Up until about a year ago, if you had asked me why I had studied German, I would have said that I started in the ninth grade and just didn’t know when to stop. At BYU, my major in mechanical engineering lasted about 20 minutes into the first orientation meeting, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to study after that, but I didn’t worry too much about finding another major at the time. I thought I would figure out what I wanted to study on my mission. Somewhere during those two years, I would surely discover what I wanted to do with my life. Maybe I really would have found a major during my mission, if I hadn’t done so much reading.
When I had filed my mission papers, my bishop asked me where I wanted to go. I told him I didn’t want to go to Germany, since after three years of high school German I already knew the language. (Hah!) Two months later, I was in Provo, studying German for 12 hours a day. Before I left the MTC, I bought a copy of Hans-Wilhelm Kelling’s Deutsche Kulturgeschichte “for additional language study.” I read through it during my first couple months in Essen, and again when I took Hans-Wilhelm Kelling’s third-year cultural history course after my mission. (Not to mention the lessons in cultural history I got from talking to Germans and wandering around their cities.) A couple I taught in Essen gave me a copy of Hesse’s Siddhartha, which I also thought would be useful for additional language study. (Thanks, Helmut and Silke!) When I went searching for an advanced grammar, a sister missionary recommended Lehr- und Ãœbungsbuch der deutschen Grammatik. (Thanks, Sister Zupan!) I worked through all the exercises while I was in OsnabrÃ¼ck, and again when I took Alan Keele’s third-year advanced grammar course.
After months of daily use of and collisions with the German language, I started wondering about the historical reasons for the odd patterns of phonetic correspondences between English and German–path and Pfad, sorrow and sorgen, things like that. During my second stay in Essen, I borrowed a copy of Stefan Sonderegger’s GrundzÃ¼ge deutscher Sprachgeschichte from the library and discovered almost everything I had ever wanted to know: Grimm’s Law, Verner’s Law, the High German Sound Shift, Ablaut, Umlaut, n-infixes, and so on. It was excellent preparation for the course on the history of the German language that I took my last year at BYU from Randall Jones.
One great thing about missionary apartments is that they always have copies of the Book of Mormon in various obscure languages. If you know English and German, it’s not too hard to learn to read any Germanic language, except for Icelandic. After experimenting with reading the Book of Mormon in Dutch and Norwegian, I decided to tackle Icelandic in Wuppertal, halfway through my mission. I finished it on the plane home (good preparation for the course in Icelandic I took my last year at BYU with George Tate). Later, in Bonn, I read Einar Haugen’s Die nordischen Sprachen, and towards the end of my mission in Duisburg I read through an Icelandic grammar, along with Thomas Mannâ€™s collected short stories and novellas. For additional language study, you know.
But by the end of my mission, I still had no idea what I wanted to study. The great revelation of what my lifelong career should be never came. I knew that German might be useful in whatever field I ended up studying, for example to satisfy the language requirement for a math major, or something like that, so I signed up for three German courses the first semester after my mission, and three more courses the next semester. If only I had found something I wanted to study during my mission, or received some kind of sign, just a hint, the merest clue, anything…