DERRY, Pa. — Benutze es oder verliere es.
In other words, for those who don’t speak German, use it or lose it.
That truism applies to many things in life, including conversing in a foreign language.
It’s what has kept two local men returning week after week, for decades, to practice their German phraseology with language instructor Evelyn Ruffing of Derry Township.
“If you quit, you lose it, and it’s probably something that you lose pretty fast,” said longtime student Mike Miller, 65, of Greensburg.
Miller has been taking German lessons from Ruffing since 1993, when she was teaching a course in the language at Saint Vincent College in Unity.
Robert Judson “Jud” Beltz, 80, of Latrobe, was enrolled in the class as far back as the early 1980s.
Ruffing no longer leads a course at the college, but continues to provide instruction by opening her home to students every Monday evening.
Miller and Beltz are the remaining diehards who show up regularly for a German gabfest and a cup of tea with Ruffing. It helps that all three got covid-19 vaccinations.
Since both are advanced students, Ruffing said, the class now is “mainly for retention of what they’ve already learned. If you don’t keep it up, you forget it.
“I’m really proud of these guys, and the fact they’ve stuck with it so long.”
While wintering in Florida, Beltz dialed in for his weekly dose of Deutsch, though he prefers attending in person.
“Trying to hold a phone in one hand and hold my dictionary in the other is a problem,” he said.
Beltz keeps on top of his German language skills to ease the dialogue on his business trips to that country for Kalumetals, the Derry Township company he co-founded.
The company makes a nickel-containing powder from materials including machine shop grindings and markets it to the specialty steel industry, he explained.
Despite his years of study, Beltz thinks he still falls short of being fluent in German.
“I’ve always had pretty good luck” when speaking with native Germans, he said. But, “Sometimes, you say hello to somebody and introduce yourself, and they say, ‘Oh, you speak German,’ and they start off, and then I have to slow them down.
“I can read a German newspaper, and I can get into a conversation. But I don’t have to speak about 30 seconds and whomever I’m with knows I’m not a native German speaker.”
If he has to, he can fall back on a translating app on his phone to find the right words.
Miller, who recently retired as an electrical engineer with First Energy, also applied his knowledge of the language on multiple trips to Germany with his late father, Bernard, visiting Old Country cousins in 1994, and more recently with his wife, Diane.
“My dad’s parents came to the U.S. from Germany in the 1920s,” Miller said. “They got here separately and, somehow, they met in the states.
“My dad spoke German when he was very young, but then (World War II) started, and it was: don’t speak German.”
On the 1994 trip, Miller’s father “started to remember some things. From the way he spoke, people knew what region of Germany his family was from” – Bavaria.
While the covid-19 pandemic has ruled out additional trips to Germany for the time being, Miller and Beltz both expect they’ll return there at some point.
After taking basic German language courses in high school and college, Miller upped his game when he enrolled in Ruffing’s class.
“For me, writing in German is the most difficult,” he said. “I’m never quite sure that I’m getting it right.”
Still, he responded in that language when he received letters and emails from a German court official informing him he was named in the will of a distant relative.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to write back to him in German just because,’ and he was very impressed by that.”
To keep her students on their toes, Ruffing has them speak only in German for the first part of each two-hour class. She begins by asking each of them, “Was gibt’s neues?” or “What’s new?”
For the remainder of the class, they take turns reading aloud and translating passages from books printed in German – often works originally written in English.
They recently finished a John Grisham legal thriller set in Appalachia following the Great Recession. Originally titled “Gray Mountain,” the German version goes by “Anklage,” which means “accusation.”
Now, they’re working on “Eskapaden,” a mystery by Scottish writer Martin Walker set in France. The German title translates as “Escapades,” but Walker originally called it “The Patriarch.”
Between classes, Beltz creates his own translations of newspaper articles he reads. “I’ll think, ‘How would I say that in German?’ and I’ll consult my dictionary.
“I find that enjoyable. I’ve learned a lot just doing that.”
“This brushes me up,” Ruffing said of the effect continuing classes have on her own German language abilities. “This is a tremendous boost for me. It’s been fun.”