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Pumped-up professor

Why is Alexandra Heberger such a high achiever? 'I'm German'

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She speaks four languages and has four master's degrees and a PhD.

When she's not teaching or doing academic research, visiting high schools, organizing community events or single-parenting two teenagers, Alexandra Heberger likes to sculpt -- her physique.

Heberger, 39, works out six days a week for at least two hours and recently placed second in an amateur bodybuilding competition.

Overachieve much?

"I'm German," she says with a laugh, confirming a stereotype about her Teutonic roots.

"There are no half-measures. You do something, you do it right. I think that's the way Germans are; it's how we're brought up. It's a productive country, right?"

Heberger, a professor of German studies at the University of Manitoba, grew up in Speyer, a city of about 50,000 located on the banks of the Rhine River. She came to Canada in her 20s as part of a student exchange program at the University of Waterloo and moved to Winnipeg in 2002. She holds degrees in political science, linguistics, German and English. Her other two languages are Latin and French.

Heberger says her kids, ages 14 and 13, still make fun of her accent although they are "growing up very German" themselves. They speak her native tongue at home, and a few years back they spent a year in the fatherland -- her family still lives there -- and continue to make annual visits.

And if mom isn't speaking, teaching and researching in German, she's watching the German news, communicating with relatives back home or nurturing and promoting the language and culture locally by organizing singalongs, fairy-tale festivals, art exhibits and other community events.

"It's a privilege to live between two cultures and to be able to draw from the best of both of them," says Heberger, who regularly speaks at high schools to encourage students of German heritage to continue learning about their language and culture at the university level. She also holds workshops for teachers.

"We're really privileged in Manitoba," she says. "Some provinces have 11 or 12 teachers. With the Hutterites, we have almost 300 German teachers, which is amazing." The River East Transcona School Division's bilingual program, she adds, is one of the largest of its kind in North America.

Language aside, Heberger says Canadians and Germans differ in some other significant ways. Germans, for instance, are a little more, um, direct.

"In Germany, if a student says something, the professor might say 'That was stupid what you just said.' They would tell you that, but with no hard feelings because they just say it like it is.

"Here I would say, 'That's a very good idea, but why don't you consider it from this and this angle?' Here, you always get the pedagogical shoulder pat before you're criticized. Germany doesn't do that. They just rip the bandage off. So I think people here let other people have their dignity a bit more.

"In your language, you have a lot of questions like 'How are you?' where you don't really expect an answer. I tell my students that if you ask someone in Germany how they are, they'll tell you for an hour how they are," says Heberger. "In Germany, you don't say things unless you mean them."

The Canadian way makes it easier to get to know people, she's found, but the relationships often remain on a more superficial level.

"It takes a little longer to get to know Germans, but once you do, you've got friends for life."

The iron-pumping professor says she has many students in her beginner language classes who grew up in German families but never really connected with their culture. She's thrilled to see them doing it now.

"They're so curious; they want to learn the language and they want to know everything about the culture," Herberger says. "It's good to see this generation do that because after the war, a lot of Germans kind of tried to forget it."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 J4

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