How Learning German Changed My Life

What do you consider most important in your life? Looking back, was there a single turning point in your life which made you who you are today?  Probably, like most of us, life’s most eventful moments come in a series of life-altering experiences.

Does any high school senior ready to graduate know what subject to major in to prepare for the future? Probably students have been told on numerous occasions that they need a college education to get the best available jobs.  Maybe and maybe not.  One important skill they will need is fluency in another language.  As a Fulbright teacher in Germany, I grasped first-hand how the German and American education systems differed.

teaching german

From early childhood on, the Germans place great value on independence and responsibility. They trust their children.  That became very evident this past summer when I visited our German “family” and friends.  At one point  after several hours of not seeing a four-year old boy, someone inquired about his whereabouts.  No one seemed overly concerned though.  It truly takes a village to educate.  I was reminded by my host that everyone in the family and village plays a part in educating the young people.  How refreshing. It turns out the young fellow had been playing with a friend in the village.  In my mind, the events would have played out quite differently in the US.

High praise is well-deserved for Germany’s vocational education system. Some of the 9th grade students I taught in Germany  left for paid apprenticeships at the end of that year.  During their apprenticeships, they continued with specialized classes in their field while they practiced their skills.  What impressed me most was the attitude of the Germans regarding vocational education in general.  It was not thought inferior to those university-bound students.  Quite the contrary:  those pursuing vocational subjects were afforded much the same respect.  Not everyone needed to attend college.  What a novel idea for some American parents.  Perhaps it is time to revisit the notion that everyone needs a college education.

Or maybe American parents need to consider free university education in Germany. I credit my parents with inspiring  me to study at  a German university.  My father beamed  upon my return home and told me how he had saved a great deal of money on my college education  even with the transatlantic  flight and cost of living expenses in Germany.  I did not fully fathom the weight of those words and their decision to encourage me to study abroad.  My life changed forever and for the better.

As a public high school educator, I have been fortunate to have experienced both US and  German schools.  Do I favor one over the other?  I will answer that one by reverting to  my first questions in this blog.  The single, most powerful event in my education came when I entered my German language classes at the University of Colorado at Boulder.   These fueled my desire to study abroad and immerse myself in the language, culture and country of Germany.  My passion and life-long love of the language was furthered by becoming a Fulbright teacher in Germany.  Twice.

Today, I became who I am because of university studies in Germany and teaching in German schools. I am more flexible and  open-minded to the world.

What single thing would I wish for all my students? I would wish that they too could study at least one year in Germany to firmly immerse themselves in the language and culture.  I wish that they too could learn more about themselves in the process and become more  tolerant individuals.  Learning how to learn comes as a big discovery for some in the college years.

So, thanks, Mom and Dad, for trusting me and allowing me this once-in-a lifetime opportunity to study in Germany. I am who I am today because of your faith in me.

1995 Tom, Emily in Spreewald Fulbright year0001

M A age 20001


Note: A newly published book (2017) takes an in-depth view  of an American mother living in Germany and rearing self-reliant children.  It’s an interesting read and is spot on: Achtung Baby by Sara Zaske.

This entry was posted in Achtung Baby by Sara Zaske, education in Germany vs. education in the U.S., family, Fulbright Teacher, German language, study in Germany, teaching German, tolerant individuals, Universität Heidelberg, Germany, University of Colorado, Boulder, vocational education and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to How Learning German Changed My Life

  1. This is great, every student would benefit from exposure to another language and culture!
    I am teaching myself French, but this makes me want to go learn German! Blessings! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I enjoyed this post. One of these days I might try to figure out the turning points in my life. I do remember that my dad did not mind the college expenses for my brother. He begrudged mine. He said Bob would need to earn a living, and I wouldn’t have to. I wish I’d had a chance to point out to him that my job as organist and choir director paid for the extremely high real estate taxes on Long Island. We couldn’t have continued living there without my income.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for the comment. Glad you enjoyed the post. Sorry to hear of your father’s attitude regarding college expenses. Actually, since I studied in Germany three years, my college tuition was free. Minor student fees each semester and inexpensive books plus a room which cost $20. per month helped at that time. My parents had four daughters and decided early on that we needed to be able to support ourselves financially, married or not. We all accumulated many college degrees. They were wise to do that too. True about LI taxes and living there. Our daughter lives in Southampton in my sister-in-law’s house after she passed about three years ago. She is so lucky to have this place about 1/2 mile from the ocean. I totally understand taxes. Cost of living there is high. We all have many turning points along the way I am certain. The fact that I learned German and studied there for three years laid the foundation for my entire teaching career. Have a nice weekend.


