Awarded GHS-DAAD grant in 2018
“Anfangen ist leicht, Beharren eine Kunst” – “beginning is easy; perseverance is an art”. Never has this phrase rang so true to me than during an intensive summer German language course in Berlin! Many ‘false beginner’ and intermediate language students hit a frustrating plateau after an initial surge of improvement in their German. Advanced enough to make yourself understood, yet too inexperienced to convey your thoughts naturally and accurately, the increasing self-awareness of how much you don’t know can paralyse one’s linguistic progress. The days of Guten Tag and counting von null bis zehn may be long gone, yet linguistic perfectionism can undermine the considerable progress that you have already made. The student’s enthusiasm to test out their German can thus fall to the wayside, even though speaking practice during this liminal stage is essential in refining the individual’s language skills.
This phase can be particularly disheartening for budding historians who are trying to get a grasp of their research area’s language: not only do they want to learn the language because they are interested in it, but they also know that the full potential of their PhD theses may remain unfulfilled if their language skills are insufficient. Yet one cannot speak a good version of a language until they have learnt to speak a broken version of it first. Undertaking an intensive language course kicks through these awkward personal barriers and forces you to test all facets of your language knowledge from day one. We were able to make those necessary early mistakes in a controlled, forgiving environment where the teachers simply want to help you succeed on your language journey. More importantly, however, the intensive classes give you the confidence to apply your newfound knowledge outside of the classroom too – and this is where the real learning starts.
At first, you will make silly mistakes, bemuse the occasional native and feel as though you are making no progress. Unfortunately, this can still happen at the end of your course as well! The difference, though, is that you become better equipped to deal with these uncertain situations; you no longer regard having to rephrase something as failure on your part, but rather as an opportunity to grow as an adaptable, resourceful and perseverant linguist. You may not feel ‘fluent’ in your target language at the end of the course, but you do become more fluent, and you develop a keener sense of your progress, strengths and weaknesses. Most intensive language courses develop your linguistic ability in all fields (listening, reading, writing & speaking), and the personal growth that comes with this also strengthens your personal resolve as both an historical researcher and as a person.
In addition, engaging in social activities outside of work exposed me to new situations and vocabulary that I simply would not have learnt in a classroom. From chatting to other sunbathers at Weißensee to being thrashed at table football by Berliners in the local pub (I am English, after all!), participating in such activities emboldens your conversational skills in other areas as well. I had fascinating historical conversations in German on everything from Brexit and Frederick the Great to life in the German Democratic Republic and the stories of Germans whose relatives served in the two World Wars. Honing my language skills in this area prepared me well for my first wave of PhD German archival research at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin and the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv in Freiburg-im-Breisgau, which I completed after the course had finished in July and August.
To anyone thinking of applying for a German History Society/Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst language course grant, I would simply say „Nichts wie ran!’ (“Go for it!”). Rather than considering an intensive language course as a distraction from your thesis, it’s better to think of it as a wise, long-term investment into your PhD and beyond. The better your German is, the quicker and more efficiently you will hunt down the documents you need. The more you engage with both the language and customs of the nation, the easier it is to comprehend the cultural nuances embedded within contemporary source material. I would like to extend my very warm thanks to the Institut für Internationale Kommunikation in Berlin (IIK BerlinerID) for a stimulating, challenging and rewarding language course, and I am particularly grateful to the G.H.S. and D.A.A.D. for having funded such a useful, fulfilling and unforgettable experience.