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Learn the language of your ancestors

Language skills enhance genealogical research

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April 7th, 2017
Fox Run residents with German heritage get together once a week to hone their German language skills. (Front row, from left) Fred Boehle, Karen Taracks, and Vic Mesenbring. (Back row, from left) Shirley Mossner, Doris Harsant, and Barbara Zitzewitz.

Fox Run residents with German heritage get together once a week to hone their German language skills. (Front row, from left) Fred Boehle, Karen Taracks, and Vic Mesenbring. (Back row, from left) Shirley Mossner, Doris Harsant, and Barbara Zitzewitz.

Karen Taracks’ paternal heritage traces back to Germany. Her paternal grandfather was born in Germany, and her father was raised in a small German-speaking community in Michigan. Several years ago, Karen became interested in researching her ancestry. 

She was able to access the church registry in the town where her father grew up. The registry lists all the births, deaths, and marriages in the town, and Karen found several relatives through that research. 

To be able to read genealogy records, Karen decided to study the German language. 

“For me, it’s a really fun activity. I like languages, period,” Karen says. “First, I learned Spanish, and as I was getting ready to retire, I decided I would do a few more programs, one in German and one in French.”

Karen lived in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Mich., area for more than 40 years and took advantage of many cultural activities and continuing education courses through the University of Michigan’s alumni organization. One of the classes she took was intermediate German, which she enjoyed and found useful for her genealogical research.

Brushing up on German

In 2011, Karen moved to Fox Run and discovered that several other people of German heritage live there and speak the language. So Karen decided to start a German language club on campus. 

The club members meet once a week for two hours. The first hour is dedicated to informal conversation in German, and the second hour is for a language lesson. 

Some people come only for the conversation or the lesson, and some stay for both parts. 

To get people speaking in German at the meetings, Karen poses a simple question, such as “What did you do last week?”

“It’s common everyday conversation, and it’s a lot of fun,” Karen says. “My German has improved incredibly since I started this.”

The club members have diverse experiences with the German language. One member was born and raised in the Netherlands and taught German for several years. Another has a master’s degree in German. There is also a native German speaker, who lived in the country until she was eight years old, as well as a club member who attended high school in Germany while her father was on sabbatical.

“For the lesson part, usually a couple of the experienced speakers stay to help people who want to learn the language,” Karen says. 

Travel makes perfect

For her part, Karen has travelled to Germany four times, and plans to take her fifth trip this summer with the University of Michigan alumni travel club, along with a friend from the German club at Fox Run who also has an interest in genealogy. 

The trip titled “In the Steps of Luther,” will explore the history of German theology professor Martin Luther, a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation. 

The group will visit Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin, Prague, and Wittenberg, the town where Luther supposedly nailed his famous “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of All Saints’ Church.

Karen says her previous travels to Germany went a long way in developing her language skills. 

In 2006, she spent a month in Munich and attended the Goethe-Institut, which promotes the study of German and international cultural exchange. 

On another excursion, she traveled with a friend and his relatives on a genealogy trip to small rural towns in Germany, where residents speak no English. Karen was the most advanced German speaker in the group, so she served as their interpreter. 

“My German really improved then because I had no choice but to speak German, and that really made the difference,” Karen says. “That was a big leap in the development of my German.”

Back in the states, Karen is able to stay connected to German culture. She is a longtime member of two German clubs in Ann Arbor. 

One of the clubs hosts several large public picnics each year where they serve German food. 

The other club hosts German cultural events, such as an Oktoberfest and Fasching, which is the German equivalent of Mardi Gras. In the spring, that club puts on a May Dance, a traditional German celebration of the start of spring.

“It’s like a welcoming of spring, and we do a traditional dance weaving ribbons on a post,” Karen says. 

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