      • I think you had many more adventures than the average American woman. You also took advantage of the good things that came along.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I agree about my adventures. Once I got into languages, the travel followed and has not stopped. We were reared to be independent women. One of my administrators along the way wrote that I was a “born leader.” I think one has to be extremely flexible to be a Fulbright Exchange Teacher. I tried not to take personally what my support teacher had to tell me about teaching and testing. It was quite common for German students to challenge and question everything graded too. I learned the “game” quickly and kept detailed information on each comma, spelling error, etc. because students compared grades with one another. If they found something not counted off on someone else’s paper, they were quick to challenge me. I laughed to myself sometimes. US students would never do that nor even care. And there was no “closing one eye” while grading in Germany. It kept me on my toes. With both Fulbright teaching experiences, I was also able to travel with our children to places I knew they might never have the opportunity to do again. I explained that the first time I saw the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, I would have been shot if I had tried to approach and touch it like I had our two do. The Wall was up and no one could get closer than about 1 mile away which is what tour busses did in those days. History and change all the time it seems. Thanks for you lovely comment, Anne.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I enjoyed reading about your grading of German students. We’ve kept up with an exchange student from our college, and I asked him once about teaching. He grew up in Landshut near Munich. I don’t remember where he got his undergrad degree, but he earned his PhD at Brown and taught in the US until retirement. He much preferred teaching here, citing the informality and easy relationships with students.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Agree about teaching in the US. But I loved that the teacher was the ultimate authority in the classroom in Germany. No administrators standing in the way. Teaching in Germany was therefore akin to teaching in heaven! I loved it except for the grading part. I used my American style of closing one eye on some matters however. For the most part, Americans are outgoing and friendly. You will have to work a bit harder and wait a bit longer to get the smiles from them. Teachers rank very high in respect in Germany even behind doctors and lawyers. That was a wonderful piece of news for me to learn and experience.


      • Teaching in heaven! High praise! I think it’s marvelous that teachers have high respect in Germany. I wish we had that here.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Amen one thousand times over. Teachers need high respect for their training and expertise and not constant criticism and ridicule. One MD said of me when I taught in a Gesamtschule that it was like throwing pearls to the pigs because I was so highly educated. (Perle vor die Schweine werfen.) I knew I was educated and set forth to enjoy myself with the students, no matter where I taught.


      • You have the perfect attitude.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sometimes, one has to simply set the tone. Fake it until you make it! Smile even when you least feel like doing so.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Peter Klopp says:

    Having immigrated from Germany more than fifty years ago, I feel compelled to voice my opinion based on my personal experiences in both Canada and Germany. I was pleasantly surprised to read in your post that there has been a fundamental shift in attitude towards those students, who are not university bound. In my high school years there prevailed a distinct class distinction between those who graduated from high school (Abitur) and those who attended trade school, with the latter being down looked upon. I have no reason to doubt your conclusion and I am very happy to learn about the changes to a more open society in Germany. To this day tradespeople from Germany are superior. Their apprenticeship program has been unsurpassed and is well known in the entire world. On the other hand, Canada at the time of my arrival in 1965, a country of immigrants, impressed me with its high degree of tolerance and acceptance. When embarking on a teaching career, not once was my strange German/Oxford accent being criticized by parents, students, colleagues, and superintendents. I felt truly welcome in a land of my dreams. I hope you did not mind my long-winded comment, Maryanne.

    Liked by 2 people

    • How lovely your wrote me a long comment about vocational education in Germany. I was able to visit and observe many types of schools while a Fulbright teacher. There is a certain pride in those who pursue a vocational education. My former Superintendent was very interested in this parallel system. We need that here in the US and have it on a limited basis near Atlanta with German car manufacturers. I firmly believe that not every student needs to attend college either. Learning a skill and trade is very important in life. I saw the pride those graduates had. Professional, polite and very skilled. Since I studied in Germany when you went to Canada, I know of those attitudes. How things changed in those few years when I returned to teach and had our children along. I learned to be understanding and tolerant of others, and opportunities to learn more about the people and their skills allowed me to walk in their shoes. Peter, we all have struggles in life, but that’s how we learn and grow. Your comment is spot on with attitudes then, and I truly appreciated your comment. I am curious if the education in Canada has the dual track system i.e. vocational education versus college-bound education? I loved the Oxford English accent of teachers in Germany. We shared much laughter about differences between American English and British. How long did you teach German? Have a nice weekend, Peter.


