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From left to right: Pro­fessor Fred Yaniga, Peter Partoll, Sienna Clement, Emma Eisenman, Pro­fessor Stephen Naumann. and Pro­fessor Eberhard Geyer. Fred Yaniga | Courtesy.

German Department Chair Eberhard Geyer began instructing at Hillsdale College, the department and the stu­dents studying the lan­guage have more than tripled in size. But what most stu­dents have found makes studying the lan­guage so appealing are the ways in which the stu­dents, pro­fessors, and hon­orary bring German culture to life on campus.

“There are stu­dents here on campus whom I have never spoken English to,” Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of German Fred Yaniga said. “Some­times I’ll meet stu­dents and they’ll be with a sig­nif­icant other, or family member who doesn’t speak German and we’ll speak English, and we’ll stop and look at each other in the middle of the con­ver­sation and say, ‘This is the first time we’ve ever spoken English together. How strange.’”

Assistant Pro­fessor of German Stephen Naumann said though some­times it’s nec­essary to break into English, he always gives stu­dents, even those just beginning to study the lan­guage, a chance to use German first.

This per­sis­tence of pro­fessors to bring out the best in stu­dents lends to the department its vibrant legacy. Geyer, who has taught German at the college since 1985, described how the program, par­tic­u­larly the number of stu­dents majoring or minoring in the lan­guage, has expanded over the years.

“When I came here there were some 30 stu­dents taking German [for a major or minor], and I was the only instructor, and now we have over 100 enrolled, and we have three German pro­fessors,” Geyer said. He attributed this growth to “ded­i­cated teaching, viable in-house overseas pro­grams, and vibrant extracur­ricular activ­ities,” as well as the gen­erosity of the college.

Though some stu­dents are more involved than others, between large weekly German lunches in the dining hall, a new film series each semester hosted by the pro­fessors, and fes­tivals and food-cen­tered gath­erings put on by the Delta Phi Alpha German hon­orary, the department boasts a lively and active mem­bership.

Last month, Naumann, Yaniga, and Geyer hosted a swath of 50 stu­dents for their yearly Okto­berfest cookout in Naumann’s backyard.

“Yaniga gets some homemade brats from the local butcher, we roast them and we cook them Wis­consin-style in beer and onions on the stove, and then we have red cabbage and some other nice del­i­cacies,” Naumann said. “We get pretzels from our bakery, and some bev­erages, and just kind of enjoy a few hours of con­ver­sation. Who doesn’t love to be outside for a couple hours on a Sunday afternoon in October?”

Okto­berfest, which Naumann has hosted since he began teaching at the college in 2012, also involves an ini­ti­ation cer­emony for the new members of the German hon­orary. The hon­orary orga­nizes several other cul­tural activ­ities each semester, including an annual cookout at Baw Beese Lake, called “Grillen Abend,” or “evening grill,” according to Delta Phi Alpha Pres­ident Peter Partoll, a junior. Pro­fessors also host stu­dents at their houses for meals, and take stu­dents every year to the Christkindl­market, or Christmas market, in Chicago.

“Most of all, it’s the spirit of what the Germans call Gemütlichkeit, a super long German word which just means ‘coziness,’” Yaniga explained. “Germans tend to need a party to create that, and they’re experts at cre­ating that Gemütlichkeit atmos­phere with fes­tivals.”

It’s this feeling of Gemütlichkeit, among other things, that has endeared so many stu­dents to the department. Partoll, who took his first German class at Hillsdale his freshman year, is now a German major, in addition to leading the hon­orary.

Partoll explained that he was not planning on studying German in college until he visited Hillsdale. A few weeks into his freshman year, while taking an intro class, Naumann encouraged Partoll to move up to the German 102 class. Though Partoll decided not to advance until after the first semester, he was able to skip the inter­me­diate class, and is now majoring in German.

“At the time I was a little nervous, but now I’m very grateful that both Naumann and Yaniga made me take that placement test,” Partoll said.

Geyer said his “baby,” the Würzburg study abroad program which he ini­tiated in 1986, has become a very popular feature of the department, in addition to the Saarland Uni­versity exchange program, which was started in 1996.

“The good thing about either program is we don’t out­source,” he explained. “We have our own in-house overseas pro­grams, both for the summer and for the semester. If you have a schol­arship, that applies for the semester in Germany, which again, makes this program, com­pared to other pro­grams in America, very affordable.”

But for many German stu­dents at Hillsdale, it’s the weekly “Stammtisch” lunches in the dining hall that are the real staple. Every Friday, from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m., pro­fessors from all across campus dine with 20 – 25 stu­dents of varying levels of ability, all speaking German.

“Today we were making plans for an April 1 joke that we want to plan, and talking about movies that we saw over the course of the week,” Yaniga said, smiling. “It can be very casual, some­times it can be aca­demic. But we were also talking about pol­itics at the table, with the elec­tions coming up in Bavaria. And we’re doing all that in German. It’s not always perfect German, some­times we’re filling in a lot of vocab­ulary, some­times we’re speaking a little bit of pigeon lan­guage, but because we have a lot of very good native speakers and near native speakers, we always have a lot of people who can guide the stu­dents in con­ver­sation.”

Naumann said joining the table “takes some courage,” but he always pushes first year stu­dents to go at the end of their first week, and introduce them­selves to three people.

“It’s a chal­lenge, but it’s also fun, and it’s some­thing they can see them­selves improving in as the weeks go by, and we’re doing this together. And then, there you are at Stammtisch, dis­cussing con­tem­porary pol­itics,” he said. “It gives stu­dents a chance to own the lan­guage that they’re working so hard to learn.”

The Friday lunches, which are attended by approx­i­mately 20 – 25 stu­dents and faculty each week, have attracted German speakers from all across campus, including English, music, and history pro­fessors who know the lan­guage. Timo Blasius, who is vis­iting campus for the semester from Saarland, Germany as a part of the exchange program, said he attends Stammtisch every Friday.

“It’s good to speak German once a week,” Blasius said. “It’s a good expe­rience for them to hear a real German, without an accent maybe, because even though Dr. Yaniga and Dr. Naumann speak very very very well, they still have an accent. You hear it as a native speaker, since it’s not their first lan­guage. I think it’s good for stu­dents to here a real German speaking.”

Blasius said the stu­dents do a good job with the lan­guage, though many prefer to simply listen to his German.

“Mostly it’s that when I’m coming, everyone wants to hear me speaking German,” Blasius said, laughing. “In most cases I just talk to Dr. Yaniga and Dr. Naumann, but some­times to other stu­dents as well.”

Though at the end of the day the German stu­dents are still American, Blasius expressed affection for the college’s efforts to bring a real taste of German culture to campus.

“It would be the same if we play American football in Germany, which is copying it, but it is nice to have,” Blasius said. “I enjoy it, being around people who like the same things as I do.”

Yaniga called this mar­riage of culture and classroom essential to the learning process.

“Learning happens in com­munity, learning doesn’t happen in iso­lation,” Yaniga said. “But some­times the classroom isn’t the only place to build com­munity, so we try to extend that.”