Saturday, August 20, 2011

Why I Took German in High School

When I went to Portage High School, there were two foreign language options: Spanish or German. And as a Lutheran thinking about the Ministry, I figured that German would be good for religious / theological reasons since the Lutheran Reformation took place in Germany, Luther translated the Bible into German, the Small Catechism was written in German, etc. The other reason, of course, was that Du Hast by Rammstein was a popular song in the late 1990s. Oh, and I may or may not have some German in my blood.

Under the regular 7 or 8 period school day, German 1 would be a year-long class. But because PHS had recently switched to the block schedule, which was four 90-minute periods a day with "A days" and "B days," the language courses were every day for a semester. By contrast, AP courses (and others) would be every other day the whole year. So I took "two years" of German my sophomore year (German 1 in the Fall and German 2 in the Spring). Then I took German 3 my junior year and German 4 my senior year.

What I enjoyed the most about German was speaking it. I have a pretty good ear and I'm not too shabby at copying accents, performing impressions, etc. I enjoyed the performance of language, if you will, the art of it. Even though I couldn't possibly fool the natives that I was fluent, I could talk, think, and sometimes dream in German (though you're pretty limited when you have a narrow vocabulary and only the most common forms of present and past tense at your disposal).

What I did not enjoy was grammar. I didn't hate the grammar (well, not all the time), but it was in itself a foreign language to me. And this was my first exposure to concepts like grammatical gender or the case system. For the sake of my sanity, I think I was better off having been exposed to these concepts in high school German rather than coming across them for the first time in Biblical Greek in college. That's not to say I really understood them in high school (or in college for that matter), but some things clicked better the second time around. In fact, I think my understanding of German grammar improved as a result of my multiple (failed) attempts at Biblical Greek. But I did not enjoy learning German grammar (and there is much that was taught over my high school career that I actually never learned or understood). When it comes to diagramming sentences, parsing, the technical aspects, and so forth, I call this the science of language. I like the art of language, not the science of language.

I bought this Bible in Germany and
the shot glass set was a gift from my exchange family.
Another reason I took German in high school was because our we had (and continue to have) a good exchange program. We go over there on even years, they come over here on odd years. I got to go to Germany in 2000 and actually use the language with native speakers (something which is decidedly harder to do with Biblical Greek or Biblical Hebrew).

So if you're a Lutheran who is considering the Ministry or at least studying theology in college or in seminary (they have Master of Arts and PhD degrees at both seminaries), I suggest you take German if your school offers it.

But why not Spanish when so many people speak it? Wouldn't that be so much more useful for missions or even local outreach? Hey, if you want to do both, go for it! But If you just want to learn to converse with native speakers, there are faster and better ways to learn Spanish, including tips and tricks available in The Language Hacking Guide (affiliate link) by Benny Lewis, founder of the blog Fluent in 3 Months. You don't need to learn Spanish in school to learn to speak Spanish. But I'd argue that learning German in school will give you a better academic / technical / grammatical foundation on which to build your skills in the Biblical Languages if you won't be tackling those until college or graduate school.

If you're not ready to buy the Language Hacking Guide, there's another product Benny created called Why German is Easy (affiliate link) which, having read it myself, is a steal for the price. Look for my review of Why German is Easy in an upcoming blog post.