Monday, 11 August 2008

Goethe-Institut and Learning Theological German

A good reading knowledge of German is important for doing PhD research in the humanities. In addition, a scholar should be adept enough in German to listen to an academic lecture in German. How does one acquire these skills?

The Goethe-Institut is well known and respected for teaching German. The Institute has an extensive program from the beginning steps in German to advanced German. Unfortunately, although there are many strong points about the Goethe method itself, the program is not suitable for academics.

I attended the Institute located in Hamburg. The facilities are truly first rate and conveniently located across from the central train station. The personnel are friendly and dedicated. Perhaps one of the strengths of Goethe is that as soon as you walk into the facilities, there is such a concerted emphasis on German-only that you almost feel guilty for speaking English.

My A4 Intensiv course (four weeks) consisted of an initial introductory day of placement testing on the first Monday, followed by daily (Mon-Fri) instruction over a period of three weeks, until the fourth week. On the fourth week, classroom instruction concluded on Tuesday which comprised a review for those taking the course exam. These details are important to note, for all the course details on the website and correspondence otherwise suggest that the last day of instruction is on the final Thursday of the fourth week. For my part, I did not find out otherwise until the final Tuesday afternoon, an hour prior to conclusion. This had major implications for my travel itinerary. Moreover, instead of getting a good four weeks of instruction, in effect, the A4 Intensive provides only 15 days of classroom instruction, or 16 days if you count the review for the exam.

Classroom instruction was from 9:00 to 1:30. This included a 30 minute lunch break and an additional 15 minute short break.

Classroom instruction was very effective. In my program, we had a 1:6 teacher-student ratio. This was supplemented usually by the presence of a Goethe-Institut teacher-in-training assistant so that we actually had a 1:3 teacher-student ratio for most of the time.

Teaching was generally very lively and engaging. The course was taught 95% in German, even from day one. Not only was this method desirable, but it was nearly necessary since we had two Russians, an Iranian, and a Mexican in my class. There were times, however, that an explanation for a German word would go on and on and on, when a simple English translation would have been more time-efficient. The classroom instruction was effective in helping us students become accustomed to speaking conversational German.

My class had the misfortune of having our initial teacher go on holiday. Then, our assigned substitute missed several days due to illness. We ended up having four different teachers. One got the impression that some exam material was overlooked in the process.

My major disappointment in the classroom instruction was that grammar was taught assuming that students had no background in it. Consequently, the instructor spent a huge amount of time explaining the concept of the accusative case, for example. After several hours, I began to wonder how long it would take to teach the dative case…. On the other hand, some of the other students seemed to never fully grasp the concept and were left with their heads spinning.

On a related matter, the scholar seeking a German Sprachkurs should be aware that Goethe-Institut aims its instruction at a 20-something audience wanting to learn to say things like, “I meet you at the disco at 10 pm” and “I like to go on cruises.” We had one lesson on German beer lexicon.

Another misfortune was that, in my case, I had previously actually finished an entire course book on reading German, and had translated some very difficult academic German. However, because I could not say things like, “I would like a hamburger and coke,” I was assigned to the very beginning German course. To be sure, I needed to take beginning German precisely because I couldn’t say such things. However, I desperately needed to improve my ability to read German, but Goethe-Institut did nothing to help me in this matter.

When I approached the personnel at Goethe-Institut about this problem, I suggested that a reading group would be very helpful. This seemed to the Institute director to be a sensible solution. However, despite her enthusiasm and expressed intention, such a reading group never materialised.

Seeing that my reading skills were going undeveloped, I ended up hiring a private tutor. This was a very beneficial move, especially since my tutor was so good. I paid him 15 euro/hr, and met with him an hour a day. When classroom instruction ended so abruptly for me, I was able to meet with him three to four hours a day over my last four days in Hamburg.

Goethe-Institut is very expensive. For many people, the expenditure may prove entirely beneficial. You get a great teacher-student ratio; you get first rate teachers with a first rate teaching method; you get first rate facilities. However, perhaps a better approach for some people would be to attend a less expensive program and apply the savings to hire a private teacher.

