The Daily Life of Kawther Salam

  ..: Learning German with Traditional Methods among Men :..
November 30, 2003

Who is responsible for evaluating the German language coursebooks "Themen Neu” No. 1 & No. 2 ?

What is the reason behind making the learning of the German language complicated for the foreign community ?

Do I have the right, as a student, to talk about the German courses offered in Austria, which cost the Austrian State lots of taxpayer money ?

On first of September I enrolled in a German course which is sponsored by the Austrian Government through its Work Office. My mother tongue is Arabic, and English is my second language. I have no prior knowledge, written or spoken, of German. I made this clear to the work office before enrolling, and it was also understood by the company which offers the courses.

German is an important Language in Europe in its own right.

For many reasons, learning the German Language is very important for the foreigners which live in Austria, where they are given the right to stay, live and to work. I'll focus here on the obstacles to learning the German language, not on other problems facing the foreign communities.

It can arguably be said that the communities of foreigners who  stay in Austria cost the government a significant amount of money while they are without work, without the ability to sustain themselves. For this reason alone it should be in the interest of the government to give foreigners living here. While legislation has been put in place and German courses are offered, the courses  themselves should be looked at.

Taking into consideration that the Austrian Government is paying lots for teaching foreigners the German language, the results of this important project should be evaluated in order ascertain if they achieve their aim, teaching the German language. We should also take a close look at the course materials, the coursebooks "Themen Neu” No.1 and No.2 published by Hueber Verlag.

I'll talk about the issue at hand from my own experience participating in a government-paid German class, and I'll look at five relevant aspects:

1- Contents of the German coursebooks and their homework books.
2- Educational methods and the facilities.
3- Teaching Team.
4- Qualification of the teaching personnel
5- The Students.
6- Intensive courses, learning.

1- The German coursebooks.

The German coursebook "Themen Neu 1” and its companion work book, published by Hueber Verlag, which I learned are for beginners, were first published in 1992 according to the copyright notice in the book. The German coursebook "Themen Neu 2” and its companion work book, also by Hueber Verlag, were published in 1993.


The books, while revised for the new German grammar, seem to have otherwise undergone little or no change for the last 10 or so years. So, these books are used to teach German in what are probably lots of institutes like the one which I visit. In the Introduction to the Books it is stated that they have been adapted over time due to feedback, I would venture to say that probably only the most obvious errors have been dealt with. Let's see why.

First, the books are in my opinion far too advanced for a course which is offered to beginners in the language, like me, or like my colleagues. Both books offer a difficult curriculum which leans heavily on the side of theory. A book and an intensive course teaching theory could probably be offered to the appropriate clientele, but not to absolute beginners in a language and to people who do not have this level of alphabetization even in their own language.

Some examples of exercises given to us a couple of weeks into the first course:

“... Verben mit Dativergänzung und Akkusativergänzung, Verben mit Akkusativergänzungen und Direktivergänzungen, Hauptsätze und Nebensätze mit Infinitiv ...” or "... 51 Verben, 56 Nomen, Adjektive, Adverbien, Ausdrücke, Perfekt: Partizip bei trennbaren Verbzusätzen, Perfekt: Pertizip ohne "go', Präteritum: haben und sein, Wohin ? Personalpronomen im Akkusativ”. All quoted from from Lesson 7 of "Themen Neu 1”.

Native German speakers to whom I showed my coursebooks characterized the material as typical for secondary education, perhaps 10th grade or above. Some of the exercises were so difficult that my German-speaking acquaintances had difficulty in completing them.

I started asking myself, why is the German language presented to beginners in such a difficult and complicated way ? Why do I have the impression that learning this language is impossible without learning 10 hours daily at home ? Are there any political interest at all in me learning the language, or is this just a "polite" scheme to make as much people as possible fail to obtain the certification in German necessary to obtain a residence permit, so that this can be used as a subterfuge to deny them further stay in the country ? 

German should in my opinion be teached to foreigners in a way proportionate to their abilities and their level of education, step by step and during one year, and not in the way it is being teached in these intensive course which use the books "Themen Neu”.

Actually, the German language is being teached for the foreign students who want to learn at the Universities of Austria in a different way and using a different curriculum than it is being teached to those who must learn the language in order to keep or obtain a residence or working permit.

