It was a Saturday morning, and I did what I had done every Saturday since I could remember. I got up early, put on my favorite sweatpants (I had outgrown my Batman pajamas), and made myself a huge bowl of captain Crunch, which I had bought at the PX of the nearby US Army base. I went into the TV room of our dormitory, and I spent the next several hours watching cartoons: “Die Retter Der Erde”, “Die Simpsons”, and “Die Familie Feuerstein.” Around twelve o’clock, I ran back to my room, during a commercial, and made a stack of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, with the crusts cut off. Accompanied by a glass of chocolate milk I ate my sandwiches while watching shows for big people, like “Raumschiff Enterprise”, “Ein Käfig voller Helden”, and “Unbekannte Dimensionen.”
I watched till I thought my retinas would burnout. It was a struggle, but I knew this was the price I would have to pay if I wanted to learn German.
After only nine months of German language study in the US, I had earned a place as an exchange student at the Department of Applied Linguistics, University of Mainz, located in Germersheim, Germany.
Of the roughly 2,300 students, about 20% were foreign; that is non-German. We all had to choose a three language combination and majored in either translation or interpretation. To even be admitted to the program, Germans had to demonstrate competence in English and French, as well as German, regardless of which language combination they planned to study. So, in some cases, students passed the French and English entrance requirements but then studied Russian and Dutch, giving them five languages. Foreign students had to pass the PNDS, which is the German equivalent of the TOEFL or IELTS, a difficult exam which proves a foreign speaker’s competence in German.
In short, my classmates were the absolute cream of the crop. As a rule, the poorer the country they came from, the more competent they were, because they were required to jump through more hoops to get there. Many of the Africans and Eastern Europeans had already graduated, in some cases they already possessed a PHD in their home country, but came to Germany to obtain a degree which would be accepted everywhere.
In my case, as an exchange student, I skipped all of those entrance requirements. At the end of my exchange semester, when it came time to register for the next semesters classes, I was already in, so, I registered as a regular student. By exploiting this loophole, I stayed at the university for nearly four years without ever having passed a single entrance requirement.
Needless to say, with only nine months of German, I was way behind my classmates. The first day of classes, my head felt like it was splitting. By the third day of attending lectures, I thought I would die. I was doing well to pick out the odd word here and there. There was no way I was going to learn anything by going to more classes. Giving up on school, and consequently on myself, I limped back to the dorm, grabbed some comfort food, and flipped on the TV.
I was watching “Feivel, der Mauswanderer,” a Disney film with the original title of, “An American Tail.” Feivel was the mouse’s name in English. Maus was mouse, but why wanderer? Then it hit me, the German word for immigrant is Auswanderer. So, mouse wander was a cute play on words, meaning the “mouse immigrant.”
I thought that was pretty cute, so I kept watching. Before I knew it, night had come, and I was still glued to the TV. I wasn’t understanding everything, in fact, I probably understood less than 20%, but I knew that I was learning. So, the next morning, instead of going back to the university, the site of my defeat, I stayed home and watched TV. I set up a rigid schedule for myself of watching TV and working out (to burn off the Captain Crunch) and I stuck to it. Over the next several weeks, I saw my listening and speaking grow by leaps and bounds.
Occasionally German students would come in the TV room and criticized me for watching so much TV.
“Be quiet!” I yelled. “I am studying.”
One day, taking a break from my dedicated TV viewing, I walked into a bookstore. Germans are prodigious readers, and they have some of the best bookstores in the world. I stood in the center of the shop, looking at all of those wonderful books on the shelves, thinking, someday, I will be able to walk into this shop, take any book of the shelf, and read it. At the moment, however, it seemed an impossible dream. While I was standing there, one book caught my eye, “Der mit dem Wolf tanzt,” (Dances with Wolves). I don’t know why I was so drawn to the book, but I used some of my food money to buy it.
I took it back to the dorm and it took me a whole day to read about three pages, using a dictionary. This really ate into my TV time, so I abandoned the dictionary and just made a new schedule of reading for so many hours, without looking anything up, and watching TV for so many hours.
Once again, the same Germans who had seen me limp out of the university with my tail between my legs asked, “Do you understand everything in that book?”
“No,” I answered, without hesitation, “But I will the fifth time I read it.”
“That book is not so serious,” said one of the countless German girls named Sabina. “Don’t you think you should be reading technical texts about linguistics?”
“If I can’t understand a book with a picture of Indians fighting on the cover, how am I going to understand a technical book?” I countered.
“Don’t you think you should read German literature, by German authors?”
“I don’t even understand German literature when it has been translated into English. I will stick with my novelized movie book.”
“But that was written for housewives!” shouted Sabina.
“GERMAN housewives,”Ｉpointed out. And at that point, I would have been satisfied with being able to read as well as a German housewife.
Reading “Dances With Wolves,” instead of a “real” German novel made sense to me. I knew the story, the context, the history, it was all tangible for me. Only the language was new. And that was what I sought to learn. It made perfect sense to me.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my TV viewing and my novel reading without a dictionary were part of a language acquisition method called “The Core Novel method” developed by a brilliant Hungarian polyglot named Kato Lombo.
Lomb Kato (her personal name) was considered, by Hungarians, to be the greatest living polyglot implemented the “core Novel method. Basically she chose a novel she loved to read, found a copy in the foreign language she wanted to learn, and worked through it.