In August 2019, for two weeks, I was in Germany for the German-American Exchange Program I had applied for a year prior. I had applied to the program because I had always wanted to visit Germany and the program offered an independent study course that would’ve given me credit to lighten my future workload. I was of course expecting a huge shock, with the unknown language/culture and not knowing any other program members. 

Before August, I had started messaging my German exchange partner. I was a little surprised at how great her English was, her messages were just as good as what I would expect a native speaker/writer would. I found out that English was an integral part of the German education system, as well as other languages. When I eventually went to Germany, I was shocked to see how much English was used, even in a country where it is not an official language. Every restaurant that I went to had an English menu, every museum had plaques in both German and English, and even the allergy medication I had to get had everything in both German and English. 

Brochure/Map of a Museum in Heese, Germany

I initially thought this was because of tourism but when I went to my partner’s school, I learned that children start learning English in Germany when they are children, usually in the third grade. This shocked me as a second language is usually taken up in either middle or high school in the United States. However by this time in Germany, students would be taking their third language, usually a romantic language, and even after that they take a fourth language, a classical language. It was really shocking to see how I was able to communicate fluently with nine/ten-year-olds. It really made me put in perspective how poorly I knew my second language and how learning secondary languages wasn’t as valued in the United States. I found that in Europe, a second or third language is expected while knowing another language, even at the most basic level, is seen as extraordinary here in the States.

Exchange Students at the German School

It was even shocking when at the welcome breakfast, my partner and I were discussing whether the word she was using was correct. We ended up having everyone from our half of the table chime in, both American and German. When we asked the American teacher which one of us was correct, he did not even know himself and had to ask the German teacher for clarification. This threw me off guard as it really showed me the difference between the American and German education systems. I was watching how badly the American education system failed us and while I knew that it wasn’t the best, it was shocking to see how poor it was compared to other countries that are also world leaders. 

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