Tschüss!

Wow, where did eight weeks go? As I write this, I’m sitting in my backyard back in San Diego, California. Instead of the sounds of pedestrians, cyclists, and the Straßenbahn (street trolley) down the block, I hear crickets, the pool pump, and the occasional car going down the street.

Leaving Germany

I was surprisingly sad to leave Germany. Not that I didn’t enjoy my time there, but I’d thought that eight weeks would last a lot longer than they did. The sudden arrival of my last day took me by surprise.

On my last day, I took the U-bahn and Straßenbahns as often as I could, knowing I’d miss them. I visited the five-story bookstore on Königsallee one last time. I grabbed a final ice cream at a street cafe with a few friends.

I gave crocheted presents to my classmates. Maybe I was going home, but these small works of my hands would stay with my friends – and later travel with them back to their homelands.

Finally, I went to a German-Japanese Stammtisch with one of my Japanese classmates. We gathered at the Japanese Garden in the Nordpark for a picnic and view of the lunar eclipse. I met a very interesting German gentleman who spoke inspiringly proficient Japanese, but with a very distinct Kansai accent. まだ足りない, he said. “Still not [good] enough.” Coming from someone much more proficient than I, his words were both comforting and discouraging.

We also met the same German gentleman I’d spoken with at the cat cafe. My classmate and I chatted with him about Germany, Japan, America, and many other topics as we waited for the lunar eclipse.

Finally we found the moon. It was red and incredibly dim. It looked kind of sad, just as I was to be leaving Germany and so many newfound friends.

Coming Home

On Saturday morning, I turned in my keys and lugged my suitcase down the four flights of stairs. I took my last U-bahn to the Hauptbahnhof and said goodbye to Düsseldorf from Platform 15 as I waited for my ICE train to arrive.

I took the train to the Frankfurt Airport, where I had a hectic time getting through all the extra (literal) steps required to check in, find the correct security checkpoint, and reach my gate. Next was a nine-hour flight to Portland, Oregon. The in-flight meal was a last nod to Germany: a sausage and a mini pretzel with a generous amount of mustard.

Finally I arrived in Portland. I was back in the USA! As sad as I’d been to leave Germany, it felt like a huge breath of fresh air to be back in my home country. The people at passport control aren’t asking me to prove why I am here and how long I will stay. I am a citizen, I belong here. The airport staff expect to speak English, and will not look down on me for speaking in English. They are mostly friendly, but even the grumpy ones are grumpy in my mother tongue, and if they choose to be snarky with me I know how to respond. (I am not at all trying to imply that customer service in Germany is usually condescending or grumpy. But when it is, it’s twice as stressful because it’s unfamiliar.)

A four-hour layover and three-hour flight later, I was back in San Diego. I walked down the same hallway and went down the same escalator as always to the baggage claim in Terminal 2. And as per tradition, when my family picked me up we went straight to In-N-Out for protein-style Double-Double cheeseburgers with whole-grilled onions and no tomato.

How’s my Deutsch?

I’d been thinking for a while about how I could directly show my progress in German. I’d considered writing a blog post in German, but that isn’t really edifying for non-speakers of German. Instead, I made a video with some last thoughts about Germany in order to record me speaking German somewhat spontaneously. It’s not an incredibly cohesive or comprehensive conclusion, and it’s full of mistakes, but it also shows how far I’ve come from the beginning of my eight weeks in D’dorf. When you only learn a little bit day-by-day, it’s often hard to see progress. But hopefully someday I’ll be able to come back to this video and think, “Wow, my German has gotten a lot better since then.”

(Click the CC button in the lower right-hand corner to turn on English subtitles.)

Thanks for following my German learning adventures! Hopefully it won’t be too long until my next visit there.

Tschüss!

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Südpark Pictures and Goals Update

Finally, some of my favorite pictures from Düsseldorf’s Südpark! It’s a generous piece of land with everything one could want from a park: open space for picnics and lawn games, paved paths for cycling and jogging, plenty of shade trees, luscious green paths, assorted mini-gardens, a lily pond, and even a petting zoo and an ice cream stand. Who could ask for more?

