February 2014


Learning English: I’m OK in OK

A couple of months ago, one of my colleagues told me about a book that he’d read in grade 8 English: I’m OK in OK: The Diary of My Year in Oklahoma.

I decided to read the book.

For those of you familiar with the EU ranking of language skills, the book is rated A2 and recommended for “Schuljahr 8, Level 2” – and I must say, after having read it, that the English is surprisingly sophisticated and complicated for a book aimed at grade 8 students.

The book is by Wolf von Bernuth (whose cover photo makes him look shockingly like Finn Hudson, the character portrayed by the late Cory Monteith) and covers his year as a foreign exchange student in Oklahoma. He’s from Berlin and the year is – well, it’s not clear what year it is, other than to say that the book was copyrighted in 1990, and he gives his fellow American high school students a Cold War geography lesson using food at a local diner.

One of the diary entries that my colleague remembered the most was from September 26:

At our exchange program meetings in Germany before we came over here, they always told the German girls to shave their legs and under their arms. There’s a German girl at our school (I don’t like her very much) – and today some kids came up to me and said, “Do you know that German girl, Uschi, she doesn’t shave – that looks so disgusting!”

My colleague was in 8th grade when reading that and he remembers that there was confusion in the classroom as to what exactly this was talking about – followed by a bit of embarrassed discussion. I guess boys (and girls) who are roughly 13 aren’t really ready to discuss such things, especially in mixed company.

America’s high school experience, on the other hand, actually comes off pretty well. Wolf attends high school football games (including homecoming), gets a learner’s permit (earning the real license, too), and participates in the high school choir. Basic American as apple pie kinds of things.

The last thing is the retro-nature of what Wolf did – things like writing letters to his parents. It’s hard for the youth of today to understand this backwards form of communication that involved physically putting information on a piece of paper, folding it up, sticking all of this inside another piece of paper, finding a stamp, and mailing it off. (BTW, am I the only person who remembers aerograms?)

The book is definitely a quirky and interesting look at what kids in Germany learn about the United States as well as being an impressive documentation of how English is taught.

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