I have stumbled across the best way to learn German yet. Not German classes, Tae Kwon Do classes auf Deutsch, not even speaking German with my conversation partner. No, yesterday I began tutoring a Berliner in beginning English and I certainly learned more German than he did English.
My new job came about accidentally. I never meant to become employed, but one thing led to another, and at each step I thought I should accept a new and interesting German experience. Now, I’m frighteningly far over my head. But, let’s begin at the beginning.
One of our friends here works for an after-school tutoring program, and he referred me to them as a possible English tutor. So, when the head of the program called me and asked to schedule an interview, I thought, “I have nothing to lose. Wow, a German interview. Won’t that be interesting.” I assumed the interview would be in English, because wouldn’t they want to check that I really could teach English?
So, I dug out some presentable clothes and my dictionary and set out for AHA Nachhilfe. To my surprise, the interviewer conducted the whole thing in German, which luckily involved only minimal contributions from me. Because I came recommended, he was ready to sign me up unproven.
We spent most of the interview going over the one-page contract. My interviewer, Olaf (though this was a strictly formal situation. I was Frau Ashley and he was Herr Something-I-didn’t-catch) carefully broke down each of the legalistic points on the contract with examples about the imaginary student Fritzchen. “Say Fritzchen wants to buy more hours of tutoring. He can’t buy them from you directly. You need to refer him back to us first.” “Say you have an appointment with Fritzchen, but when you get to his house, he’s not home. You still get paid because he didn’t cancel with enough notice.” All pretty familiar, logical stuff. Then we got to the penultimate point.
“And you can’t be a Scientologist.”
I must have pulled quite a surprised face because Olaf got sort of nervous.
“Is that a problem?
“Well,” I answered, “I’m not a Scientologist, but that’s a weird thing to put in your contract.” (Tact is beyond my German skill level.)
He told me that several years ago there was a scandal in Germany because a handful of Scientologists working as afterschool tutors had been nefariously incorporating Scientology into their lessons, indoctrinating their defenseless students. So many tutoring programs added this point forbidding Scientologists from working for them. I nodded as if I understood, but I still think that’s odd. Wouldn’t it be more effective and to the point to ban proselytizing, rather than banning people who share a belief system with some other people who once proselytized? Anyway, I was only in this for the interesting experience. I decided to ignore my civil rights qualms.
Contract signed, we proceeded to chit chat. Olaf wanted to known whether I understood and would be able to work with a student learning British English. I explained that while I speak English with an American accent, I still understand British and am familiar with many of the vocabulary differences. I even know that the Brits think collective nouns like “team” or “class” are plural. Crazy.
Then he asked what kind of English Barack Obama spoke.
“He sounds just like me,” I said.
Olaf looked skeptical, and complimented me on my president’s good grasp of his own language. I can’t imagine any of this happening in the U.S. We have such a different sensibility of what is appropriate and what might be offensive. Even after nine months, I haven’t gotten used to this total naivete about what in America would be considered standard sensitivity to diversity.
The interview ended successfully. I was officially hired. But Olaf warned me that I probably wouldn’t get any students because school is out for the summer. So I was surprised to hear from him the next week regarding Pierre, an adult who wanted to prepare himself with “technical English” for going back to school in September.
Yesterday I had my first meeting with Pierre. I attempted to begin our session in English, but Pierre begged me to switch to German. He wasn’t ready for “Hello. How are you?” I had only brought some intermediate lesson books with me, so started with the review section on simple present tense. I needed to translate each sentence in the exercises. Grammar exercises include some very odd word choices. So, I tried to say the sentences in German. Then Pierre got the idea, and he said the sentences in proper German (which was very helpful to me!). Then we attempted the English. This is certainly my most challenging undertaking yet.