A quick update on my goals:

3 random interactions in German per day: success

I can’t say whether I’ve been hitting three per day or not, but I definitely got in lots of German conversation time this week. Here are some of the more notable ones:

  • On an IIK outing to the Schiffahrtsmuseum, I chatted with the German guide while waiting outside and also with fellow German students during the tour.
  • I went to a weekly Tuesday language cafe for students of German and Spanish and chatted more afterwards while watching the France vs. Belgium soccer game.
  • On Thursday I went to a different speaking practice meeting.
  • Google Maps lied to me and I could not find the entrance to the doctor’s office, so I asked someone on the street. We had a 2-3 minute conversation, admittedly short, but I spoke smoothly without hesitation, answered her questions coherently without long pauses, and successfully maintained the formal register throughout the conversation. I didn’t need to ask her to repeat herself, she didn’t ask me to repeat myself, and she didn’t ask me if it would be better to speak in English. It was one of my best successes in spontaneous conversation so far. And yes, I found the doctor’s office!
  • I chatted with a German teacher and her boyfriend at the IIK party on Friday night.

Read 15 minutes a day in German: fail

I must confess that I haven’t picked up my German book once since I made this goal. Since my July class has been very vocabulary-focused, I’ve been a little bit overwhelmed with new words lately. But reading more would definitely help me cement more of the new vocabulary into my brain, so I’d like to focus on this goal more this week. Since just saying “15 minutes a day” didn’t work, I’ll set aside a specific time: every day right before lunchtime, I’ll read for at least fifteen minutes in German.

I also need to remind myself that I don’t have to limit myself to the one book I have on hand at the moment. I can also go to the giant bookstore and read in one of the comfy lounge chairs for a while, or I can read articles, news, and web comics online.

New goal: journal in German

In my weekly Thursday German practice, the organizers always start off with an open-ended question such as “What do you consider art? What kind of art do you like to consume? What kinds of art, if any, do you produce?” My limited vocabulary usually prevents me from answering these questions as thoroughly as I’d like, which often leaves me a little bit frustrated. It’s a good frustration though, since it’s pushing me to improve my ability to speak on these kinds of subjects.

In order to do so, I’d like to start writing a little bit every day in German. Instead of just writing letters and fictional stories for class assignments, I think I need to also write about more personal subjects. This will arm me with personally relevant vocabulary and  prepare me to better express myself in conversation.

To make things concrete: I’d like to write at least one page a day on a personal topic in German. Topics can include personal experiences, plans, thoughts on a book/television show/news article, etc.

I’ve got two weeks left in Düsseldorf. Let’s see how they go!

はい、いや、 ja: the juggling of words

You might have noticed that my latest post (here) doesn’t feature much German. In fact, it’s more about Japanese. What’s up with that? After coming all this way to Germany to learn German, why do I find myself talking Japanese so often?

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself lately. I’ve been going out with Japanese classmates and chatting with them in Japanese. Last Saturday, the highlight of my day was finding a pair of Japanese books. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these things, but shouldn’t I be absorbing as much German as possible while I have the opportunity?

I was feeling guilty about this last week.

Then I realized something. A big part of the reason I’ve attained some level of proficiency in Japanese is the fact that I incorporated the language into my daily life. Even when I’m not actively studying it, I still use it when I read novels or listen to music in my free time. So it’s natural that I’m continuing to use the language. And why would I regret making friends with classmates from Japan? Connecting with people from around the world is one of my greatest motivations for learning languages. The opportunity to use both German and Japanese to do so is a bonus, not a drawback.

After thinking about it some more, I also realized that I do use a fair amount of German in my daily routine. I use much of my time outside of class exploring the city, which includes the occasional interaction with strangers on the bus or in the park. I’ve been reading a German graphic novel and watching German television in my down time. And I’ve been attending meetings for German speaking practice multiple times per week. Perhaps I don’t need to be so hard on myself.

On Friday, I was given another reminder that time spent on one language need not exclude my interest in the other. I went to a Japanese-German Stammtisch, or common table, at a cat cafe just a few blocks away from my residence. I had a pleasant conversation – all in German – with a Japanese expat and an older German gentleman who used to live in Japan. We spoke about language learning, Japanese novels, and compared notes on our perceived difficulty levels of English, German, and Japanese. It was especially enjoyable because I wasn’t speaking German just for the sake of practicing. I was having a conversation with people who shared similar interests, and the communication just happened to be in German.

