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Don’t hesitate. Sign up for an online German distance learning course and learn to speak German already. Or you can do what I did, and use language learning as your flimsy excuse to live abroad for like ever. Here’s a breakdown of how I improved my German while living in Berlin. Sadly, it’s probably a lot more coherent than my German. Hopefully it will help somebody, someday. Four key steps to success:

1. “Tandem” or “language exchange”
Tandem is what the Germans call a conversational meeting (usually over coffee) in which a German speaker and an English speaker divide the time between two languages. Rather than pay a tutor for an hour of German instruction or conversation practice, I could get a half hour of help in the form of casual chatting, and getting questions answered about how to say certain words or phrases in German. For the second half hour I would help my tandem partner with her English, as she was preparing for a placement test to get back into school.

I wanted to learn German slang. So she taught me that in German the hip-hop version of Wie geht’s? is Was geht? I believe it’s like the difference between “How are you?” and “Whatup?” It may seem trivial, but it actually got me a lot of mileage with the locals. It’s not like anybody mistook me for a thug from the knifecrime district of Berlin, but at least it made people laugh and helped break the ice more than once.

Tandem was the most likely place for me to learn this piece of German slang. I wouldn’t have had the time in the German class I took, where the focus was lesson plans and grammar, nor did I ask any of my German friends teach it to me, as I didn’t want to bore them excessively with minutia about a language they generally take for granted. In Tandem I had the luxury to talk exclusively about the fun aspects of the language. She also hooked me up with an apartment.

You can find Tandem partners in the activities section of Berlin’s Craigslist.

2. Making friends
I knew going into it that the most organic way for me to improve my German would be to speak solely in German with all the new people I met. I assumed all Germans spoke perfect English, so I was prepared

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for a challenge. But after settling in I was happily surprised: not all Germans speak English!

In fact, a couple very close friendships were conducted entirely in German. But because my German was even worse then, I couldn’t help feeling slightly suspicious of anyone who would tolerate lengthy conversation with a verbal cripple like me.

What were they getting out of it?

That remains an open question, but for me the rewards were crystal clear. I got hours of real-life practice forming sentences, responding to questions, making jokes and even working through misunderstandings caused by my poor language skills. Talk about a steep learning curve. I even picked up some very practical language tips: after asking was? all the time, I was told to change it up occasionally with the more polite phrase: wie, bitte?

Of course, many Germans do speak English extremely well, and inevitably I made friends with folks who spoke only English to me. I didn’t mind the friendship, but it didn’t help my German at all. And here’s where an unbroken pattern revealed itself: the first few moments of meeting somebody would absolutely determine the language used for the life of the relationship. The second I said “Hi, how are you,” to someone, the German language was DOA.

I think the reason is because I am a different person when I speak German. I express visible glee whenever I can formulate a sentence. Time slows down and every object on the street or in the café becomes amazing, something worth inquiring about. In German, I am a child.

Once I put it to a test and tried switching to German with a friend who normally spoke English to me. It was a complete disaster. One could almost hear a grinding sound as I tried to switch gears into that friendly, lobotomized character that worked so well in German-language friendships. I smiled and blinked uncomprehendingly as a torrent of gibberish flowed from his mouth. He was baffled by my precipitous drop in IQ. It took only moments for us to switch back to English. We were both embarrassed.

3. Reading books
“Here, read this,” a local once told me. It was Arabboy, by Güner Balci, about a Lebanese-Palestinian boy who chooses a life of crime in the poor part of Berlin. Despite its humor, darkness and valuable insight into the immigrant experience, the prose would have bored me stiff if translated into English. But in German I am a child. And in German, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I followed it up with Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, and inevitably found some parallels in the criminal heroes of both stories.

Of course, in both cases practically every sentence yielded multiple new vocabulary words. So rather than look each word up as I encountered it, I would simply write it down and move on. Only at the end of each chapter would I look up all the definitions, write them down, memorize them, then re-read the chapter with a whole new level of comprehension.

It’s work, but it works; the primary benefits were reading comprehension amassing vocabulary. But while this is not a direct method of learning grammar rules, reading hundreds of pages in German did make me more comfortable with the way German

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sentences are thrown together, and I actually think it even helped my spoken German.

But for real help with grammar, there’s nothing like taking a German course:

4. Taking German classes in Berlin
I enrolled in a German course through the Volkshochschule, which is a nationwide adult education program for lower income folk. An expat friend recommended it, but the Germans I knew would disparage it. One was concerned I’d get bored, and another, with decidedly elitist sensibilities, was uncomfortable mentioning the word in public. The course was held in a bright orange high school building from the Soviet era, located in Wedding, a district with zero popular appeal and a large working class population.

