On only my 3rd day in Germany, at 9:00 in the morning, I showed up at DID, Deutsch Institut … well, no one seems to know what the second “D” stands for.
Anyway, DID is a small language school in Frankfurt, where I will go every day for the next two months for five hours of German language instruction. But by the end of my first day at DID, I was wondering if maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew.
The very first thing you do in German school is take a placement test that measures your German skills as meeting one of six standard levels, from beginner to fluent speaker: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2. I was hoping I could skip the exam since I really, really don’t like tests and since I already knew that I should begin at the A2 level. Last fall I completed the A1-level class at the Goethe-Institut Boston, and before I left, I took the international A1-level German exam (and received a 99 percent!) just so I would not have to take a placement test when I arrived in Germany. Like I said, I really don’t like tests. I was an English and Art major, in part, because those two departments never, ever ask you to take an exam.
But this being Germany, everyone has to be tested and certified and dragged through the “proper channels.” So I took the test. Only, apart from a verbal exam, it was all multiple-choice, and if you know how most multiple-choice tests are written, it is pretty easy to “game the system” and guess the right answer even if you don’t know how to decline your adjectives or use the subjunctive past tense. On these exams, there are always two answers that are very similar except for one minor difference. So right away, you know that one of these has to be the right answer. That gives you a 50/50 chance of being right on every question. It’s not exactly cheating, but it falls far short of accurately measuring your grasp of the material.
When my results came back, the director of the school was pleased to tell me that I had scored in the high-B1 range. Would I like to be in the B1 or attempt the B2 class, he asked. I was devastated. Needless to say, if it hadn’t been a multiple-choice test with such a transparent format, I would never would have scored so I high. My German grammar is schrecklich (terrible). My wortschatz (vocabulary) is minuscule. I don’t even know how to form the future tense. I tried to explain this to the director, to explain about my A1 certificate (which is in a box I mailed from Boston a month ago that has yet to show up), but my German wasn’t even good enough to erklaren (make clear) my predicament. So to the B1 class I went.
My first day in the B1 class was easily the worst “first day of school” in my life. I sat there for the next four hours not understanding a single thing that was said. The teacher would divide us up into little discussion groups and have us talk on some topic of cultural interest, and all I could do was mimic back the phrases of the other students. The worst part was when the teacher would ask me a question in front of the whole class. I couldn’t even understand what she was asking, let alone answer! For what seemed like an eternity, every pair of eyes would be on me as I stuttered and mumbled, hoping that after a minute or two of this, the teacher would kindly move on to the next person. But she never did. She always made me speak up and continue talking until I had reached the end of my mangled and incomprehensible sentence.
Along about the fourth hour, I was getting a headache, and we were about to begin a grammar exercise that was so difficult I was afraid my brain might explode if I had to attempt it. That, or I would just start crying. In front of everyone. So I excused myself to go the bathroom, and I stayed there until I was absolutely sure that the exercise was nearly over.
On my way back to class, I was busy composing my explanation to the director for why I absolutely needed to be moved to the A2 class, when I ran into Florencia, a bassoon player from Argentina, who I took to be the best student my class. She was sitting on a couch outside the classroom just watching the clock. When she saw that I had noticed her, she turned red with embarrassment and began a half-hearted explanation for the curious position in which I found her. But I didn’t need to understand German to know that she was playing hooky to escape the same grammar exercise that had forced me to beat a retreat. She finally stopped making excuses and laughed in acknowledgment that I had found her out.
So, I figured that if even Florencia was having trouble with the grammar, then I couldn’t be completely alone in my struggle with the German language. Perhaps I would stay in the B1 class in the end. After all, misery loves company.