Nathan Hurner did not 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 on an exchange program through the US State Department. When he was accepted into the program he knew, after spending a few years in France, that the trip would be unlike anything he had ever done. It would be difficult at times, he predicted, but he was eager to absorb it all.
“I knew the best way to learn a language and the best way to experience a country is to be there,” he said. “I wanted to try this and do it and be myself.”
He returned this summer after immersing himself in an unknown culture for 10 months, from August to June, surrounded by people who spoke a language he did not know. He spent his childhood traveling the world with his family, but this was his first time alone in a foreign country, and it gave him a new perspective on the world and his place in it.
“I was better prepared for it, but it was still a rush,” he said. “My first day, I remember my host family talking to me and I had no idea what was going on. I figured the first few weeks would be crazy, but in a few months I would acclimatise.
This is exactly what happened. After being overwhelmed by his surroundings at the start of his journey – luckily his host family spoke English, but only as a last resort to pass on something to him – Hurner began to understand the language. It was slow at first, but his progress accelerated once he got the basics down. He was able to connect with his foster family and peers at school within months.
“For the first two months, it was all about listening,” he said. “If I understood something, I wrote it down. Then I improved from there. I felt like I was in a good position to both speak and understand at the start of January. Then it was about learning more vocabulary.
As difficult as learning the language was, acclimating to German culture also required some adjustments, even though he found it shared many similarities with life in the United States, he said. declared. On the one hand, Hurner had to discover his role within his foster family, which encouraged him to participate in as many community events as possible, introducing him to new people and regularly pushing him out of his comfort zone.
But even small things, like Germans’ propensity for late-dining and differences at school from what he was used to in Park City, surprised Hurner. For example, he took more class subjects in Germany, his class schedule was flexible day-to-day, and teachers changed classes between periods, instead of students.
Once back home, it was hard to decide whether he preferred the German style of education or the American system.
“It was just different,” he said.
He was also in Germany at a time when the eyes of the world were on America. When he arrived, someone asked him almost every day how it was possible that the United States was about to elect Donald Trump as president. He said that while Trump would not have been his choice, he felt responsible for explaining the mindset of Trump supporters and placing them in the context of the larger American culture.
“For the (Germans) it was kind of a joke,” he said. “They couldn’t believe it and they were laughing at me, which was quite difficult. … But I tried to be very diplomatic and even-handed with both sides. You had to be careful to make sure that people didn’t think Americans were too one-sided both ways.