I was attracted to it because I’m cheap. A month long course involving around 80 hours of instruction cost something like 100 Euros. There were other young American expats like me in the course, along with older people who came to Germany looking for economic opportunities. Some students hailed from really exotic places like Belarus, Nigeria and the newly-formed nation of Kosova. Our instructor was very friendly but inexperienced. She spoke with a slight Turkish accent, and the course moved at a snail’s pace; per the lesson plan we wasted a lot of time in activities like making posters to pin up to the wall. Nobody liked the text book but her hands were tied, she said.

Despite these criticisms, I really did learn fundamental grammar rules that I wouldn’t have learned outside the classroom environment. No matter how inefficiently the course was run, I feel that by getting up early and putting over four hours in every day, I was bound to learn something, even if I didn’t make it through to the end of the month. If I had to do it again, I might pony up a bit more, for a faster paced and more exciting German course in Berlin.

So there you have it. Since moving back home my German has degraded a lot but I’m trying to keep up by attending a German conversation group in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Swahili lesson: Unataka kuchuliwa? = Do you want a massage? Tulia, samba! = Easy, lion!

Sarah Enid and Congolese School Girls
Sarah Exports the Peace Sign

I’m still in Kinshasa. I missed the earthquake in the East by a matter of days. Somehow, I forgot to factor natural disasters into the list of possible dangers. Here, in the capitol, my bad education continues. Over the past week I’ve met with high school girls, college students, parliamentary officials, women’s groups, a local private television station, and a priest. My list of fragmentary knowledge grows. Here are a few examples: There is a culture of NGOs in Congo which have been described as the New Colonialism. The only people with jobs in this country are those working for NGOs. Every other vehicle in this smog choked city belongs to the UN. They have a sweet set-up and they do nothing. They do nothing. They know where rebel groups viagra reviews comments are located. cialis how long to work They know everything about the Interhamwe’s whereabouts and doings. But instead they just act as a fat parasite, leeching like every other outsider who has their hand in Congo’s honey pot. Meanwhile, the Chinese are offering Congo a huge chunk of change so they can get at the resources. Congo’s belly is swollen with oil, as it turns out. So if you know Congo only for its diamond mines, well this puppy has resources beyond belief and EVERYONE wants some.

OMG

On the equally frustrating social scene I’ve learned that many of the rape victims in the East are ostracized because people in the village believe that they are cursed, or even that they somehow asked for it. Across the country there is a huge problem with sexual violence and general oppression of women. The high school girls I talked to told me that their teachers are always trying to get them to sleep with them and often their grades depend on it. And the real frustrating part is that when violence and oppression is the norm and there is also a huge problem with impunity many women don’t even think about their rights, or that there really is such a thing as women’s rights. I’m really glad I’m not a radical feminist because I’d likely get all, “I’m GOING TO CRUSH SOME SKULLS!!”. And I am wildly angry, but I have met is there a generic viagra a lot of women who are trying to re-educate people about some pretty basic human rights issues. So, there is at least faction attempting to influence basic awareness. If I come back to Congo again I have been asked to appear on a local private television show, they are going to have a special program. Yeah, hilarious and possibly a disaster, but in any case we’ll get that shit up on youtube. Barring any last minute disasters, I will fly out of Kinshasa on Sunday and be back in SF the 16th. It’s so strange here and I’m really going to miss it. The traffic is the worst. I’ve never had so many near misses in my is viagra blue life, and he roads themselves are really just a series of kiddie pool sized pot-holes. There are vendors of everything, in fact they stand on the side of the street canadian pharmacy online hydrocodone and

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hold out puppies to passing cars, Puppies. They sell crocodiles in the market and I also saw a monkey just tied to some log. We have been lucky to have electricity and running water almost every day. Often power lines get cut and stolen to be sold. I ate a pile of caterpillars, they tasted good. Oh, crocodile tastes like fishy chicken.

Sewing Circle

Okay, I think that covers the basics for now. Oh, here is a Konono #1 video so you can see what Kinshasa looks like:

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tiananmen-square-hero.jpg Tonight Frontline aired an episode about the man who blocked a short column of tanks during 1989’s Tiananmen

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massacre. It’s currently blowing my mind– maybe it’ll blow yours too.