The Halfway Mark

It’s been four weeks in Germany, which means I’m halfway through my stay! I think now is a good time to assess my progress and write down some new goals.

Things I can do that I couldn’t four weeks ago:

  • produce the different declensions of articles and adjectives almost automatically
  • converse more smoothly in German using conversational filler words
  • understand the meaning of certain new-to-me words by understanding their parts
  • read and understand a German graphic novel without a dictionary
  • watch German television and understand a significant amount without a dictionary
  • bag my groceries at Aldi within seconds before the very efficient cashier starts glaring at me
  • use the tram/u-bahn maps and schedules
  • know which side of the road has the correct bus stop
  • transition quickly from speaking German to Japanese and vice versa
  • think/talk to myself spontaneously in German (sometimes)

Goals for the time remaining:

  • read at least half an hour per day in German outside of class
  • 3 or more spontaneous interactions/mini conversations per day in German

Tomorrow I begin my second four-week course at the language school and my last four weeks of summer in Düsseldorf. Here’s to more adventures and language progress!

 

 

A search for a notebook turns up something even better

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I’m a little bit obsessed with notebooks. I can never have too many, but I am quite picky about the type. Since my Japanese notebook is a few pages away from being full, I thought about looking for a new one on Saturday at the five-story bookstore I’d visited once before with Yuri. So I walked down to Heinrich-Heine-Allee using the route I learned last time I got lost, then quickly found the bookstore. There were notebook sections on three different floors and I took my time browsing through all of them.  They had a gorgeous display of Leuchtturms with dotted pages, my absolute favorite type of notebook, but I could always buy those on Amazon. They also had some hardcover notebooks with elegant patterns on them, but they none of them were quite the right size and they were lined or blank instead of dotted. I decided to try the Japanese bookstore on Immermannstraße instead.

On the way, I strolled through the park. Right off the path were some baby birds with their parents.

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On the other side of the park was the big shopping alley. Since I’d walked through the area several times without ever looking in any of the shops, I turned in to one of the clothing stores. After the five-story bookstore, it was pretty boring. But upon walking through the store I discovered that it was part of an indoor mall! Somehow I had never noticed its existence. It had a very pretty central cylinder architecture thingy with elevators and a food court at the bottom. But apart from that, none of the stores had anything to interest me, so I walked back outside.

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The smells from the food court had reminded me that I hadn’t had lunch yet, so when I saw a currywurst stand on the corner I decided it was time to finally try my first currywurst. The man took a sausage off the grill, put it into an interesting appliance that cut it into pieces, then laid it in a bed of sauce and sprinkled curry powder on top. It was delicious.

Finally I made it to Immermannstraße. Unlike the times of my previous visits, this time the small bookstore was quite crowded. I heard German, Mandarin, Korean, and Japanese all being spoken within the small space.

There was a selection of cute notebooks, but I didn’t see any that fit my criteria. I edged my way through other customers to walk around the other aisle. Glancing at the selection of Japanese nonfiction books, I realized they had a whole shelf full of books about ビジネス敬語, the infamously complex version of the Japanese language required for business situations. Since I volunteer at a Japanese supplementary school where a subset of this language is often used, I’d been eager to learn more about it, but I hadn’t been able to find a comprehensive source in either the Japanese internet or the Japanese bookstore. I browsed through the shelf and picked the one that seemed most suited to my interest.

Turning to reach the cash register, I noticed a whole a section of Japanese novels I hadn’t seen before. No matter, I thought. I can get inexpensive Japanese novels in San Diego. But wait! A familiar name caught my eye. 東野圭吾 (Higashino Keigo), the bestselling mystery writer and author of 容疑者Xの献身 (The Devotion of Suspect X), my favorite mystery novel. (I owned a copy of the English translation, but knowing how different English and Japanese styles of prose are, I’d been wanting to read the original text. For some reason, Amazon had the English, Mandarin, Korean, and French translations available, but not the original Japanese. )

I dropped to my knees for a better look. Yes, there were two whole shelves of 東野圭吾. But did they have the book I wanted? After scanning all the titles twice, I was about to give up when I spotted an italic X in the title of a small volume in the corner. 容疑者Xの献身. There was exactly one copy.

