I grew up in a very small town in south east Germany on the border with the Czech Republic. We started learning Russian at the age of 11 and English at the age of 13.
The desks in our classrooms were arranged in rows with 20 - 25 students in a group so you can imagine how effectively we were learning languages.
Nobody complained though or suggested a change for several reasons:
We had no thoughts about how our classroom could be arranged differently and how a lesson could be conducted and then there was no need for us to learn languages anyway -- who would ever have the chance to come across a person whose mother tongue was not German? We lived in the smaller of the two German Republics with a population of about 17 million and the only country we were allowed to travel to freely was Czechoslovakia.
Still, if you really wanted to get in contact with people from abroad there were ways of doing so. I remember when one day one of my classmates (her mother worked at the local post office) came to school and announced: "Who would like to write letters to people from all around the world -- my mother somehow got hold of the address of an international pen pal club!" Never had I heard of such a thing as a pen pal club. What could that be? Was it something dangerous? It must be some kind of underground organization aiming at destroying our democratic society. Maybe, this was the reason I decided to take up the chance and try this thing out. All the other students in the class wisely ignored my classmate's offer so I was the only one who filled in an application form and sent it off to an address in the U.S. To be honest, I didn't really think the letter would ever reach its destination and after a couple of weeks I had forgotten all about it.
Then one afternoon when I returned from school I saw a blue and red striped envelope sitting on my desk. I had never received a letter sent by airmail before so I was pretty curious. The envelope contained two sheets of paper and a photo showing a girl about my age on a sandy beach in front of a blue ocean. Who is this? I thought and where is she from? The answers to those questions were in the letter: It was Maria, a girl from Heraklion, Greece. She told me about herself, her family and Crete, the beautiful island she lived on.
I didn't keep her letters but I quite clearly remember a number of things about them:
Maria's letters were always in English and I understood almost everything she wrote and it was clear that to her English was not a foreign but just a second language. This means she could communicate both in her mother tongue Greek as well as in English without any trouble. It was completely different for me. I remember sitting at my desk struggling with a German-English dictionary. When I received a letter from her I always had mixed emotions because on the one hand I was excited to learn about Maria's life, which took place in a world that was unreal to me. On the other hand I knew it would take hours for me to produce an appropriate response in English.
However, with every letter we exchanged I became more confident in my writing skills and my active vocabulary grew constantly. One day my Greek pen friend invited me to visit her in Heraklion in my summer holiday. First I thought she was teasing me because as a citizen of the G.D.R. I was not allowed to travel anywhere freely. Then I understood that Maria had no way of knowing about the political circumstances -- she simply thought of me as one of her European neighbours.
Well, things have changed dramatically since those days. Now we can communicate with anyone from any corner in the world. This fact alone makes the Internet the most powerful communication tool of our time.
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