For Park City exchange student, German culture was a whole new world
Despite not knowing language, he immersed himself in his surroundings
September 5, 2017
Nathan Hurner didn't speak the language. He didn't know much about the culture.
But he wondered this: Why should he let that stop him?
Hurner, a senior at Park City High School, recently returned from Germany, where he spent nearly a year as part of an exchange program through the U.S. State Department. When he was accepted into the program, he knew from spending a couple of years living in France that the trip would be unlike anything he'd ever done. It would be difficult at times, he predicted, but he was eager to soak it all in.
"I knew that the best way to learn a language and the best way to experience a country is to be in it," he said. "I wanted to try that and do it and be on my own."
He returned this summer having immersed himself in an unfamiliar culture for 10 months, from last August to June, surrounded by people who spoke a language he didn't know. He spent his childhood traveling the world with his family, but this was the first time he was in a foreign country alone, and it gave him a fresh perspective on the world and his place in it.
"I was more prepared for it, but it was still a rush," he said. "My first day, I remember my host family all speaking to me and I had no idea what was going on. I told myself that the first weeks would be crazy, but in a few months I'd get acclimated."
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That's exactly what happened. After being overwhelmed by his surroundings early in his trip — fortunately, his host family spoke English, though only as a last resort to convey something to him — Hurner began to catch on to the language. It happened slowly at first, but his progress accelerated once he understood the basics. He was able to communicate with his host family and peers at school within a few months.
"For the first couple of months, it was all about listening," he said. "If I did understand something, I'd make a note of it. Then I got better from there. I felt like I was at a good place both speaking and understanding by the beginning of January. Then it was about learning more vocabulary."
As challenging as it was to learn the language, becoming acclimated to the German culture also took some adjustments, even though he discovered it shares many similarities with life in the United States, he said. For one, Hurner had to discover his role within his host family, which encouraged him to participate in as many community events as possible, introducing him to new people and pushing him out of his comfort zone on a regular basis.
But even small things, such as the Germans' propensity to eat dinner late in the day and differences at school compared to what he was used to in Park City, surprised Hurner. For instance, he took more class subjects in Germany, his course schedule was flexible from day to day and teachers changed classrooms in between periods, instead of the students.
After coming home, it was hard to choose whether he preferred the German style of education or the American system.
"It was just different," he said.
He was also in Germany during a time when the eyes of the world were on America. When he arrived, someone would ask him nearly every day how it was possible that the United States was on the verge of electing Donald Trump as president. He said that, while Trump wouldn't have been his choice, he felt responsibility to explain the mindset of Trump's supporters and put them into the context of broader American culture.
"To the (Germans), it was kind of a joke," he said. "They couldn't believe it and they were laughing at me, which was kind of hard. … But I tried to be very diplomatic and impartial about both sides. You had to be careful to make sure people didn't think Americans were too one-sided in either direction."
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