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Learning German for the First Time at Waldsee

Published: November 20, 2019

Waldsee welcomes German learners of all experience levels, whether a villager has taken German in a formal classroom setting, has a German-speaking parent, or has never heard a word of German before. It may seem intimidating for a first-time camper to approach the Bahnhof on Ankunftstag (arrival day) and suddenly be surrounded by a language they’ve never heard. However, the Betreuerschaft (counseling staff) has a lot of techniques that engage both advanced and beginning speakers alike, making sure that no one gets left behind.

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Betreuer (counselors) will not speak English with villagers, with few exceptions, in order to enhance the immersion environment. One of the key methods that Betreuer use to make sure new German speakers understand what’s going on is Wiederholung (repetition). Every day, villagers will hear Betreuer use a new Frage des Tages (question of the day) during announcements and small language group sessions. The repetition of the question and answer structure helps first-time German learners develop language patterns. By the tenth time a villager has heard someone ask, “Wie heißt du?” and someone else answer, “Ich heiße ______,” villagers understand how to ask someone what their name is and how to say what their own name is. No one ever has to tell them, “That means, ‘what’s your name’!”

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Since English and German are related languages, there are lots of English cognates in German. With newer German speakers, Betreuer will try to use more cognates in their speech when they are available. For example, instead of using the word das Gefühl, a Betreuer would probably use the word die Emotion instead. Both words have the same meaning, but one is much more recognizable to a native English speaker, even with differences in pronunciation. 

When a cognate is not available, the best resource is the use of Gestik (gestures). Betreuer will use a variety of hand motions and actions to make sure that everyone understands. Lots of new vocabulary can be learned simply by pointing at different objects nearby! We use a lot of Gestik during Gesang (song hour), so that all villagers understand not only individual words in the song, but the text as a whole.

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Additionally, our Familien/Gesprächsgruppen (small language groups) are divided by age and language proficiency. There is no proficiency test -- Betreuer observe villager’s language skills at the Bank (bank) and at the dinner table on the first day in order to determine an approximate language level. Adjustments are made as necessary throughout a villager’s time at Waldsee. High school credit villagers are placed into classes based on language level as well.

Villagers that arrive at Waldsee only knowing a handful of German words, such as Hallo and Gesundheit, leave their sessions able to comprehend full sentences of both written and spoken German. Using repetition, gestures, and cognates, villagers will be able to understand far more than they think they can, even on their first day. Fellow villagers are always happy to help as well!

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Have you spent nearly a decade or more at Waldsee over the last 60 years? We would love to hear from you for a future blog post! Please fill out this form here if you are interested.

Additionally, we are collecting and digitizing photos from alumni in honor of our 60th anniversary this summer. If you have any photos you would like to share (particularly from the 80s and 90s), please send them to betreuerschaft@gmail.com.