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Japanese novels are read right to left, so the front cover is on what Westerners would consider the “back” side!

I couldn’t help smiling to myself on the tram ride home. I hadn’t found a notebook, but the two books I had found were even better.

 

P. S. The more adventures I have to write about, the less time I have to write about them. Hence, the posts from the past two weeks have failed to include accounts of several interesting happenings. In the coming days I’d like to come back and highlight certain events from the past two weeks, so for now I’m posting a list so I can get back to them later (maybe):

  • the case of the Kochstudio and the overly complicated burritos
  • my excursion to Amsterdam
  • first trip to the five story bookstore
  • practicing German conversation
  • reflections on language guilt

 

Deutsch in Düsseldorf: Week One

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I’ve made it one full week in Düsseldorf! It’s definitely been an adventure.

Monday: Grocery shopping and the first day of classes

I only had travel-sized containers of shampoo and other necessities, so I decided to go to the store to pick up more. I glanced at my city map, then headed out in the general direction of the nearest Aldi. Once I sensed I was getting close, I asked a passerby for directions in German.

“Straight that way, and then right, and then…” I didn’t understand the rest, but the stranger had already moved on. Oh, well. If I needed to, I could always ask someone else and get more practice in. I started walking in the direction she’d indicated, and soon found the Aldi.

Inside, I quickly located everything I’d needed except a razor. Another opportunity for speaking practice! “Entschuldigung, ich brauche ein Rasiermesser. Wo kann man das finden?” I inquired of a lady nearby. “Ganz hinter,” she replied, indicating the very back of the store. I found the razors and headed to the checkout. Only then did I remember that I was supposed to bring a bag to carry my purchases home in. My purse wasn’t big enough to carry everything, so I walked home carrying the shampoo under my arm.

In the afternoon I had my first German class at the IIK. When everyone introduced themselves, I found that the ten people in my class all come from ten different countries. I don’t remember all of them, but they include Switzerland, Italy, Uzbekistan, China, India, and South Korea. One of the cool things about everyone coming from different lands is the fact that it makes German the language we all have in common, although of course most of us also have some command of English.

The class itself was completely conducted in German, including explanations of grammar and vocabulary. The teacher was very skilled at getting ideas across using a combination of simple German and the occasional pantomime. It was encouraging to find that I could understand everything, but by the end of the four-hour lesson I was exhausted. It didn’t help that I still wasn’t used to the time zone. I walked back to my accommodation and quickly fell asleep.

Tuesday: Getting a German phone number

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On Tuesday I got lost a few times trying to find a cell phone store, but I found a cool park and took some pictures. Eventually I found the store and successfully got myself on a phone plan, using only German!

Wednesday: Fails at Immermannstraße

On Wednesday, I went down to Immermannstraße to look for bilingual reading materials at the Japanese bookstore. I didn’t see any bilingual books, but I did find a Japanese grammar book that I’d been wanting, so I went up to the counter to buy it. The cashier had been speaking with her coworker in Japanese, so I automatically addressed her in the same language.

「これお願いします。」(This, please.)

「はい、22€ になります。ありがとうございます。」(That will be 22 Euros. Thank you very much.)

She replied in Japanese. Then, perhaps noticing that the book was for non-native language learners, she suddenly switched to fluent German, asking something about a points card.

I was speechless for a moment, trying to choose (a) which language I wanted her to repeat herself in, and (b) which language I should pose my request in. Seeing my confusion, the cashier repeated herself in Japanese before I could say anything. ポイントカード (point card). I declined and made my exit.

Hmm… Here was another problem with my German and Japanese, one that I’d often noticed when going straight from Japanese class to German club this spring semester. Since the sentence structures of the two languages are almost opposite, it’s difficult for me to switch rapidly from one language to the other. New goal: become more comfortable with switching between the two languages. I have plenty of places to practice on Immermannstraße.

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I could have walked back in about forty minutes or so, but instead I spent up the rest of my free time taking the wrong trolley, getting off, taking the right trolley and mistakenly getting off too early, then finally taking the right bus all the way back just in time for German class. Fail. But hey, it taught me how to use the trolley maps.

Thursday: New classmates

On Thursday our class size almost doubled when we had seven or eight students arrive from Japan, all from the same university. I was happy to meet them, but I didn’t quite know what to think of this from the perspective of my language goals. Was this going to make my language interference problems better or worse?

