In the past few weeks, through the flurry of final papers, tests, and emotions about leaving Agnes Scott, I’ve been trying to reflect on this academic year–what did I learn, what did I accomplish? Ultimately, what it comes down to is that at the beginning of last August, I didn’t know any German, and now I do.
I think when I look back at this year of my life, it will always be the year I started learning German, because nothing else I did or achieved will be as fundamentally important or life changing. Thanks to these two semesters of German at Agnes Scott, I can communicate (not perfectly or about everything, for sure, but I can communicate) with the estimated 126 million German speakers worldwide. Talk about expanding your world!
In a literal sense, learning German has changed my life, because it allows me to fulfill the visa requirements to live and work as an au pair in Austria, which in turn will allow me to travel extensively in Europe, which will (again) expand my world. It will also let me read new literature, watch new movies, engage with the world in all kinds of new ways.
But, after really thinking about it, that isn’t the most profound way that German classes have affected me. I think, over the past nine months, I have learned something important about myself as a learner.
By starting to study a subject with no prior knowledge, I was able to see my progress on a daily basis. As I learned new words, grammatical concepts, culture, history–the part of my brain where I stored German grew larger and larger, until it started to seep into everything. I had an intense practical motivation to learn–knowing that I would move to Austria in the fall–but honestly, that wasn’t the thing that motivated my learning the most.
It was the mystery–hearing a song and almost getting the meaning. Or hearing my professor say, you’ll understand this later. I wanted to understand everything now. That’s where the “learning about myself” comes in. It took all year, but I finally discovered the time my brain needs to absorb information. I figured out that there will always be a gap between what I’ve been taught and what I have learned and can use. But that’s okay! For me, it’s actually necessary. The gap between what I knew was out there and what I had actually absorbed motivated me, pushed me onward toward fuller comprehension.
Last week I filled out an evaluation of my German course, and one question made me laugh. It asked something to the effect of whether the class had been intellectually challenging. I wanted to just answer, YES, YES, YES. Not because German 101 and 102 were the “hardest” classes of my undergraduate career, by any means, but because they presented me with an intellectual challenge I had never met before.
The process of learning German fully engaged my capacity for problem-solving, logic, short term memory, analysis, mimicry, and much more. It joined the different parts of my brain together in unexpected ways. Also, it was insanely fun. I loved going to this class three times a week, loved the late night study groups, the German movie nights (both the official ones and the ones with friends in my apartment), loved talking to my professors about grammar, history, and life. I will truly miss the community that we built this year.
But I feel prepared. Is there anything better to take out of a learning experience? I am confident that I will be ready for my German class this summer at the Goethe-Zentrum Atlanta, for my future classes at the Volkshochschule in Linz, and for the overall challenge of moving to a German-speaking country. I also know that in my future learning endeavors I will be better equipped because of the self-knowledge I gained this year. So, lass uns gehen! The adventures are waiting.