Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Ja!

German students celebrate the language

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It wasn't exactly the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, where tourists made the peppy German song "das rote Pferd" -- "The Red Horse" -- a song-and-dance summertime hit, like the "Macarena" once made the charts here.

But the Mt. Lebanon High School German students belted out a catchy rendition of the song about a fly who threatens to summon more flies if the red horse doesn't stop swatting her.

Senior Megan Tramaglini, wearing pony tails and a pony's tail, played the horse in a red jumpsuit, singing with a chorus of classmates dressed in black T-shirts with small wings on their backs, about how the fly wasn't "dumm" and went "summ, summ, summ."

The scene was at the Olin Fine Arts Center at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington County where more than 350 German students from 15 middle and high schools gathered Thursday for the annual German Day, sponsored by the college's multicultural affairs office and the American Association of Teachers of German.

Across the nation, enrollment in German is dwarfed by enrollment in Spanish. By the time students reach college, slightly more than half of those enrolled in college foreign language classes are studying Spanish, according to 2006 figures from the Modern Language Association.

And just 6 percent are studying German, which ranks third in popularity after French.

However, foreign language enrollment overall is increasing, with German posting a 3.5 percent increase since 2002, one of the lowest increases among languages. Spanish grew 10.3 percent, and Arabic had the biggest growth at 126.5 percent.

Talk to people who study and speak German, and you'll wonder why more students aren't choosing German.

Michael Shaughnessy, German professor at W&J, noted the U.S. Census counts about a quarter of the Allegheny County population as having a German ethnic background, there are more than 80 German-related companies employing 10,000 people in the area and Germany is a top world exporter of intricate and high-end technology goods.

However, he said, the two world wars reduced interest in studying German.

There are lots of reasons students choose German.

Hannibal Hopson, a freshman at Pittsburgh Schenley High School, has taken German since he was in kindergarten.

He said he had chances to change languages, but said, "I actually like the language personally. I want to be at the highest level I can get."

He likes the pronunciations and the fact German is close to some other languages.

Kevin Lemon, a junior at Shady Side Academy, chose German because he didn't want to study Spanish and French like his three older siblings did.

Kevin said he loves the guttural sounds of the language. "Auf Wiedersehen! Guten Tag!" he said for emphasis.

Gene Vercammen, a senior at Chartiers Valley, said, "There's a lot of kids in Spanish. German is the most fun."

Jennifer Smajda, a junior at Springdale High School, said she is "a little bit" German. "I just wanted to learn about it."

Quaker Valley German teacher Amy Karst, president of the Western Pennsylvania German teachers group, advises students "follow your heart" when choosing a language.

"Choose a language that sounds good to you, that you want to learn more about the people and the culture," she said.

Quaker Valley, which has had a German exchange program for three decades, is reviving its German classes, discontinued several years ago. Beginning this school year, sixth-graders are sampling German along with French and Spanish. Next month, they'll choose which they want to continue.

After another organization dropped its humanities day, Peg Grasso, a Mt. Lebanon German teacher, organized a day just for German students in Western Pennsylvania in 2001. After a couple of years at Mt. Lebanon, it moved to W&J.

"It pretty much lets students all around the area know German is alive and well and their studies are not in vain," said Ms. Grasso.

Or as Gary Harger, Pittsburgh Schenley High School German teacher, put it: "It raises the cool factor."

German Day had just about every way to participate -- nonfiction, fiction and poetry writing submitted in advance, artwork, poetry recitation, drama, musicals and a culture bowl. There were even honors for performance on a national test on German.

Penn Hills High School took first place in musicals for a second year in a row, this time with a German folk song about gypsies, including live music, singing and dancing.

Four string musicians in the German 5 class were particularly eager to play this piece.

"The culture is really interesting," said Eugene O'Donnell, a Penn Hills senior who played the mandolin.

The dramatic acts ranged from fairy tales such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs -- presented by Schenley and Pittsburgh Allderdice -- to the serious drama about the meaning of death in war, done by Bethel Park High School.

The day gives students a chance to see life beyond their own schools.

Sitting in an auditorium of German students, Kevin, who is in a small class at Shady Side, said, "I had no idea there were this many people interested in German."

Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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