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The Fulda Cathedral St. Salvator in Fulda, Germany
It never made sense to me why in our
home, where only my mother spoke
Polish, we couldn’t just speak English
like our father and the rest of my
friends. In my mind, Polish was only
relevant because I could use it to speak
in secret with my sisters when we were
in public or when we didn’t want our
dad to understand. It felt silly that our
family celebrated Christmas Eve with
Polish traditions instead of Christmas
Day like everyone else in town.
When I was 9 years old, my mother’s
cousins from Poland stayed with our
family for a few days. Up until their
arrival, the extent of my Polish speaking
was limited only to my mother at
home and to close relatives. It was the
third week of Lent and I had given up
ice cream, so I was extra excited when
the cousins showed up with authentic Polish sesame cake. This was my first
real opportunity to thank someone
in Polish as they wouldn’t understand
my expression of gratitude in English.
Their faces lit up when they realized
I was able to communicate with
them, which bolstered my confidence
and gave me courage to join the
conversation further as we began to
decorate eggs in preparation for Easter
blessings. I watched, dumbfounded,
as they made their own tools out of
goose quills to apply wax to the shells,
creating beautiful, intricate patterns
before setting the egg in a bowl of dye.
Compared to the designs I always made
with crayons, their eggs looked like they
belong in a European art museum! I
excitedly followed suit and tried to use
the traditional decorating materials
and mimic their precision and elegance.
I was finally making the connection
between language, traditions, places and
people. Polish became more than just a
language I spoke, it became a power to
let me explore a different culture.
Finally, I understood why my mother
wanted us to celebrate our heritage. My
extended family’s short visit showed me
how unique and exciting my ethnicity
could be, and left me curious about
the rest of my lineage. Over the years,
I have dug into my family history and
found that my Slavic history is even
more rooted in Germany than Poland. I
wondered why my sisters and I had never
learned to speak German.
Upon entering college, I had the
opportunity to take German classes and
explore a part of my ancestry that seemed
just as important as Polish. The University
of Delaware’s strong German program
allowed me to excel in language skills
while providing ample opportunities and
scholarships to study in Germany. After
one semester of classes, I travelled with
other students to Leipzig for a month.
Successfully ordering coffee at a bakery
had never felt so satisfying. Everywhere
I travelled I made sure to practice
my German to see if native speakers
could interpret my broken attempts to
communicate. It was so encouraging
when someone would smile and continue
speaking slowly and purposefully with
me, understanding the good intentions
behind my meager attempts.
My first study abroad trip proved
how exciting learning about German
language and culture is, but also how
helpful it would be in regards to my
music studies. I was astounded by the
number of possibilities to both enjoy
classical music and visit historically
significant landmarks. Instead of
merely listening to examples of Bach’s
cantatas in a university lecture, I
actually sat in the church and heard
the motet for which he composed these
significant works. I returned from this
winter session enthusiastic to continue exploring how my growing enthusiasm
for German would intertwine with my
passion for music. It was so beneficial
to have had a glimpse into the cultural
aspects of Germany that would make my
courses removed from native speakers
more enriching. I am thankful that I
had the opportunity to contextualize
the importance of German so early on
in my process of learning the language.
The Musikverein Wein in Vienna, Austria, photographer: Li Sun
After being introduced to the excitement of connecting language courses to other interests in my life, I sought out more opportunities to explore music history and German culture. My next adventure brought me to Vienna through IES (International Education Studies), an organization outside of UD. This program was focused around music performance and history in one of the most musically significant cities. Not only was I surrounded by music history, but I was with a group of students equally excited about the prospect of studying music in German. I was fortunately paired with Marcello Padilla, a local bassoon professor, who was patient enough to teach lessons only in German. He was willing to take on the challenge of extending my vocabulary to include more musical and expressive terms while working on my musicianship. Our initial miscommunications were quickly remedied by hand gestures, comments paired with demonstrations on his own instrument, and translating key terms. It was so rewarding to see direct improvements in my bassoon playing along with German comprehension. My progress was rewarded with an invitation to play at Prof. Padilla’s studio recital, with other bassoonists my age. It felt like a super power to be able to compliment other musicians on their performances with my new vocabulary. I was so excited to make connections and speak with Austrian students about their own impressions of musical life and culture in Vienna.
The following summer, I received an incredible scholarship to study abroad once more in Fulda. This opportunity was especially unique, because the Hochschule had an international program that invited students studying German from all over the globe to come together. During my six week stay, I took German classes with students from 16 countries, including Russia, India, Brazil, Spain, and South Korea. It was so interesting to see how their native language impacted their language acquisition. Discrepancies in grammar and dialect were apparent based on their mother language, and I began to identify ways this was also true in my own speaking.
What became apparent in all my study abroad experiences were how important the ability to communicate is. There are so many nuances in the way we use language that reflect our personality. It has been a fun adventure learning to be expressive in German, and do more than simply order coffee. My time abroad has influenced me to stay curious and motivated. Instead of relying on American courses to help me down the path of fluency, I develop my language skills by singing along to modern German pop and maintaining relationships abroad. I’m so excited to return to Germany to earn my masters in music at the Franz Liszt Hochschule für Musik, in Weimar. All my adventures abroad have shown me how important it is to explore the world, and see where I fit as a global citizen. It will be amazing to continue to explore music through the German perspective, and delve into German music history in the country’s culture capital. Studying abroad has been such an enriching aspect of my University education.