Language Learning, Article 13: View the world through rose-colored glasses - Visit another Country! By David Bolton
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View the world through rose-colored glasses - Visit another Country!

Language education abroad is, without doubt, the best way to truly master a foreign language.

Imagine a city that isn't particularly attractive, or especially clean; a city where the people are no friendlier - and perhaps even considerably less friendly - than those in your home town. Doesn't sound very appealing, does it? Ah, but if this city just happens to be one in a country whose language you are learning, it is a different matter altogether. For in that case, everything about it may well seem magically attractive to you. You will overlook its defects, and only focus on the many things that you find fascinating about it. In short, you will view it through rose-colored glasses.

    I distinctly remember my first months in Germany way back when, and also the first time I came to Spain. During my first weeks here in Spain, I made it a point to meet people, always an advisable procedure when you want to perfect your skills in a foreign language. Looking back at that time, I realize that some of the people I associated with were not the kind I would like to take home to introduce to my family in the U.S.

    For instance, I occasionally visited a small group of young people who were to the extreme left politically. No, by that I don't mean the "Ted Kennedy/John Kerry" left; those two venerable politicians would definitely seem decidedly right-of-center in comparison with those folks I hung around with, who were more the "somewhere-between-Fidel-Castro-and-Joe-Stalin" kind of extreme left. Their days were spent mainly sitting around smoking dope and talking about when the world revolution would finally come to Spain so that theywould be able to live the sorts of lives they knew they deserved. What in the world was I doing eating an occasional lunch with them in their home, and listening to all that nonsensical propaganda? Well, for me, it was actually interesting. Not their naiveve beliefs, of course, but the fact that they were saying it all in Spanish, and I had the chance to expand my knowledge of that language by listening to them. (And I might add that though I disagreed with them, I did get a chance to see that some of them were indeed nice people - even if their views did contain more than a touch of fanaticism.)

    Before living in Spain, I spent 13 years in Germany, in the city of Kassel. Kassel, like practically all the cities in Germany, is neat and clean. However, if you walk through the center, you will certainly not be impressed with its beauty, for Kassel is not an especially beautiful city - at least not since Oct 23, 1943. On the night of the 22/23 of that year, over 560 British bombers rained destruction and death over Kassel, killing about 10,000 people, and destroying more than 75% of the city (some figures put this as high as 90%). You won't see many signs of this today, since Kassel was rebuilt in the post-war years. However, the new buildings completely lack the charm of the pre-war ones, and almost all of the edifices you see in the center have that stark, modernistic, "functional" look that often predominated in the 50's and 60's. Neat and clean, to be sure, but boring as well.

    Nonetheless, during my first months in Kassel, it was the most interesting place on earth. After all, I was living in Germany, something I had always wanted to do. When I walked through the center back then, the uninteresting style of the buildings didn't bother me one bit. I hardly noticed it, since all my attention was focused on myriads of fascinating details, like signs in store windows: "Sonderangebot" (special offer), "Buchhandlung" (Bookshop), "Apotheke" ("Chemist's" to you Brits, "Drug Store" for us Americans), and the like. "Parken verboten" (No parking allowed"), "Strassenbahn" (street car -something I had previously only known as a wee child back in Baltimore).

    Wherever I looked, there were words that I had either learned during my German studies, and was now seeing in a practical context for the first time, or words that I had never seen before, and whose meaning I had to divine - or else jot down in my little notebook so that I could look them up later.

    And the people! I made it a point to ask directions often, just to have the chance to talk to people, and maybe make the acquaintance of a few. I didn't always understand the answers they gave me, but so what? I was forced to think, to try to figure out what the devil they were saying. It was a wonderful learning experience. When I had made a few friends, they informed me that people in Kassel were not known for their friendliness, but rather had the reputation of being "etwas verschlossen und misstraurisch" (somewhat closed and mistrustful). I was a trifle surprised, for I thought they were great, simply because they were German, and I was there as an American trying to master their language. I was viewing both the people as well as the city through rose-colored glasses, and I loved every minute of it!

(An aside: my conscience will not permit me to criticize Kassel's post-war appearance without commenting as well on its most remarkable feature: Park Wilhelmshöhe. This forest-like park, located on the western outskirts of the city, a few kilometers from the center, is perhaps the most beautiful park in Europe. It is one of my favorite places on earth, and is definitely worth going out of your way to visit. One of its most notable features is Schloss Wilhelmshöhe - Wilhelmshöhe Palace - which is now the seat of a fantastic art gallery, housing some 15 Rembrandts, as well as hundreds of other masterpieces. Also, let me say that the people in Kassel, though not naturally extraverted, are really fine folks and excellent friends once you get to know them, and I myself made a few life-long friends during my stay there.

    Being in a foreign city while learning the local language is one of the most wonderful, memorable and enriching experiences you can ever have, and I almost pity those who have never done so. If mastering Spanish is one of your goals, and you ever get the chance to visit a city like Granada, Spain (where I now live), by all means, do so! Or is speaking French your aim? Besides Paris, you might want to check out delightful places like Tours, Angers, Poitiers, Montpellier, or Albi.  But no matter what language you are learning, or what foreign city you choose to visit, you will find your stay there to be a treasure that you will always hold fondly in memory, and on which you will frequently look back with nostalgia in the future.

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