With the dawn of the new community college semester this month, I again took up my serious study of German. This time, though, I enrolled at the public center for continuing education rather than my old private place. Switching schools entailed a placement exam, for which I gamely rolled out of bed at sunrise (8 a.m. in Berlin these days). I owned the first exam. That meant I could at least move into the B level. But, the proctor asked me if I would like to push further, which of course I compulsively answered yes. She assured me that the next test would be very difficult and I shouldn’t worry when I couldn’t answer most of the questions.
Psychology is amazing. With that introduction, I found that I couldn’t answer most of the questions, besides which I’d already taken one test and I was tired. So, sure enough, I failed enough of test two for the proctor to place me in a course which would review the B-level material. (She was duly impressed that I had gleaned so much Deutsch just since September.)
Exceedingly pleased with myself, I strode home to show Aaron what an accomplished German speaker I have become. He did not greet me with the fanfare I anticipated. Instead, he pointed out that a review course would be grindingly boring and that the other students would be those who had already had the material once but hadn’t grasped it well enough, as opposed to me who would be “reviewing” the material I hadn’t really ever learned before. So, we decided we should convince the school to put me in a higher level still, since I had tested between levels and could “review” the lower level on my own rather than wasting a whole six weeks on it.
We both greeted the sunrise the next morning and returned to the Volkshochschule. I made Aaron come with me because I wanted him to face off with the stern German bureaucrats. We found the same proctor I had met the day before, and I floated the opening parley. Could I please take the higher level instead? The proctor calmly pointed out that my test indicated that I didn’t have a thorough grounding in the material, and in fact there were some topics, like the passive, which I had completely flubbed. (This was not fair. I had forgotten the key conjugation of the helping verb, but I knew the concept.) Didn’t I want a solid grasp of the basics? For my own good, and for the good of my language learning, the proctor explained, she had correctly placed me in the review class.
Well, I was cowed. I started nodding my understanding. At which point, Aaron dived into the fray. He argued that we only have a short time in Germany, and we want me to learn as much as possible. Therefore it’s better for me to push myself and take a higher class. My proctor would have none of that. “Why are you telling me your concerns?” she snapped at poor Aaron. “If she wants me to put her in a higher German class, maybe she should tell me herself.”
So, I started again, parroting Aaron’s points. Finally, the proctor cut me off. “Okay,” she relented. “I am the teacher for the higher level, and I would be happy to have you in my class.” I had the sense that she was on board with us all along and had baited us just for the fun of it, and to show me my own capabilities. I was reminded me of the time my grandmother took me shopping for school clothes the summer before second grade. We narrowed our choices down to two dresses, and then Grandma said I had to pick just one. I definitely wanted the purple dress, but I knew Grandma preferred the white dress with the big cherry embroidered on the skirt. After much angst, I asked for the cherry one. “We’ll get both,” Grandma said, and I knew that had always been her plan. So, I was granted entrance into Level B2 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
Now, I’m in week two of too-hard Deutsch, and it’s going fine. I grasp the grammar as well as most of my classmates, though my vocabulary is much more limited. This week we’re learning the distinctions between adverbs, such as when one would say “That proctor was especially wily” vs. “pretty wily” vs. “unbelievably wily.” And yes, there is always a right answer. This is Germany.