Learning Latin through German
by Elizabeth Willoughby
When studying at UNAM in Mexico, Vicente Flores Militello's Classical Studies professor often referred to German literature to provide his class with a broader view of the literary panorama. He would point out ancient Greek and Latin motives in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and in Goethe's Faust. Intrigued by such a rich tradition in classical literature, Vincent decided on Germany as a pivotal place to do his Masters. Choosing Latin philology as his main subject and Greek philology and Spanish literature as his two subsidiaries, he set out to learn German to make it possible.
After beginner courses in Mexico, he moved to Munich and entered the Deutschkurse bei der Universität München (DKfA) language school at the second intermediate level (B1-2). For over 60 years, the DKfA has been holding courses in German as a foreign language in Munich including the infamous DSH exam, the test of German language ability for university admission.
Vicente has fond memories of his time at DKfA. He loved that he could cycle to school – not something one does in Mexico City – and Monday to Friday from April to October he learned German in mornings, lunched with his foreign classmates, complained about the rain and the extreme emphasis on grammar, and did homework in the library in the afternoons.
"The teachers were very nice, often joking," he says, "and we had many interesting discussions, which were part of each lesson. Three years later, I am still in contact with the friends I made there. When I think of those days, I see that I was very, very happy."
Then came the DSH exam – the one everyone panics about because it takes several hours and everyone knows someone who has failed it. "It is a very demanding exam," he says, "but the truth is, if you have done your homework and paid attention, the exam is doable." Last year, 4,600 students from around the world attended DKfA courses, the highest number of participants since its founding in 1952. More than 1,000 of them applied for admission to the DSH exam.
In March 2012, Vincente began his Latin, Greek and Spanish studies at LMU in German. He had to get used to the professors' rapid speech, and still needed to think sentences out in his head before saying them, but he says one's progress at university is faster and the comprehension level is better after only a few months. Then he was grateful for all the grammar training at DKfA. Without it the course would have been impossible, as would be writing in academic language.
"When producing the 20-page essay at the end of the semester, you need to write it, not focus on which prepositions to use or how to construct the sentences," says Vicente. "In my final exam I had to translate a passage of the Aeneid from Latin into German. It was utterly difficult, with a lot of vocabulary and constructions you would normally never use as a foreign speaker, but I did it relatively well."
A new experience for him, he also had to use German language for normal conversations with his classmates, all from Germany this time, and for going out socially with his new university friends. However, they were supportive, as were his professors, and last March he finished his thesis and did his exams in German.
Appreciation of culture
Now working on his PhD in Classical Philology, Vicente feels at home in Munich, a clean, well-functioning city that he says has a lot to offer, such as great beer, incredible museums and classical concerts. It's also a good subject on which to practice his photography. "I was very happy the first year in Munich taking pictures of the buildings, parks and especially the seasons, the first time I'd seen snow – in Mexico the weather is not so variable."
Although he sometimes misses home, Vicente feels his opportunities are better in Germany. "Germans know that spreading knowledge in all areas is important. The investment made in schools cannot be compared to many other places. The libraries alone make an enormous difference. If everything goes according to plan, I'll be in Munich at least until I finish my PhD. What comes after that is still open."
Originally published at insightLMU, September 2014
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