Friday: Reflections

After Friday’s class ended, I walked back to my accommodation as usual and turned on some German television. As I watched the German-dubbed version of Poirot, I realized something. German doesn’t sound so foreign anymore. Even when I hear German that’s fast or more difficult to understand, my brain doesn’t immediately tune it out as unintelligible noise. When listening to dialogue on TV, I often understand enough that I can follow along while looking up a few words per line. And I’ve even caught myself spontaneously thinking in German.

It was gratifying to realize I’ve made progress in so short a time. I think it’s due to the amount of German I’ve had to produce in class. We don’t spend much class time passively listening to lectures. Instead, we are constantly writing personal reactions, creating spontaneous dialogues, and conveying all communications in German. Just one week of practicing this has already brought big returns.

Saturday: A day out with Yuri

 

On Saturday afternoon I spent the day with my classmate Yuri from Japan. We tried some German street food, visited two funky museums, walked through an outdoor book fair, and chatted over cold drinks at a local cafe.

Most of the day, we chatted and reacted to the art we saw in Japanese. Since Yuri is Japanese and I am much more fluent in Japanese than German, it was easier for both of us to communicate fully and spontaneously that way. It also felt uncomfortable to speak in German with museum staff always hovering behind us.

At first, this felt a bit like cheating to me, but having to frequently switch between speaking Japanese with Yuri and speaking German with museum staff was actually very good practice. Overall, it was a fun and productive day out.

Takeaways!

Goals Achieved/Accomplishments:

  • rode both the bus and the U-Bahn several times
  • asked for directions in German
  • used German to ask for a cell phone plan
  • had spontaneous thoughts in German
  • practiced switching between German and Japanese
  • became able to use the correct forms of definite articles and adjectives almost automatically

What I learned:

  • bring bags to Aldi
  • how to read a trolley map

New goal:

  • find more opportunities for extended conversation in German with native speakers

Day One in Düsseldorf

Morning at the Apartment

Day one in Düsseldorf! I woke up at about 4 AM this morning, feeling very alert. Sometimes it seems like the amount of sleep I get is inversely proportional to how awake I feel in the morning. I lay in bed for a while, knocking out my virtual pile of flashcards for both German and Japanese on my phone.

By the time I’d finished, light was starting to peek through the window. I got up, made the bed, and decided to study some more German.

FullSizeRender.jpgMy second language is Japanese, which may have something to do with the fact that whenever I try to think in German, my brain comes up with Japanese instead. To combat this, I wrote down German equivalents to some common Japanese phrases useful for everyday conversation. I also wrote down some words I learned yesterday from reading signs at the airport and speaking with my host lady.

Since it was now a decent hour, I went into the kitchen to make coffee. There is a station nearby, so I could hear the sound of trains passing. My brain automatically narrated in Japanese. 電車の音が聞こえる。(The sound of trains is audible.) Thanks, brain. Now do it in German. I looked up the words I needed, and had to laugh. Die Züge können von hier aus gehört werden. (Trains can be heard from here.) Although the literal meanings of both sentences are almost exactly equivalent, the feeling is entirely different. The German sounds incredibly matter-of-fact, while the Japanese sounds a little bit dramatic, like narration from a novel. However, since I am not a native speaker of either language, perhaps this seeming difference is merely due to my incomplete perceptions.

Breakfast consisted of a dark hearty bread called Vollkornbrot, along with cheese, various spreads, and vegetables such as cucumber and red pepper. I ate with Ruth, my host lady, and her friend, who explained to me that Sunday is taken seriously as a day of rest in Germany. In other words, most shops and businesses are closed on Sundays. Nevertheless, I decided to take the day to explore the city.

Wandering the City

IMG_6380.JPGAfter studying a city map for a few minutes, I went outside to explore, resolving to refer to the map as seldom as possible. “If I get lost, I’ll ask someone the way and get in some speaking practice,” I thought. I found the German school at which I will be studying without any trouble. Then I turned south, enjoying the view of the road. The tall colorful wall of multistory buildings on my right was pleasantly juxtaposed with the median on the other side of the road, which was filled with bright green trees and bushes.

