Gemma and Johanna had a ’split‘ exchange, that is, the girls‘ travel periods weren’t consecutive, but separated by a five month break. We find this schedule often works well when the exchange partners each want to travel for the full three months – difficult to accomplish in one summer! Sometimes the exchange will be split across two summers, in this case, Johanna was in the US in the fall of 2014, and Gemma was in Germany for summer 2015. When asked about her exchange, Gemma wrote:
I decided to go on an exchange for two reasons. The less important reason is because I wanted to learn German, and the more important reason is because I wanted to go on an adventure. In September 2014, my exchange sister Johanna arrived in the United States. Over the course of three months, we became great friends. We had a “split exchange,” meaning that I went to Germany in May 2015, five months after Johanna had flown back. Before I went to Germany, Johanna and I stayed in contact by Skyping. On the third of May, I arrived in Germany. It wasn’t hard to find my exchange family: they were wearing matching grins and t-shirts that spelled out “GEMMA.” It was awesome to see Johanna again, and her family was so welcoming that I quickly felt at home. However, because I had only studied German for half a year before going on my exchange, I could barely understand what anyone was saying. During the first days of my exchange, beginning to understand and speak German was alternatively frustrating and hilarious. Even though Johanna’s entire family speaks English, I insisted that we speak in German right from the start, and my German progressed quickly.
School had already started when I arrived in Germany, so I hit the ground running. I’m homeschooled in the United States, but I enjoyed school in Germany. School began at eight in the morning, and usually ended at two or three in the afternoon, leaving time for hobbies like riding and playing the cello. Students had a remarkable amount of freedom, and usually weren’t supervised except when actually in class. I found that German teenagers were generally much more independent than American teenagers. Being driven around by parents was a very seldom occurrence; Johanna and I biked to school and friends’ houses, and used the train to visit nearby Hamburg.
It’s hard to say exactly when I started easily understanding and speaking German. I learned through reading, listening to the radio, watching German films, and most of all by speaking German. Eventually speaking German became surprisingly “normal” I didn’t have to always translate words in my mind before speaking, or when listening to someone speaking German. And in addition to learning another language, I enjoyed experiencing life in Germany and learning about its culture and history. I learned more about Germany’s relationship with other European countries and with the United States. Additionally, I had the opportunity to reexamine and better understand my own country’s culture and relationship with the world.
My exchange was a wonderful experience, and I’m glad that I had the opportunity to learn another language, discover another culture, and find a new best friend. Of course, it wasn’t always easy but then again, what adventure is?