Another point of contention I have with the books are the antiquated sexist stereotypes which they transmit. When I was a child over 30 years ago, I went to primary school in Palestina. A recurring theme was "Mama is cooking, Mama is cleaning and washing, Baba is working, Baba is shouting ...". I used to criticize, constantly, these manifestations of a mens society during my carreer as a journalist and feminist in my home, Palestina. Coming from the very conservative patriarchal society at home in Palestine, I was astonished to see the same kind of image of women being promoted in a European country through education.


An example of how women are presented in these coursebooks can be found on page 60 of "Themen Neu 2” in a rather strange dialog between a woman and her man: "What did Barbara do ? / What her Husband said ”. Here is a fragment:
Husband: You eat a lot.
Barbara will try to eat less.
Husband: Your food tastes bad.
Barbara will try to learn how to cook.
Husband finds Barbara boring.
Barbara will try to be more active.
Husband ...

In other paragraphs through pages 62 and 63 of the same book women are presented as troublemakers who more or less make hell for the poor husband when he returns from work. The views about women espoused by the authors of the books and exposed by these comments are astonishing, to say the least.

It would be interesting to know if pushing this kind of image of women to those who should be integrated into Austrian society follows some kind of purpose. Respect of women does not seem to be very high on the agenda.

2- Educational methods and the facilities:

Being now in the 21th century, it is curious that  we don't have blackboard in the classroom. We have a piece of cardboard hanging on a stand and should consider ourselves lucky. When I asked my new teacher why we did not write full sentences and explanations from the new lesson and grammar, she was very polite in her answer, she said: "Sorry, we don't have enough space for writing all this on this small cardboard”.

It is very important for beginners to be able to write sentences on the board when discussing an example, during the explanation of new grammar. But we are not so lucky, so we had to make do without  a blackboard in our class. Even small things like light in the staircase are missing. We must thus be careful not to fall when we come out from classes.

Comparing the facilities where I am learning German with those I know from Palestine, where small, private institutes teach languages and other courses, is interesting. In Palestina, a third  world country suffering an occupation since 1948, the classrooms are equipped with modern infrastructure like computers, headphones, TV sets in each room.

I think that it is very important for the institutes teaching German to develop appropriate facilities for learning the language, and also to put modern infrastructure at the students disposal in the classrooms. The use of computers by the students to develop their lessons, or the use of a projector by the teacher in the class could be an alternative to the current way of teaching based on a 10 year old coursebook.

It would be very important to send representatives from the institutes twice a month at least to observe the way of teaching the language of the different teachers, to examine what kind of problems the students have in class and ways to correct them. This is not an insult for the teachers. The Ministry of education used this method. They used to send observers to the schools for the same purpose, to find ways of improving the teaching.

3- Teaching team:-

The team of teachers is of great importance for the success of classes. To illustrate this, and what inspired me to write this article, I'll describe some personal, anecdotal experience which shows how things should not be:

My first teacher in the German course was a lady who would constantly speak rather fast and in viennese dialect, making it even more difficult for me to understand. I was thus forced to constantly ask her to explain what she meant, and this was my big crime.

At some point she decided that she had had enough of my questions. She stopped answering to my questions and correcting my homework. After two days of this, I asked her to please speak slower, and to correct my exercises. This was enough for her to try order me out of her  class. When I tried to call somebody to find a solution, she started to shout and grabbed me by the hand, trying to throw me out of the class violently. This made me remember how I was treated by the the Israeli Defense Forces when working as a journalist in Palestina, where the military constantly threatened me and once broke my hand. When I later spoke with the person who I had called, he told me that the shouts sounded like what you would expect to hear in a jail.

The same teacher stunned me (and my classmates) several times with statements like "I'm in quite a bad mood today, so you should be quiet and not ask any questions. I don't want any noise today because after class I still have to write a 1000-word essay for the professor”.

A teacher who makes his or her students feel like a nuisance will not really be able to teach them very much. But, there were also really nice and competent teachers in other classes, but I had to wait until things got out of hand to be able to change to another class.

When I moved to the second class during the second course, I was still finding difficulties to speak German in the class, my first teacher was just ordering me to speak German in a violent threat way, while she was speaking German very quickly in the class, I never liked that, this automatically made me refused the orders and to be confused .

As we see, teaching a language is influenced at least 50% by the person teaching: how she speaks, presents the material, interacts with the students. If the teacher likes his work, is able to present the material in a way the students will be able to understand, adapts to their level, the students will in all probability have a higher rate of success in learning the language than otherwise.

4- Qualification of the teaching personnel:-

Teaching German to beginners is not an easy task for an unqualified teacher. Accordingly, the language Institutes should accordingly take responsibility of selecting personnel who will have an appropriate level of qualifications. Institutes which are merely money making machines should not be in this business, as they will not solve any problems: not those of the people who need and want to learn German, and not those of the government, who has an interest in helping these people to get integrated in society.

