happened in 2002 is that I became friends with two Germans and with whom I am still in contact today; there is nothing that improves life in general and language learning specifically more than friendship.
My German was slowly getting better, and in the fourth (and final) year, I took some classes in which we read unadapted German books for the first time. I still remember how my fascination grew as I read each chapter of Waldeinsamkeit (Forest Loneliness), about a girl who ran away into the forest to live with the animals. The fact that I had read some unadapted German books and stories made me believe that my German was quite strong. I also took a good class in business German, and courses in German history which were taught in German. At the end of my fourth year of studying German, I was offered a scholarship to study history for one whole year at the Humboldt University in Berlin. I had, however, rather overestimated the level of my German.