Learning a foreign language is a tedious process, during which one must remember that the payoff is a new mode of communication and invaluable insight into a foreign culture. As a student at the Goethe Institut in Berlin, my mornings are filled with vocabulary lists and short excerpts of the Verkehr or Wetter reports, group games for memorizing articles, and color-coded flash cards of unregalmaßig verbs. We draw pictures of our Träumhauser and point out the most important amenities like privateweg, große Küche, and Schwimmbad. We learn the Konjunktiv Zwei tense using sentences like: “Wenn ich reich ware, würde ich einen Ferrari fahren”.
Surprisingly, apart from these basic exercises, the lessons have become a bit like a course in basic ethics. This was first evident in a worksheet our teacher gave us entitled: Warum sind Sie in der Hölle, Warum sind Sie im Himmel? Our assignment was to choose certain phrases from a list and write them under the picture of the devil or the picture of the angel. As the lösung sheet came along after we finished, mit Kokain handeln, Bäume abschneiden, Mädchenhändler, Millionär, Cognac, and lügen were placed under the devil. Fasten, Kirche gehen, Kinder lieben, meditieren, gute Noten geben, zahnarzt, and Papst were placed under the angel. The finished exercise could have been entitled: the morality of the people in less than 50 words.
The next day proved to be a continuation of Goethe Ethics 101 and began with an excerpt entitled “Statistisch gesehen”. The article indicated “sind aber über eine Million Menschen in Deutschland obdachlos” – over one million people are homeless in Germany, furthermore, “es gibt zu wenig preiswere Sozialwohnungen und immer mehr Menschen, die aus dem sozialen Netz rausfallen” – there are too few inexpensive social housing provisions and always more homeless people who fall through the social net. The article ended with the final sobering thought: “Vor allem allein stehende Arbeitslose und Ausländer, aber auch Rentner und kinderreiche Familien, landen in Heimen und Containern oder im schlimmsten Fall auf der Straße”.
After reading the excerpt, we learned about types of houses and lifestyles in Germany, about: Altbau, Neubau, Eigenheim, Hochhaus, Doppelhaushälfte, and Reihenhause. We learned about wohnungs with einbauküche, balkon, tiefgarage, garten, and terrasse … our class assignment was to put these things and what we had learned about Germany’s “social net” into categories of “good” and “bad” according to our opinion. Most of us put the typical amenities like a swimming pool, balcony, and garden in the “good” category, some of us preferred the single family house to the condominium or vice versa. What was most interesting, however, was the fact that the German sozialen Netz was unquestionably placed in the “good” category. We debated over whether we preferred the luxuswohnung with the Maßfertigte Möbel or the Altbau with Flohmarkt Möbel, but the fact that homelessness is bad and that the government should provide some kind of welfare to the people “falling through the cracks” was like a moral axiom to every person in the class. With students from Spain, Portugal, Norway, Japan, South Korea, China, The United Arab Emirates, North Africa, and Turkey, you would think there would be differing opinions or some kind of discussion about such a consequential issue. Despite my usual angst for posing questions in German, I asked the teacher if we could put sozialen Netz in the “bad category” and was answered with a resounding “Nein nein nein” from the class and a “das ist dein Meinung” from the teacher, accompanied with a look that seemed to say “you crazy American”.