Open Enrollment

Open Enrollment | Ich bin ein Berliner

JFK spells his German out phonetically too (an excerpt from his original speech notes).

Technically, the summer vacation has begun. I say “technically” because as soon as I finished grading one stack of essays and exams and said goodbye to my awesome spring semester students, I began teaching summer session. My summer students seem, after just one meeting, really promising. My summer vacation really begins on July 1 when I head to Berlin for two months on a DAAD fellowship (Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst, or German Academic Exchange Service). For two months, ich bin ein Berliner – minus the JFK-era Cold War rhetoric.

My hosts

Explaining to my friends and family that I was super excited to go to Berlin was easy, although a few have questioned the appeal of what I’ll be undertaking there – an 8 week language intensive that requires me to be at school at 8am each day and complete homework straight after my lessons. So, less of a vacation and more of a cultural immersion with the goal being fluency by the end of August (Ich spreche ein wenig Deutsch, aber nicht sehr gut mehr…..). I took German classes for five years during high school and passed my translation exams for grad school, yet I still feel like a complete beginner. I was really excited until about a week ago when I realized that it was a bit like going to camp, and that I strenuously (and successfully) resisted every attempt my parents ever made to send me to camp during my childhood. It’s the first time I’ll have spent the summer away from New York in seven years, and I’m starting to get nostalgic already about the humidity and the smell of this city in the summer, and the trash I swim by at the Rockaways.

Thus, I’m writing this month asking for advice from anyone who’s done something similar. How did you maximize the opportunity of living and studying in a second language while managing to feel like you weren’t just a grad student robot in endless study mode? For those who know Berlin, how do you learn German in a city that is endlessly accommodating to English speakers? For anyone who has studied a language in this kind of intensive program, what methods work for true immersion and language retention?

And, perhaps the most important, what should I see and do in Berlin in July and August? I’m from Europe, so I have a few trips out of the city planned (including one to documenta, and one home to bonny Scotland), but what shouldn’t I miss in Berlin? Where do I go lake swimming? Where should I eat? Where should my bike take me at the weekend? Which galleries are a must, and where for night life? I’m going to be staying with a lovely German person in Ostkreuz, I have a bike at my disposal and friends willing to show me around, but I’d love some suggestions.

Vielen danke. My next report will be from the fair city itself.


  1. Mark Schlemmer says:

    Hi Michelle,

    Summer in Berlin…it’s bound to be an adventure!

    You asked for a few pointers on learning a language abroad and I feel I can add my 2-cents having done so in two different countries. One of the less obvious things you can do is watch a lot of TV. At first, it’s often easier to follow something like the news because you’re already familiar with the program format and will know some details of certain news stories. As you gain more confidence in the language, you’ll find TV programs in general easier to understand. And, nothing is quite as fun as watching the Simpsons dubbed in German! (I used to watch it in Catalan.) It will be frustrating and seem counterproductive at first, but stick with the TV and you’ll be surprised at how quickly your comprehension improves. Hopefully you’ll find some sympathetic friends who will let you practice your German with them, but as you noted, most will be very keen on practicing their (usually already decent) English with you.

    When I was an English teacher, I often recommended to my students to buy a magazine in a topic that they read in their native language. That could be art, sports, a hobby, gossip, whatever. Since you’re already familiar with the subject, you’ll be more motivated to pick up the new vocabulary in the target language. Again, you’ll also be familiar with the content in general, so you can focus on the grammar and vocabulary more.

    You’ll still be “studying” doing these activities, but you won’t feel like your nose is in a grammar book conjugating verbs.

    Regarding things not to miss in Berlin, I can highly recommend the Martin-Gropius-Bau (exhibition venue). They have various different exhibition running at a time with related film and other art events. The book shop is also very good.

    Another not-to-be-missed museum is the Hamburger Bahnhof. One word: Beuys! Tons of Beuys (and lots of other inspiring art.) I saw an incredible temporary exhibition there back in April called ARCHITEKTONIKA 2 which I see will be up all summer. Check it out.

    Of course there are all the other “big” museums in Berlin that I’m sure you have on your to-do list. You won’t be wanting for visual culture in Berlin, that’s for sure! At the Gugg, we’ll be having a huge Orozco installation that opens mid-July (I think). Very worth checking out, too!

    If I think of some other language-learning tips or must-do Berlin things, I’ll tweet you or send you another message.

    Have fun and keep focused this summer!


  2. Michelle says:

    It’s so lovely to hear from you, and thank you so much for this fantastic advice. I truly appreciate it, especially as I know you’ve much experience in this area. I hadn’t thought about TV as I try to avoid it at home (or I’d never get any work done), but it makes perfect sense, so I shall be finding as much as I can to watch, and going German on Netflix too, if possible.
    I’ll report back on my progress in Sept.
    Have a wonderful summer,

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