  4. Thank you for the great, motivating story. Learning other languages really opens something like a “new world”. I at least dont know hy, but also Latin, Greek and (a bit of Hebrew) brought another thinking to me. Have a good weekend. Michael

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Michael. Even with those languages, your brain made space for new words and thoughts. That’s what happens with learning languages. After you have learned one, it becomes easier to learn many more languages. You seem motivated speaking and writing English. I had Latin, Old Norse, Middle High German, French and of course, German. The first three are no longer spoken but they opened doors to the literature of those periods. Enjoy your weekend as well. I have discovered a television channel with international crime/detective stories which I listen to in the original language with English subtitles. I love to hear the spoken words and figure out what they mean. Right not it is Finnish. But I digress. Languages are so important in life. Actually I am singing Mozart’s Requiem in Latin in April so I am returning to what I sang and learned all those years ago.


  5. Arno Bode,Cologne,Germany says:

    Liebe Mary Ann, dein Beitrag über deine Erziehung,deine Ausbildung ,dein Studium und deine Lebenserfahrungen haben Dir und Deiner Familie,deinen Schülern eine besondere Prägung gegeben. Als ganz besonders liebenswerte Person habe ich dich und mein Vater schon damals ins Herz geschlossen, als Du bei uns in Deutschland vor deinem Studium in Heidelberg verweilt hast.
    Interessant ist es ,wie du das deutsche Schulwesen mit der amerikanischen Ausbildung vergleichst. In meinen damaligen Jugend war das ” American Way of Life” ,etwas ganz besonderes erstrebenwertes. Aber auch die Art in Deutschland aufzuwachsen und zu leben hat sich entsprechend entwickelt.Ebenso wie Du hatte ich auch das Glück durch die Protektion der Eltern den geistigen Horizont erweitern zu können,andere Kulturen und liebe Menschen kennen lernen zu können.Ich habe schon gesagt ,daß ich überglücklich war ,nach mehr als 50 Jahren wieder Kontakt zu Dir ,zu solch liebenswerter Person und erfolgreicher Autorin gefunden zu haben.
    Für die Zukunft wünsche ich Dir noch große Schaffenskraft für die Verwirklichung deiner Ziele und deinem Musik-Engagement. Die Dankbarkeit die Du für deine Eltern zu deiner Entwicklung zum Ausdruck bringst ist sprichwörtlich und berühred. Dir,Deiner Familie und Deinen Kindern eine glückliche und erfolgreiche Zukunft.
    Alles Liebe und Gute
    Dein Arno

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lieber Arno, ich bin tief berührt von Deinen freundlichen Worten. Ich erinnere mich, dass Dein Vater auch meine Familie in Colorado besuchte. Und dann konnte ich Deine Familie in Deutschland besuchen. Es ist großartig zu wissen, dass Du mich so viele Jahre später gefunden hast und nun meinem wöchentlichen Blog folgst. Die Umstände der Menschen ändern sich ständig, und jetzt, wo ich im Ruhestand bin, kann ich mehr in Musik eintauchen, zum Beispiel klassische Musik und Gesang. Ich habe fast 14 Jahre lang klassisches Klavier gespielt und mache das immer noch von Zeit zu Zeit. Ich erinnere mich an die vielen Freunde, die ich in Deutschland gemacht habe und die zu einem großen Teil meines Lebens geworden sind, wie eine zweite Familie. Deshalb komme ich manchmal nach Deutschland zurück. Ich habe den großen Wunsch, mit Freunden und meiner zweiten Familie in die Sprache und Kultur einzutauchen. Jetzt sind meine Familien in ganz Deutschland. Norwegen und Finnland haben mich auch zu einem Besuch aufgerufen. Ich war in Norwegen, aber ich würde gerne Schulen in Finnland besuchen und dort auch mit Pädagogen sprechen. Ich weiß, dass Du gerne den sonnigen Süden Italiens besuchst, der auch schön ist. Wenn ich nur zu den Tagen des Lernens und Reisens zurückkehren könnte. Mein Durst nach Sprachen, Kulturen und Völkern zwingt mich zu reisen. Gerade jetzt muss ich Mitte April mit Mozarts Requiem in Latein singen. Wer weiß? Vielleicht kann ich eine musikalische Reise machen und Konzerte im neuen Konzertsaal in Hamburg und vielleicht einer Oper in Bayreuth hören. Und das Sydney Opera House steht auch auf meiner Wunschliste.