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mod

I’ve been obsessed for some time now with the aesthetics and mentalities of certain periods in time. The 70s with its formica, drugs, and pre-AIDS promiscuity. The nuclear 50s with horn-rimmed glasses, buzzed hair, and a red scare played out on black and white television. What will the icons be of our messy era of social repression, tech explosion, and unpopular war? What harsh realities will fade as we move out of one decade into the next? What are the nascent issues now hatching that will grow into the galvanizing trials of a future iconography?

The whole practice of periodizing or fetishizing an era or scene may just be a way to insulate ourselves from responsibility. For those who idealize the beat generation or draw inspiration from the global revolutions of the 60s, there’s a longing for what they imagine those times to be like, but also a relief that, since those times are gone, there is no burden to actually live what in reality must have been an exhausting and alienating life. Was the punk movement filled with marginalized dreamers who just wanted a simpler life and greater autonomy? Or was it just a bunch of assholes who didn’t want to do anything they didn’t want to do?

There are some big problems with our cultural compulsion to put brackets around time periods, perhaps especially in the arbitrary designation of decades. A good example is the current surprise a lot of people have that North Korea is trying to build nuclear weapons, that the world’s ecosystem is turning against us, that we’re in a bloody war in Iraq for no good reason. These are grown-up versions of problems that entered our awareness long ago, but then disappeared once the numbers rolled over to a new set of ten years. Fashions changed, consciousness changed, it seemed like a fresh start.

So maybe it’s useful to look at the ways the present will be iconified and forgotten as it happens. While the dot com boom was technically in the late 90s, I think it will be absorbed as part of the 00s since it could only really be understood in retrospect – the same way a lot of the culture of the late 60s bleeds into the early 70s. That’s an easy one – college students getting rich off of empty, exciting language; venture capitalist rolling on the ecstasy of a wildly inflated market. But what did it set the stage for?

The boom was a huge shift in economy, public philosophy, and awareness who’s effects can easily be overlooked since it can swiftly be dismissed as ‘that crazy dot com bubble.’ What will the safe totems be for this war time depression? The powerlessness of compassionate intellectuals lulled to complacency by economic comfort? More likely

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it will be blogging. Soldiers blogging, moms blogging, everyone blogging. What was your blog about during the Iraq war? Oh, that was back when I was blogging about kitten attire and mom makeover secrets, it was great. At least the kids of the Vietnam era could take solace in their radicals. Are they out there now and just hidden from us?

Maybe it would also be useful to find out what type of learning mechanism makes this an appealing strategy for assimilating information. Is there a more comprehensive way to digest large pieces of information so that our landmarks of history can be based around events rather than temporal mile markers?

This is not only on my mind as a critic of culture, but on a personal level as well, because I have a similarly limited perception of myself. My idea of who I am is only based on about the last three months. I take no pride in past accomplishments, old friends fade from awareness, a stifling tunnel vision sets in due to the constant reenforcement of a small number of visual landscapes. I use seasons and years to put bookends on themes and personas that are ongoing and fluid. Whenever I go to my hometown of Eugene, OR or down to Santa Cruz where I went to school, I’m flooded with a deeper sense of myself and a wider vocabulary for interpreting my current situation. Upon returning to San Francisco, the vision narrows and the claustrophobia sets in, with little of the recovered identity transcending the boundaries of the bay.

Perhaps it’s a bit conceited to analogize the two periodizations. But if the world can carry around the calm that I feel when a larger portion of my history is at the front of my mind, perhaps we can collectively make better decisions and repeat less mistakes. Maybe a more comprehensive public consumption of history would have the added benefit of allowing compulsive nostalgics to stop dreaming of a scene or era or movement and see the ways they can shape the future by believing in their own perceptions.

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Many of you will have seen one or both of these two clips. Still, the quality of design here demands another golf clap. The first makes a graphic reality of middle-school teachers’ dreams. It is the cartographer’s logic summarizing Middle Eastern geopolitics. This second is a similar paired down mother-google-earth, time lapse map of US conflict. Or rather, an atlas. The US interests are astonishingly global. It is worth more as an education on forgotten violence, than as a tacky face-off between political parties for fewest war fatalities. Other inclusions about Secret CIA Prisons, the Retaking of Fallujah and Intelligence footage are jolt to the preferred mood. The viewer, me, was accustomed to the tone of the aforementioned, mildly apolitical forays into mappage. Check out the rest of the site. I

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whether it is the creation of socially motivated researchers or entrapment by a government agency, but I like it… Another impeccably designed map. Satisfyingly simple, like a venn diagram. There’s also a belter about religions’ roles in all the comedy we call humanness. Good Night and God Design.

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