In a recent conversation class, as listening homework, I gave my students an audio clip of a Brit interviewing a young American marine. I found this clip on a neat site full of audio clips of people from all walks of life (I think). This marine, named Matt, had been in the military for nearly four years at the time the interview took place and he was looking forward to getting out soon and going back to school to study history. The clip is only about a minute thirty seconds long but is full of conversation ideas. The class had previously been talking about greetings and small talk because these can lead into great conversations and new friends. When I found the clip, I decided to use it because it is simply the beginning of a conversation, as if a mutual friend had just introduced Matt to us and then had to run off to greet another person at a party. I was a bit worried about where the discussion in class might go, but had faith in the students. I began by asking them very simple questions about the clip:
1. How long has Matt been a marine?
2. How much longer does he plan to be a marine?
3. What does he want to do after he is finished being a marine?
4. What is Matt against; does he say why?
5. How might the conversation continue?
The in-class discussion began, of course, with reviewing the questions. With the fifth and final question, I let the students share the possible questions they would ask the marine, correcting where necessary either by helping the students rephrase questions into better English and sometimes into more polite English. The student came up with some great questions that they would ask the marine. So, I then turned the table on them and asked them the questions they would want to ask the marine. Here, only some students could answer at first. But by the end of the class everyone was contributing. One of my students was once a part of the Russian military, and another student is very good friend with a person who made a career out of being in the German military.
The discussion migrated from the military to how civilians respond to military, like seeing a man in uniform walking down the street. This was an interesting point because here in Germany, the students said, people wouldn’t think, do or say anything to the soldier. Whereas in America most people would likely shake the marines hand, or say “thank you”. To this the students asked why, because they are just doing a job. No one thanks the banker if they see him in the street, the street cleaner, or really anyone else for doing their job why would they thank the person serving in the military. The discussion settled on the topic of patriotism, because in America a soldier, among other things, are symbols of American patriotism.
The one thing we didn’t talk about was the backlash felt by service people from civilians who see them as a representation of the government and all that they feel is wrong with American foreign policy. I honestly didn’t want to touch that, especially since I would like to think that because so many Americans have been or are now a part of the military that there is more empathy for their job.
Obviously (hopefully) America and Germany have very different ideas about patriotism. Germany’s very different ideas about patriotism stem from the devastating effects of the Third Reich and World War II. Today Germans are taught to be repentant for what they, meaning their grandparents or their great-grand parents, did sixty to seventy years ago.