Sisters Sylvanna and Kyrie Hall speak German with each other when they’re at home — they are both taking the language because of their Germanic heritage — but most days they lack the opportunity to speak it with anyone else.
Not so on Saturday when the girls attended Schuelerkongress (German for student Congress), a German language event held annually at Kansas University’s Wescoe Hall.
“I feel at home because everyone speaks German here,” said Sylvanna, 16, who is already planning to take a study abroad trip to Germany when she attends college. “It’s easier to go to Germany to learn all of the different dialects. My teacher learned German in six months (after travelling to the country).”
About 270 students from nine different schools scattered across Kansas, from Junction City to Olathe, participated in Saturday’s day-long event.
“It’s just a time where kids can come and show us what they’ve been learning in the classroom,” said Megan Meneley, a German teacher at Abilene High School in Abilene.
Meneley, now an event organizer, started attending Schuelerkongress while still in high school. She remained a volunteer for a few years while studying German at Baker University. When she became a teacher at Abilene High School 12 years ago, she began bringing her own students.
The day launched at 9 a.m., and activities included aural and written competitions, as well as poster and video contests highlighting aspects of German culture. There was also a store that used Schuelerkongress currency: faux Euros students could earn by demonstrating their proficiency in German.
German exchange students from various schools walked around wearing alpine caps with colored feathers jutting out.
They clutched stacks of fake money and picked students at random to engage in conversations. They would peg the students with questions in German and, based upon the fluency of the response, they would fork over fistfuls of the Schuelerkongress currency.
“If we’re talking to them — the people with the weird hats — I just say slow please, and they just slow down,” Kyrie said.
She said German natives tend to speak swiftly, but sometimes you can catch a familiar word and jump into the conversation.
“German, sometimes it’s easy to understand it if you know English,” she said. “A lot of the cognates are similar — except for ‘gift.’ Gift is the worst cognate in the world. Gift in German means poison.”
Students could use their faux money to buy items from a merchandise store, such as shirts, hats, sunglasses rubber duckies and odd trinkets. The crowd favorite? A pair of sunglasses, which students brandished and wore while chatting and clustering next to each other.
Among the students competing in the aural and written contests was August Burg, 16, a third-year German student. On a 1 to 5 scale, he ranked his performances a 4.5 or a 5.
“It’s not an extremely hard language to learn,” he said. “Once you get your tongue wrapped around it then you can start speaking it as you study it.”
Burg and his family had German exchange students come stay with them a few years ago. The experience, along with a Germanic genealogy, encouraged Burg to study German in high school. He uses Skype and a webcam to speak German with the exchange students who used to live with him.
“In school, one thing I don’t like is we don’t (focus) strictly (on) speaking and listening, which in essence is really what languages are all about,” Burg said. (But at Schuelerkongress) you get to talk to more people, such as all the German exchange students. ... It’s fun to be able to apply the language you’ve been learning in high school.”