If You Want to Learn English…Move To Germany

The German village where we now live – Bruchmulbach – is surrounded on all sides by American military bases.  And we’re not talking quaint Alamo-throwback musket armories, either.  The bases around here are the real deal.

ramairRamstein – 10 minutes from us – is the largest Air Force base in Europe.  A totally self-sufficient fenced city, the installation comes complete with a 2-level mall, restaruants, sports bar with the requisite 38 flat panel high-def T.V.’s, 18-hole golf course, fast food, a police and fire force, grocery stores, gas stations, brand-new 10 million dollar pool facility (I’m lovin’that), preschool through high school and a wide array of corresponding sports teams, as well as a full-sized airfield with trans-continental military flights leaving and arriving daily.

Just up the road from us is Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, which is one of the largest military hospitals in the world and one of the largest hospitals in Europe, military or civilian.  As mentioned recently, I got lost in there and wondered if I would ever escape without the assistance of a space-time wormhole (I did, but it was close).

Oh, another thing your tax dollars fund is a complete bussing system to get all the civilian kids from their outlying German villages to the schools on the bases.  This made our initial choice to put all the kids in base schools a pretty easy one.  Teachers are shipped from the States all credentialed and up to the exacting standards of the U.S. Dept. of Education.  Schools have playgrounds and dry-erase boards and gyms and cafeterias.  The whole thing.

landstuhlLittle America.  Right here in the south of Germany.

But just the other day, I saw a patient who has lived in Germany for 40 years…and doesn’t speak anything but rudimentary German.  Clearly, you can live an entire life here and never really learn the local language, the customs or the culture.

The military, actually, is trying for this.  Most of their people have been moved here, will move again in 3 years, and so the more like America their lives are, the better it is for these families.  You even spend U.S. dollars on the bases, even though everyone for hundreds of miles in every direction uses Euros.

But for people like me, who came here volitionally and want to intersect with this new world, this re-creation of where I just came from, isn’t such a welcome thing.  Cindy Lauper had some chops 20 years ago, but do I really need to hear “Time After Time” as I drive across the pastoral German countryside on my way to work?

Since the bases here are such a huge part of the local economy-  wait, amend that: They ARE the economy here.  They’re it.  We’re talking millions of dollars every year from these military operations.  As a result, along with all the completely Americo-centric base workings, the local area totally caters to Americans too.  As soon as you say you want to speak English around here…they just switch over from their German to usually a very well-learned English.  Walking down the street in Portland, if some guy came up to ask you a question and said he only speaks German, could you switch over and cordially address his needs in his own language?

I couldn’t.  Not in ANY other language on planet earth.  MY ways are the ways of the world, right?  I should mention, in my defense, that for a few ultra-geeky years in Jr. High I might have had some hope using Klingon, but again, we’re talking about this planet.  And if I did meet a monolingual Klingon speaker in downtown Portland, we’d have much bigger problems than mere cultural ignorance.

stoneAnyway, our big decision (among what seems like a gagillion of them lately) was to pull the kids out of their American schools…and HOMESCHOOL them.  That’s right.  We’re pullin’ em out.  They can learn the 3 R’s in the AM, and work on German during the afternoons.  I’m hoping to find some nice German grandma who misses her kids to come over 2-3 times a week for cheap to tutor them as well, and we just bought Rosetta Stone, homeschool edition (created for monolingual parents with visions of grandeur).

If I leave here bankrupt and sick with some strange German microbe that ate the flesh off my face and all tips of my body…but my kids learned fluent German, I’ll be perfectly happy with our time here.  I promise.  No complaining.

Don't worry about German, kids, just keep up with your AMERICAN
Don't worry about German, kids, just keep up with your AMERICAN

The military base schools have a German “appreciation” class, but they should be ashamed of it.  It makes no attempt to actually teach the German language.  It’s just meant to let kids know about life in Germany (makes sense, if you live in Thailand).  The first class consisted of some guy opening up his laptop and reading off Bill Gates quotes – in English – about following your dreams and not letting anyone tell you you’re a loser.  Frankly, if enough people tell you you’re a loser – in, say,  French, German, Farsi, Hindu, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese and Russian – at some point, we Americans might want to listen.

And, when approached critically, I have to say that much of American school is laughable.  So much time is spent lining up, obeying, filling out forms and being entertained…I’m not sure that kids learn much at all.  We’re certainly not keeping up internationally (AGAIN!  Health care, education…what ELSE can the rest of the developed world do better than us?).

Hey Man, I'm an ARTIST, man!
Hey man, I'm an ARTIST, man!

In France, for example, every village kid is entitled to real, genuine, music training in their local villages.  As part of their taxes, every kid gets a solid hour a week of actual music theory.  I’m talking just the bookish part of music for an hour every week, no instruments.  The boring stuff.  The hard stuff.  The stuff nobody has to learn in the States unless they REALLY want to do it, go to college to learn it, and spend 2 years on lower-level classes before they’re allowed to jump into the real thing.  This is America!  Learning is FUN!

Back to France:  THEN, kids get an hour a week of training on an actual instrument.  This would be the fun part.  The payoff for muddling through a weekly hour of theory.  They learn with a private instructor, in small groups of 4 or 5.  THIS is the way to actually learn music.  For American taxes, kids get some goofy music appreciation class where 55 kids sit around listening to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” while making sure to keep their legs crossed.  In my 6th grade music class, I got to listen to a recording of Janis Joplin mumble in a drugged stupor on stage until she collapsed.

germangIt’s true that our 4 kids could end up total imbeciles.  I don’t think the U.S. Education system is totally worthless, and there are some good things about the schools that we will lose.  We worry about that.  But I think, given the options, that our Rosetta Stone + Grandma approach holds out at least as much hope of truly teaching our kids another language and culture than what is offered on the military bases.  With good curriculum and focus, we should be able to get them up to speed on the academic topics too.  We aren’t the first one to plow this field.

Then again, we’ve been at it a week.  I’m still all filled with principle and certainty.  We’ll see where we are in a month.