This is not the journey I would have chosen, but it has taught me a lot, and I hope the experience can make it easier for others to learn the language.
I recently posted an account of a trip to Germany with a 13 year old pupil from a "secondary modern comprehensive school" in Lincolnshire. She was getting two hours of German a week, one of which was too often cancelled. During her trip, she made friends with two German girls from a Gymnasium, who were having five hours of English per week, and who were able to have a conversation with me in English. My pupil was still working on basic vocabulary - knife, fork, plate - and struggled. Given the teaching she was receiving, this was hardly her fault. The complete posting, with a note on current issues in German and French education, is here.
The German girls said that their German lessons were harder than their English ones. This is due to the insistence on grammatical accuracy in a language that is grammatically more complex than any other major European language. The features that cause most trouble to English speakers are:
- Gender, including neuter.
- The need to tie in nouns and accompanying words, such as adjectives, by changes to the ends of words (inflections).
- The case system, in which short words such as to, or by, and possession, are indicated by inflections in words. Ich liebe meinen Vater, but Ich liebe meine Mutter.
- The inconsistency of short companion words - der, die, das, dieser, diese, dieses etc - between genders, so that Die blaue Donau becomes, An der schönen, blauen Donau.
- The variations in verb forms, including tenses and the Sie and du forms of address - with further confusion in the use of sie as a plural
- The system of inverting verb and subject, and placing verbs at the ends of sentences, in various sentence forms.
- The mid-European roots of many words, so that vocabulary cannot always be learned via the link to Greek and Latinate forms that are the same in English.
As an over-enthusiastic pupil in the mid-sixties, I was introduced to German in a two-year crash course, taught by a teacher whose main subject was French, and who was perhaps the most hard-working and conscientious person I've ever met. We worked through the textbook. Latin helped with the case system, though the case systems of Latin and German are not identical, but I did not develop fluency and understanding of the ways in which companion words altered according to context. They did not do so in French. I passed with a D, as I recall, and it did not occur to me that it was unrealistic to expect the same standard in German in two years that I'd managed in French in five, and indeed Latin in four. Neither did anyone explain this. The head of German - not my teacher - was kind enough to tell me, the day after I'd taken the GCE, that I'd been writing "a right load of rubbish" during the exam. I was quite sure he was right.
For some reason, not understanding something irks me, and I returned to German three times. The first was as a student in Paris. I bought a book entitled "The Basics and Essentials of German", which summed everything up in 116 pages, equally divided into grammar and vocabulary. I studied the book, but could not get the system of inflections into my head. I was clearly just not good at German, and returned to my preferred zone of French - this was not a comfort zone either, as I had to work hard at it, but at least I could manage it, including, slowly, Proust.
My second revisit was to a German evening class at Goldsmith's College, taught by the excellent Helen Winter. Helen's teaching was very well adapted to the work and lives of her students - there were frequent references to Die Wecker and Das Wirtshaus - Wo findet man Studenten? In einem Wirtshaus - and it helped, but the goal for my fellow students was O level, and I could find no A level evening class in the whole of London. The consolidation was valuable, but I got no further.
Third time was with Hans -"der kann's" - Lange, who is now teaching in Thailand. I was by now working as a schools inspector, and had a gap in work caused by yet another reorganisation with Ofsted. Hans uses a conversational style, but with a slow pace that ensures that students understand. We would have a two-hour session at his house, and he had an interesting technique of being slightly provokative in what he said, so that you were stimulated to argue with him. At the same time, I bought and studied Hammer's Grammar, German books and watched films. I finally got the hang of German grammar, and began to understand its methods of constructing vocabulary by putting words together, with recurring themes and prefixes - eg Umfrage, Umlaut, Umwelt, Umschulumg. I have not spent enough time in Germany to become as fluent as I became after a year in France, but I can read with a good level of understanding, and have passed the tipping point, at which I know enough to be able to use it cut down to size what I don't know.
So, what are the implications for teaching?
1. We need to be honest. Learning German is challenging. I asked a pupil once what he thought this meant, and the reply was, "It's hard, but you can do it." This principle applies to learning any new language, as it must be able to convey the thoughts of all of its users, which may well be complex as well as simple. Attempts to over-simplify the language, for example by not teaching case endings at GCSE, lead to frustration, confusion, and the unacceptable rate of dropout between GCSE and A level.
2. We need to teach spoken and written language together, so that children can use all channels of communication to build understanding. Umlauts need to be explained as shortcuts that avoid adding an extra letter to words. Other elements of German spelling are phonetically regular, which makes them easy to understand. ICT makes it much easier to demonstrate the connections than it used to be.
3. Presenting people with two many difficulties at once overloads the brain, prevents neural connections from forming, and leads to frustration and failure. This was the problem with my crash course, and with my first attempt to revisit the language as a student. It is clearer if each variation from English is unpacked and explained. At an early stage, this should include forming positive and negative sentences - straightforward - and the accusative case, which only requires a variation in the companion words when the noun is masculine. Presenting what is sometimes known as "the grid" as a single step is too complicated. Genitive is straightforward once the idea of possession is understood and the learner understands that German speakers approach it in a different way. The really difficult case is the dative, which needs careful explanation and a lot of practice.
4. Once we have taught the formation of a positive and negative sentence, we should teach pupils to say things they would like to say in German, and build up this capacity systematically, explaining grammatical features as they occur. This should take place alongside systematic learning of grammar and vocabulary.
5. While the proportion of shared words between English and German is lower than that between English and French, there are enough of them to be of great value, and we should make the best use of them. Research at the MRC Applied Psychology Unit has shown that these words are recognised more quickly than those which have no connection with English.
6. The roots of German vocabulary and the principles of constructing words need to be studied and practised alongside its grammar.
7. Practice should be made easy and enjoyable. Most people don't enjoy tests, but everyone likes a quiz, particularly when you can gain an unfair advantage by practising beforehand.
8. Pupils should practise writing in rough, on boards or scrap paper, so that they can make mistakes in an unthreatened context, and see what they need to adjust in order to write accurately. They should keep a record of things they have learned to write and say accurately, and we should use this to build capacity. The Common European Framework provides an effective framework for extending competence.
9. Alongside grammar and vocabulary, idiom should be explained and understood. Idiom includes all features unique to a language, and shows us how native speakers actually use the grammar and vocabulary that are its core. Understanding and using idiom leads to a warmth of communication with native speakers. Da liegt der Hund begraben.
10. The German girls in my posting had to work hard to learn their own language, and to practise it constantly at home and at school. For them, Übung ist das halbe Leben. So it is for any English speaker who would learn German. German courses in secondary schools must not be cut short if we expect learners to enjoy the language and to continue to learn it.