Deutsch in Düsseldorf: Week One


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


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.


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.


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.


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!

Musings from Germany.

In the 11 days my group and I spent in München, Germany, we gained a new perspective about the lifestyle of a very beautiful country. Walking around the city, talking to the local people about German ways of life and their healthcare system, and eating delicious food all helped me become more oriented to the similarities and differences between the American and German lifestyles. Here are a few small things I learned to appreciate and will miss slightly too much.

Escalator – stand on the right. Pass on the left.

Bicycles – very common method of transport. You’ll see a well-dressed man in a 3-piece suit riding around on a bicycle, and it’s perfectly normal. I have a slight crush on these beautifully handy machines, especially the folding ones (they’re just so convenient; you can ride around town, and then fold it up when hopping onto a bus or tram).

Also, with these views, I’d take a bicycle over a car any day. Or a moped.


Weather – … is eventful. During the month of May, it ranges from the high 40’s to low 70’s and sometimes is accompanied by rain. However, it changes within moments. When it comes to weather, layers were my best friend. Overall, it’s a good thing to be prepared for literally anything: cold, hot, rain, hail, cute dogs. Example: in the middle of a very hot, sunny day (with a 40% forecast of rain) in the marketplace, the German skies started hailing and thunder-storming. Be prepared, kids.

Transportation and accessibility – the public transport is incredibly efficient and clean. Major modes of transport are by foot, buses, trams, U-Bahn and S-Bahn (underground trains), babies riding in attractive strollers, cars, taxis, and bicycles. The public transport system bypasses traffic, is cost efficient, and you don’t have to search and fight for parking (Yass to all of that!). Feel like people-watching? Take the U.

The majority of the time, we walked everywhere… we averaged at around 10-12 miles each day. It is easy to get from one part of the city to another by using a combination of these methods. This in addition to the compact structure of the city makes everything more accessible as well. One major advantage of public transport is that people who are unable to or do not drive benefit from the accessibility and independence it provides.

The city – is condensed. In other words, a very large city is fit in a slightly smaller area. For a large city, the compact structure means that with a public transport system, you can get to places fairly quickly, given that you do not take the wrong train in the wrong direction. It took me a couple of days to finally start understanding how the U-Bahn (underground train system) operated. The maps look intimidating at first (and second) glance, but after getting lost several times, you learn to enjoy the adventures and get more efficient at map reading each time. #progress.

Dogs – a major attraction in the city streets. We see a lot more pets traveling with their owners daily here. Big dogs, small dogs, fluffy dogs, all cute dogs. Ian, our tour guide on a day trip to Salzburg (Austria) bought his dog with us for an entire day, and nobody complained. Several pets don’t even have a leash on, which starkly contrasts with pet norms and policies in the states. My extensive analysis on this important subject matter is that since pets spend more time with their families in the busy streets of larger cities like Munich, they are more used to outdoor interaction and are very well-behaved.

Food – is really good! Being a vegetarian, I was initially concerned about the options I would have available to me, mainly because Google implied that I may struggle. After all, German restaurants are known to offer some pretty great meat options. All in all, I found vegetarian food very easily and at almost every restaurant we went to. In fact, there were several purely vegan and vegetarian restaurants throughout town. In addition, there are many small places to eat in almost every part of the city that offer a considerable variety.

Architecture and views – any word I use will be a major understatement. Basically, imagine a postcard. Imagine being inside of it. Castles, super green grass, canola fields, busy train stations… it’s all stare-worthy. One problem I did run into while abroad: I had to give myself a time limit for staring.. and then remind myself that time was up. Talk about a real challenge.




Out of an outrageously long list of things I’ve seen and learned, there’s my very small but useful but small list from my time in Munich; maybe it has convinced you to consider Munich as a place you should (definitely!) visit; if not, don’t worry I’ve still got more to say. 🙂

I plan to write more about the global and healthcare based observations I made in my next post! Hope you guys are having a wonderful summer as well! J