Another indicator that Goethe-Institut is designed for non-academics is its textbook. I can’t recall the title of it, and I can’t look at it to see because I simply threw it away when I was done. It is full of pretty pictures and seems more designed to impress the reader with the notion that learning German is fun rather than being a bona fide grammar. Using the book as a supplemental workbook might be a good idea, but the German student needs a grammar with which he may become intimately familiar so that he can quickly consult it again and again for future reference.

Goethe-Institut has a cultural program to supplement its classroom instruction. The Institute makes this a prominent feature in its promotional literature and website. In my case, it consisted of various cultural experiences in the afternoons daily (perhaps an evening or two as well). I participated in two events: a city tour and a visit to a coffee shop to experience authentic German coffee along the riverfront. I found both experiences of minimal benefit. The city tour in the open-top bus was conducted entirely in a German which was spoken so quickly as to be entirely incomprehensible to most of the students. Consequently, each of us simply conversed to his own friends in his own native language. The authentic German coffee experience was similar, except that we ended up sitting at Starbucks since the other café was too crowded. Both events consumed the entire afternoon. Ultimately, I decided I could more profitably spend my time studying. This was altogether unfortunate, because I think the cultural program could be of great help if only there were some very simple German lessons built into the events.

If my sole purpose in attending Goethe-Institut had been to work on speaking and hearing German, then I must confess that it helped me enormously. If the course had assumed that the students had a basic understanding of language systems, then we could have approached grammar more aggressively, and I would have had even more practice at dealing with more complex sentences. However, one of my major goals was to work on my reading skills, but I regretfully say that Goethe-Institut was of no help to me at all in this regard. For this reason, I would recommend that the academic who needs to develop his German should try something else.

One possibility would actually involve Goethe-Institut. The Institute does offers special classes for businesses. If there were perhaps five or six academics willing to take a course together, I suspect that Goethe-Institut would be flexible enough to offer a course for academics. If so, I think that this would be extremely beneficial, and that Goethe-Institut would be perhaps the best place to do it.

Here's my shorter review in German:

Ich hatte leider nur 16 Tage Unterrichts bzw. 3-3/4 Stunden jeden Tag. In meiner Klasse waren wir sechs Schüler. Weil wir einen Praktikanten gehabt haben, war das Verhältnis von Lehrern zu Schülern 2:6.

Die Einrichtungen waren prima und modern, die Angestellten waren freundlich und professionell. Nach dem Unterricht bot das G.-I. jeden Tag ein Kulturprogramm an. Die Veranstaltungen, denen Struktur fehlte und die auf junge Leute abzielten, halfen leider nicht, Deutsch zu sprechen.

In mancher Beziehung war der Unterricht nützlich. Wir übten vor allem, miteinander zu sprechen. Das war mir hilfreich, weil ich bisher nur Lesen gelernt hatte. Da ich nur wenig Deutsch spreche, platzierte das G.-I. mich in Start Deutsch A-1.

Es hat weitere Enttäuschungen gegeben. Weil der Unterricht nicht auf Akademiker und Gelehrte ausgerichtet war, war die Grammatik sehr langsam und langweilig und oberflächlich. Der Unterricht hat meine Lesefähigkeit gar nicht verbessert. Weil das Lehrbuch viele schöne Bilder aber nicht viele Grammatikdiagramme oder Grammatikdaten hat, ist es nicht so gut. Ich werde nicht weiter mit diesem Buch arbeiten können.

Ich bat darum, dass das G.I. eine Lesegruppe als einen Teil des Lehrplans anböte. Das ist aber, trotz anfänglichen Wohlwollens, leider nicht geschehen.

Deshalb engagierte ich einen Privatlehrer. Wir trafen uns miteinander für jeweils eine Stunde an sechs Tagen, dann für je 3-4 Stunden an meinen letzten vier Tagen. Wir konzentrierten uns erst auf das Lesen, dann auf die Satzstruktur, danach auf das Verfassen von Texten und schließlich auf das Reden. Außerdem verbrachte ich viele viele Stunden mit Deutschlesen und -hören.

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