A very intensive language course

In my 1/30/2018 review of Our War I mentioned that one of the few war novels that I’ve read was

Im Westen Nichts Neues, which I guess is translated as All Quiet on the Western Front in English, though I remember it in German because we read it in German the summer after 12th grade [more about that super-intensive German course, covering three years of high-school German in seven weeks, in a later post]

This is now that “later post.”

So how did we manage to learn three years of high-school German in seven weeks? Well…

  • The first answer is that the class met 20 hours per week, with about the same amount of homework!
  • The second answer is that there were only six students in the class.
  • The third answer is that this course was at the Yale Summer Language Institute, which apparently no longer exists (at least in that form).

Early in 12th grade, when I was pondering the limitations of my otherwise deep academic experience at Philips Academy, I realized that I absolutely had to learn German. I was already taking regular courses in Latin and Ancient Greek and studying French on my own with the help of classmates who were actually taking French courses, but I knew that German had to come next. (Both of my parents had taken Latin, French, and German in high school, which was apparently normal in their generation.) Having been admitted extra-early decision at Harvard (which was common in those days, being the happy fate of an amazing (and clearly unfair) total of 20 of my 255 classmates!), I found that this opportunity at Yale of all places was definitely my best path to learning a lot of German in one summer.

So here’s how the course worked. We had four instructors, three of whom were native speakers of German from either Austria or Germany and one of whom was an American who was fluent enough in German and also knew linguistics. The last of these, who met with us only three of the 20 hours each week, primarily spoke English in class and allowed us to speak English, in order for us to be able to ask questions about grammar and subtle issues of vocabulary. The three native German speakers rotated every hour in order to keep us alert for 17 hours a week, and their classes were conducted 100% in German. No English allowed, even on the first day! We quickly memorized model sentences like “Yale Universität wurde im Jahre 1701 gegrundet,” which provided not merely examples and uses of vocabulary but also great models of various syntactic and morphological phenomena. I remember it to this day!

Clearly the class moved very fast. Along with all the conversation and various exercises, we read two entire books: Der Richter und Sein Henkerby Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and the aforementioned Im Westen Nichts Neuesby Erich Maria Remarque. We also read several short stories that I no longer remember (this was in 1965, after all). By a strange coincidence — at least I think it was a coincidence, since I’m not a conspiracy theorist — when we all took the German SAT on the last day of the summer we found that the oral comprehension portion consisted of a selection from the last work that we had just read, a mere five or six days earlier. Needless to say, we all did well on that test.

So we learned a lot of German. The plus side is that I retained enough of it to be able to converse on a fairly simple level and to read 19th-century linguistics papers in German later in my college career as a linguistics major and then to pass a reading test for my master’s degree. I was also able to converse satisfactorily with locals in Yugoslavia and Denmark in my European travels in subsequent summers, since my German was far better than my very limited Serbo-Croatian and my nonexistent Danish. (I had been told that everyone in Denmark speaks English, but that wasn’t true in the countryside.) The minus side is that in 30 years I had forgotten the majority of what I had learned. I still retain some basic vocabulary and most of the grammar, but that’s what happens if you don’t practice enough.

Categories: Linguistics, Teaching & Learning