      Es ist interessant, Deinem Skiurlaub jährlich nach Österreich zu folgen und dann nach Italien reist. Ich fahre nicht mehr Ski, aber ich liebe auch die Berge. Genieß Deine Reisen und Skifahren. Mein Bestes für Dich, Deine Frau und Familie,
      Eure Mary Ann

      And for my English speaking readers, I include the comment in English. However, I love comments in other languages which helps me learn expressions in other languages.
      Dear Arno, I am deeply touched by your kind words. I recall your father visiting my family in Colorado too. And then I was able to visit yours in Germany. It is great to know that you found me so many years later and are now following my weekly blog. People’s circumstances change constantly, and now that I am retired, I can delve more into music i.e. classical music and singing. I played classical piano for almost fourteen years and still do from time to time. I remember the many friends I made in Germany who became a big part of my life, like a second family. That’s why I return to Germany sometimes. I have this big desire to immerse myself in the language and culture with friends and my second family. Now my families are all over Germany. Norway and Finland have also called me to visit. I was in Norway but I would love to visit schools in Finland and speak with educators there as well. I know you like to visit the sunny south in Italy which also is beautiful. If only I could return to the days of study and travel. My thirst for languages, cultures and peoples compels me to travel. Right now, I have to suffice with singing Mozart’s Requiem in Latin in mid-April. Who knows? Perhaps I can make a musical trip and hear concerts in the new concert hall in Hamburg and perhaps an opera in Bayreuth. And the Sydney Opera House is also on my bucket list.

      It is interesting to follow your ski vacation annually to Austria and then travels to Italy. I no longer ski but love the mountains too. Enjoy your travels and skiing. My best to you, your wife and family, Your Mary Ann

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Arno Bode,Cologne,Germany says:

    Liebe Mary Ann,laß es mich bitte wissen,wenn Du Deutschland als Reiseziel wählst .Dann müssen wir uns unbedingt wieder sehen..Alles liebe ,Dein Arno

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Good story, Maryann. I had a similar experience with Russian in that it has changed my life for the better.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Annika Perry says:

    Mary Ann, thank you for sharing your life changing moment. I loved learning how you came to study there and yes, kudos to your parents in their encouragement. As you know I spent a year in Tubingen and thoroughly enjoyed my time there. I’d been to Germany on my own since I was 14 and it’s amazing to live in another country … my third at that stage! Oh, don’t get me started on the free university education in Europe!! Sweden is the same and UK was until about 20 years ago. Also technical vocational education used to be highly regarded, before the snobbery of university education took hold. This is waning in the face of crushing fees … and there are lots of great apprenticeships/vocational courses once again. A thoroughly interesting and all-encompassing post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the wise words in your post. I think I was lucky to reap the benefits of university education in Germany when it was affordable. What US students have to pay is outrageous. I laud my parents for their support as well. We benefitted from no loans to repay. I can’t say the same for our children though.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Aww I love travelling to other places, the culture and education systems are a real eye opener! I have spent some time in France and Vienna. What a great post this is! Thank you for sharing xx

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Arno Bode,Cologne,Germany says:

    Liebe Mary Ann,
    es ist bewundernswert ,welche intensieve Resonanz Du mit der Schilderung deiner Lebensgeschichte und deinen Erfahrungen bewirkst.Es ist wunderbar und eine große Freude deine schriftstellerische Arbeit zu verfolgen.Alles Liebe und Gute für Dich und Deine Familie,
    Dein Arno

    Liked by 1 person

    • Liebe Arno, you are very kind to comment so nicely about my post. It has sparked interest and generated numerous comments. It gladdens my heart that you find my writing so wonderful. I look forward to your comments which are much appreciated. Deine Mary Ann


  11. balroop2013 says:

    Language and culture leave lasting impressions on our lives and I am happy for you that you got such an opportunity that enriched your life in a positive manner MaryAnn. Thanks for sharing those lovely pictures…the last one is so cute!!
    Higher education has always been emphasised in Indian families and there is a culture that the one who doesn’t opt for University is no good! Even now parents support their children till they complete their post graduation. Now they even let their children compete for overseas universities to give them the best of opportunities. Loans are taken by parents, not children! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ahhh, thank you for such kind words. That “cute” little girl was me at the photographer’s. Love that one. It is a manner of signing my name to my post. In my family, education was highest of importance on the list of things to accomplish in life. I agree with high education in Indian families. My husband and I sent our children to a private, independent school which cost as much as a college education. We helped as much as we could when they went to college. Good that your parents could pay the loans too. We had to have them take out their own loans. We knew that both would have good, well-paying professions to pay back the loans. US college tuition is very expensive these days, even with scholarships. I appreciate your comment very much.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Love this! Currently trying to learn Arabic but I find it hard in Qatar as everyone speaks English!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. gkexplorers says:

    Hey Dr. Mary!
    Germany was one of the first places I have visited and I loved it and await my return. I stayed with a host family (who are eagerly waiting for GKexplorers to post my travels there) and learned a lot about myself as well as some German culture. I envy that Gretel can speak fluent Spanish and I believe it it time I step up my game to become bilingual as well. Thank you for an awesome post and for reminding me of the life and joy the German people have brought me!
    Your friends at GKexplorers,

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Sing Deutsch says:

    I really like the story! Thank you Dr. Mary!

    Liked by 1 person

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