Studium und Sprache

For our program, we actually arrived 6 weeks before the start of the German summer semester. The first 3 weeks are taken up by an intensive pre-session language course, then we have a 3-week break, then the semester begins. After an online placement test, we were sorted into small classes based on our proficiency level. It’s all very approximate, but higher-numbered classes are supposed to be higher-level. I’m in Deutsch 11, and have colleagues who are as low as 7 (though he really should be higher, from the sound of things) and as high as 12.

The class is intensive, meeting from 9:15-12:45 every weekday, with a 30 minute break in the middle. I actually find the class rather comforting, because it’s structured very similarly to my German classes at UMN, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The instruction is entirely in German, and while my listening comprehension is probably my weakest area I haven’t really fallen behind or gotten totally lost. Our Dozent (lecturer) makes me think of a coiled spring; he’s nice and an effective teacher, but I can never get the idea out of my head that one day after a student makes a silly mistake he’ll go nuts and break the student’s spine over his knee.

We have probably an hour of homework per night, plus an Aufsatz (essay) to write and a Referat (presentation) to give before the end of the class. In order to get full credit for the pre-session (as international students), we also have to either put in ~22 hours total into a Sprachlabor (speech lab; a computerized, interactive lesson), or go to one of the three offered Seminars 10 times – basically another, 90 minute daily class on some cultural or historical subject. Everyone I know of is planning to go to the Seminars, because we did computerized speech labs at UMN and I’ve never met someone who liked doing them. I certainly would have preferred regular class time instead.

This is a wonderful segue into the world of German bureaucracy. This was a stereotype that turned out to be 100% true; Germans love bureaucracy. And this university is around 500 years old, so it’s had plenty of time to cement some archaic and truly bizarre traditions in place that you just have to deal with.

Probably my favorite needless complication so far is the class schedule. When you go to sign up for classes during the semester they’ll list a time block of, say, 10-12. You might make the perfectly reasonable assumption that this means the class begins at 10 and ends at 12, but this is not the case. Classes almost always last 90 minutes at Uni Freiburg, and there are actually two possible times that they can start at, depending on the notation that the class has; either c.t. or s.t. These are the Latin terms cum tempore and sine tempore, meaning “with time” and “without time” respectively. If the class is marked c.t., then it actually begins at 10:15, and since classes last for 90 minutes it actually ends at 11:45.  If the class is marked s.t., then it truly does begin at 10:00 and lasts until 11:30. Once upon a time, this was to make sure that everyone had time to go from class to class. A perfectly reasonable idea, except that, you know, every American university just tells you what time your classes start and end and you still somehow have time to get between them. It’s like magic!

The whole reason we have to take the Sprachlabor or Seminar is because we need a total of 5 ECTS (European Credit Transfer System) credits for UMN to acknowledge that we’ve finished this course. By default, it only gives 4, so if we go to the Seminars it bumps us up to 5. However, this is a bit confusing as well because we were explicitly old that 2 ECTS credits are equal to 1 US college credit, and this 5 ECTS course is directly worth 4 credits for me at UMN. I presume this is because the ECTS <-> US credit system is generalized, but UMN and Uni Freiburg have agreed that this particular class is equivalent to 4 US credits under these circumstances. Why? Because college wasn’t confusing enough, I guess.

I will say, though, that learning another language is one of the most thoroughly entertaining things I’ve ever done. It’s fascinating, because it gives insight into how another culture thinks (and how that’s different than your own culture), but also makes you look at your mother tongue in a whole new light. One of my favorite things is seeing that many grammatical constructs that seem archaic and medieval in English are how German still does things. As someone who loves fantasy and medieval history it’s just so cool to see and hear the tangible remnants of our past — both the vestigial in English and the practical in German.

Another fun thing about the process is that all the homework you’re given and the class exercises take you back to your childhood. Homework is all things like “Write X sentences that use Y grammatical construct,” or “Sort all these verbs and adjectives according to the career they’re associated with.” Right now we’re dealing with one of the most infamous bits of German grammar, Adjektivendungen (adjective endings). Everyone hates learning and using these things because they seem arcane and pointless, but if they’re explained in the right way they become a perfectly logical and useful system (thanks, Herr Baker!).

On Sunday morning a group of other international students and I are taking a day trip to Heidelberg, the city I visited the last time I was in Germany. It has a beautiful old-city and castle, nestled right next to the Neckar river. I’m very excited about it, and will definitely post about it with pictures.  

Bis gleich (see you later)!

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