For example, teaching personnel which has not finished the University (or attained sufficient qualification) will probably not be able to teach beginners in the right way. They will probably be busy thinking of their study at University, or stressed by other personal business which will in all probability hinder their best performance on the job.

The new class had what I was missing in the first class: a quiet teacher, speaking and teaching slowly, simplifying the language and the grammar to a level where most of us were able to understand. We were all encouraged to speak German. The first time I really was able to practice speaking the German language was in the new class, during the second course book. 

5- The students:-

In the end, the students are responsible for their learning progress.

Learning the German language is the only way to produce people able to integrate in a positive way into this society. The motivation to learn the language should come from every foreigner with the intention to stay. They should have an active interest in becoming independent of government help, and become independent in the society if they have the mental and physical capability.

I had the experience of teaching an introductory course of english as a second language to pupils who had in part interrupted their school at an early age, or who were in part illiterate. This experience of lecturing in different universities  and institutes to a very varied clientele in my country showed me that, from a teachers perspective, the principles of teaching others is to be out of your personal problems, to be quiet, and to accept the questions from the students with pleasure. In this way, a teacher can can encourage his pupils to learn and to develop. If the government gives the people an opportunity, this support should not be withdrawn by the teacher.

There are other important points for learning German:-

* The Language Institutes should help the student to learn automatically by not exposing them to a situation which is adverse to learning in first place. In my first course, I was in a group where almost everybody spoke Arabic so there was little incentive to speak anything else. In my second class, the students group is of mixed provenience: Turks, Poles, Yugoslavians, ... The incentive to speak German is strong in this group. A mixed group of students makes much more sense for learning a language than a group where everybody has the same mother tongue.

* Another important consideration when putting together groups of students for learning a language is the previous level of alphabetization and the experience with a second language of the group members.

In my first German course I was together with people who had 10-15 years of experience speaking German, but most of them had only rudimentary writing skills in Arabic and as good as none in German, I have observed a colleague who is barely able to write, there were boys still going to school, and I myself do have good writing skills in Arabic and English, but I do not understand German. The course was described to me as an "alphabetization course” by the Work Office. What happened in fact was that the teacher started to teach is german grammar at a level far over what I would call "alphabetization”. In this environment, I was expected to learn German, and my colleagues German grammar. Two of my colleagues failed, but I would not attribue their failure not to themselves.

The setting described may make sense from a commercial stance, if one expects a certain number of students to repeat a class thusly  increasing the revenues, it would also make sense if a political agenda at odds with the best interest of the immigrants should be implemented. To an organization with a genuine interest in teaching German to the foreigners, the described setting would not make sense, it can even be seen as conunterproductive.

* A third problem is that of labeling a course one thing but in fact offering something completely different. I wonder how a course can be labeled as "alphabetization”, only to lecture German grammar on a level appropriate for secondary education to people who are barely able to write or have no previous knowledge of the language.

6- Intensive courses, learning :-

While learning the German is expensive, attending intensive courses seems to be not very effective: the students minds are stuffed daily with new material, there is no guarantee that it will have been understood. After the weekly test (or the final exam) most of the material will have been forgotten, this leading to the promotion of people who barely understand the language as "German speakers”.

Learning German needs time, and practice. For example, even though English is teached at school for years, the majority of people graduating from school only have a basic understanding of this language.

The courses which I attended are part of a three-course program offered by the Work Office. While these courses are very strong on the side of theory, practice is only minimal. I would propose a change to this plan and introduce a period of (assisted) language practice between the second and third courses for those willing to attend the third courseto make sure that those who graduate do really speak the language, thus making their outlook at finding a job better.

The normal situation of learning German, or any other new language, is one year for qualified students who have passed the the general school certificate examinations in their countries, in their own languages, and who want to continue their higher education in a foreign University. In our case, where the students come from a wide variety of social and educational backgrounds, it becomes obvious that teaching German in an intensive course is not very useful.

While I myself was able to graduate from the first German course, it came at the cost of learning for up to 12 hours a day. I will probably graduate with success from the second course, but I will then take a break afterwards to practice the language before continuing.

I would wish in the interest of those attending German courses in the future that some of the things I have proposed here could be implemented: most important better prevention of violence against students in  class, more care when putting together class groups, a better tuning of the teaching to the abilities of the students, finding a new coursebook.