After decades pontificating to other teachers about how to teach languages, I am back in the classroom learning one.
I’m taking German classes for a very specific reason. My Spanish nephew is marrying his German fiancée in Bamberg in July, and I would like to make a speech in Spanish and German at the wedding. I can handle the Spanish, but I need to brush up on the German I studied a century or so ago at Salford Grammar School with the wonderful trombone-playing Mr Simpson. I was good at German, but I always came second behind Meir Possenheimer who … well, I guess it’s clear from his name why he was numero uno … um…nummer eins!
I’ve changed ‘saxophone-playing’ to ‘trombone-playing’ after Meir Possenheimer himself corrected me. :-)
I was later able to put some practical flesh on the academic German I learnt at school when I toured Germany, Austria and Switzerland with the English Teaching Theatre, back in the 1970s and 80s.
So, I can hear you say, Ken’s studying a language – big deal! Hundreds of thousands of people are starting 2012 with new language courses all over the world. Many millions more are required to study languages at state schools. What’s so special about YOUR situation?
Well, as someone who writes language teaching materials for a living, I have a professional interest in the materials that are being used, the way teachers interpret them and how students react to the learning experience.
I’m not going to name the institution where I’m studying and I’m going to give fictitious names to the teacher and any students I might mention.
I want to first of all commend the institution I’ve enrolled with. It’s one of the very few in London that offers courses in a whole range of languages. I was delighted to note that the people in front of me in the queue for registration were there to study Mandarin Chinese, Arabic and Modern Greek – that’s the name of the course, I presume they must also have a Classical Greek option – how fantastic is THAT??
I had registered for the course online and the registration process was clear and easy to follow. I was told that the course would cover the contents of a book called Willkommen, and we would be starting at Unit 12.
So, the first thing I did was go out and buy the book.
The first thing to say about Willkommen is that it comes in a huge and rather unnecessary plastic box, about the size of a small piece of hand luggage. Once I’d taken the book, a couple of CDs and a little Helper book out, the box was redundant, and heading for a landfill somewhere. Or maybe I can work out how to turn it into a lunchbox for one of my grandchildren.
Anyway, I hope the next generation of language materials will avoid such unnecessary waste.
The second thing I discovered was that unit 12 is almost at the end of the book! In other words, the first 120 pages or so of the book would be no use to me on the course. My ancestral Scottish genes initially took great offence at this, thinking I’d been conned into buying a book that I didn’t really need.
When I calmed down, I realised that it would be in my best interests to study the book from the beginning before starting the course, to see what level I was supposed to be at – and this proved to be invaluable.
So – I take back my initial reaction, and am glad I bought the book (although I still think the packaging is a disgrace).
The book is good and has several features you don’t find in international ELT materials.
First of all, there are translations of words and phrases. Yes – translations! Something you don’t find in international ELT books. Why not? Because publishers have managed to persuade the world that EVERY WORD on the page of an English language coursebook HAS to be in English.
This is entirely because it makes it easier for them to produce a one-size-fits-all book. If it’s going to be used in lots of different countries, then you can’t have the learners’ L1 on the page.
For me, the translations in Willkommen are a blessing. As the book progresses, the reading texts and dialogues of course become more complex, and each one introduces 5-10 items of new vocabulary. The new items appear in a box in the corner of the page, with their English translations. I find this really helpful.
There are also pages and pages of language information, where grammar and vocabulary issues are explained in English. Also very helpful. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to read a grammar explanation of a language IN that language, which is what happens in most English course books and supplementary material.
There are also some cultural background notes in English, some of which I knew – for example that Germans like going for a Kur (cure) and to do that, they head off to places whose names begin with Bad, the most famous of which is Baden-Baden – and some which I didn’t know – for example, that there are more public holidays in German Länder (states) where there is a large Catholic population, because more religious days in those Länder are actual holidays.
Although there are German-speaking enclaves in, for example, some Latin American countries, the language is spoken mainly in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, so the background information about those countries is useful.
I don’t think such information is relevant or useful in English teaching materials, because English isn’t the property of any one group of speakers. Indeed, as people in the ELT business know well, English is used as a means of communication between non-native speakers communicating with other non-native speakers much more than between non-native speakers communicating with people who speak English as a first language.
Willkommen is a well-presented and manageable book. It needs a bit of a re-vamp, if only because there’s a lot of stuff about pen friends and nothing at all about email or other cyber-stuff, but all in all, I’m happy that my return to formalised language learning will be with the help of this book.
So what about the class itself? A word or two first about my classmates.
I was delighted to see such a variety of people of all ages in the class. About half of them had been in the class during the autumn term and were clearly pleased to see each other and the teacher after the end of year break.
The youngest students are in their twenties, and the oldest are two women who I reckon are in their seventies. They are neighbours in South London who also happen to have German-speaking ancestors. There’s a smattering of other nationalities, including a Brazilian woman whose parents speak German, and a Spanish woman whose work takes her to Germany a lot. When the teacher asked the Brazilian woman if her parents had spoken German with her as she was growing up, she replied: “They spoke German to each other only when they didn’t want me to understand.”
Like the Brazilian, most people’s reasons for being there are because of some family or relationship connection. There’s a South African woman whose father was born in Austria and who has an Austrian boyfriend. My first thought was – why isn’t HE teaching her German? There was also a young City type who said rather glumly – “Meine Freudin ist Deutsche, ich MUSS Deutsch lernen.” I could see from his face that he found speaking to her in German a bit of an ordeal.
My announcement that I was planning to make a wedding speech – a Hochzeitrede – seemed to cause interest amongst some people and a rather stony-faced suspicion among others.
I can already see who I’m going to get on with in this group.
And what about the teacher? Well, Dora (not her real name) was very welcoming and conducted the initial arrangements very well – all in English, though. I’m going to have another lesson before I comment on her teaching style.
I hope you don’t mind waiting to find out what I think.
My wife Dede was resuming her Chinese classes on the same night, although in a different branch of the institute. As we walked through Covent Garden on the way to our classes, we bumped into Brita Haycraft, who with her husband John founded International House.
Brita was on her way home from giving a pronunciation class at International House. I thought this was very serendipitous – she and John trained Dede and me more than forty years ago, when IH was still in Shaftesbury Avenue and really she has hardly changed in that time.
IH is celebrating fifty years of teacher training this year, and Brita was there at the beginning. I hope reading her name and remembering John will jolt a few memories amongst any IH-trained teachers who are reading this.
We took Brita for a cup of coffee at Patisserie Valerie on Long Acre and we talked about the old days. I almost missed my class because of all the reminiscing.
But I went and … well, more about that next time.