I stopped at an intersection, waiting for the signal to change to the little green walking man signifying it was safe to cross. “Drücken, drücken,” a friendly voice called out behind me. I turned to see a white-haired gentleman on a bicycle approaching. Thinking I was in his way, I moved over to give him room. “Drücken,” he repeated with a gesture. Seeing the blank look on my face, he pressed the bottom of a little box on the light post which I had not noticed. “You have to press it, otherwise the light doesn’t change,” he said, switching to English. I thanked him. Later, I looked up the word drücken. It means to push or press. Word of the day, I guess. It has a personal story behind it now, so I won’t be likely to forget it. That’s what immersion is for, right?

IMG_6386.JPGI continued wandering south until I hit Immermannstraße, a street known for having many Japanese shops and restaurants. Spotting a bookshop, I made a mental note to visit it sometime and look for German/Japanese dictionaries or bilingual reading materials. The many differences between the two cultures makes translations interesting from a linguistic point of view, and reading parallel materials would also help with my language interference problems.

As I walked, I heard both German and Japanese being spoken by passersby. As I pondered this, I heard a sudden 你好 (nĭ hăo, a Mandarin greeting meaning hello) addressed in my direction. By the time I realized it was directed at me, I’d already passed, but the two syllables had disrupted the struggle between German and Japanese in my brain. I directed my focus solely on the street in front of me for a few minutes to regain my mental bearings.

I started making my way back north, taking different streets than the ones I’d come by. I found an Aldi along the way. Good, now I know where I can shop later. I found the street of my accommodation fairly easily, and congratulated myself. Keeping my bearings is not one of my strong points. But I wasn’t satisfied yet. After all, I’d hardly spoken German all day. I was warm from walking, so when I spotted a frozen yogurt shop, I decided my last mission for the day was to order something there in German.

I went in and successfully ordered einen Mango Lassi. I didn’t actually know what a mango lassi was, but I’m not picky. Trying new food is part of the adventure, right? The man who had taken my order went to the back of the shop to make it. Not seeing this, the other staff member approached me.

“Have you been served already?” he asked in German.

「はい!」 Without thinking, I affirmed in Japanese. Oops.

Takeaways!

My accomplishments for the day:

  • Learning the German equivalents of useful Japanese phrases to help with language interference
  • Finding my way without a map
  • Ordering food in German for the first time

What I learned:

  • most businesses are closed on Sundays
  • Vollkornbrot is delicious
  • drücken means to push or press
  • the little boxes on the traffic light posts need to be pressed from the bottom
  • mango lassi is a yogurt-based smoothie

Goals for the future:

  • continue to work on language interference issues
  • use my city pass to take a bus or train
  • ask someone directions in German

Tomorrow is the first day of formal German language instruction at the IIK. Let’s see how it goes! I’m excited to meet my classmates.

 

Deutsch in Düsseldorf: Introduction

IMG_6339Hello! My name is Keilah Fok and I’m from San Diego, California. I’m seventeen years old and this fall I’ll be a sophomore in mechanical engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

The classic brief self introduction, one of the first things taught to learners of a new language, seems like an appropriate beginning to my SAGA blog, since its purpose is to record my eight-week trip to learn German in Düsseldorf, Germany.

Spending four hours a day, five days a week in an unfamiliar country learning a foreign language probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But to me, it sounds like a fantastic way to spend a summer.

I’ve long been fascinated with unfamiliar worlds.

Ever since I learned to read, my favorite books have all been character-driven stories that introduced me to different worlds: some fantastical, some historical. In the second grade, the Little House on the Prairie series brought me glimpses into the life of an American pioneer family. In high school, The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino offered insight into the societal status of women in Japan and Japanese views on the definition of love. To me, the greatest appeal of reading is being able to temporarily take on the perspectives of characters with different backgrounds and views on life.

By going to Germany, I’ll be able to do in person what books allowed me to do by proxy. I’m excited to personally immerse myself in the German culture and make connections with people there while learning the language.

I’m also excited to share my journey through the UAH SAGA blog! I’ll be updating at least weekly for the next eight weeks with descriptions of my language progress, failures, and other adventures. In particular, I will try to post mini language goals along with progress from previous weeks to track my improvement and keep myself accountable.

See you next time!