Changes in German Language Education, Blog Post #1: And So We Begin…

Hey everyone! Mike Schilling reporting from Byram, New Jersey. To anyone who has been checking this blog daily since my abstract post in April, I apologize; May and June have been two crazy months. Amidst all the craziness, though, were e-mails, interviews, book-collecting, and reading, all pertaining to this project, so your wait is now over. The products of my work so far (4 interviews, twenty-some textbooks on the floor of my bedroom, and a marked-up monograph on current language pedagogy) may not seem like much, but they have enabled me to lay the foundation for the house that will be my project (cheesy metaphors: 1, Mike: 0).

This foundation is one slightly different than what I have previously outlined. Originally, I had planned to complete half of a survey of German-language textbooks published between 1970 and the present and then hold interviews based on my textbook findings. Furthermore, I had planned for the instructors I was to interview to be only instructors of German. Two problems arose fairly early with this plan. First, having very little prior knowledge of foreign language pedagogy, I realized that I would have just as little of an idea of what to look for in textbooks. However, my interviews were designed to ask and obtain information about specific methods and changes, so I decided to move most of my interviews to before my textbook survey in order to give myself the little background I need to perform the survey. Ironically, I also soon realized that most of my interviews needed to be held in May and June anyway, as that is when most of the instructors are most easily contacted (while school is in session).

A second issue I realized in the beginning occurred arose due to an assumption I made (and we all know what happens when one assumes). I had assumed that I needed to limit myself to only instructors of German; however, being that many changes that occur in the pedagogy of one language occur across the board in the pedagogies of all languages. Consequently, I changed my PHSC approval to allow me to interview instructors of other foreign languages if I come across the need to do so. Since then my best source has actually been a high school Italian teacher. I am planning to hold maybe two or three more interviews in July and am maintaining e-mail correspondence with the instructors who I have already interviewed for the purpose of asking follow-up questions.

Feel free to post any questions or tips if any of the following does not make sense! 😀

Findings up to this point

Looking back at the questions I posed in my project outline and the questions I posed therein, I have a made a decent start on one question, which I will discuss in this blog.

Question 1: What changes have been made in German language instruction over the past 30 years?

This question is one that my interviews have been able to hit head-on, as they have been tailored to do. The only issue I have with these findings is that I am obtaining them through interviews, and thus feel I have to be careful as to what I accept as fact. Then again, if three instructors say the same thing, such as, “In the 1970s the communicative approach started to take hold,” am I permitted to take this as a fact, or do I need to find it in a published source to do so? I will consult my advisor on this, but if someone could leave a comment explaining appropriate research protocol on this front, it would be greatly appreciated.

As far as I know, in order to have a change in something, one needs to have a former and a latter state of that thing. However, not every change is instant, and this certainly holds true in language pedagogy. My original proposal stated that I would be examining the changes in German-language instruction between 1980 and 2010; unfortunately, I wrote this proposal not being fully aware of when the “interesting” changes took place. This discovery resulted in the extension of my range by about five years. I believe my reasons will be seen in the information below.

That said, please keep the above in mind as I report my “findings,” as they are from four interviews and a careful reading of a monograph. I will report the changes I have learned of chronologically, as I plan to do in my paper.

The Audio-Lingual Method

My new time period starts-off with the Audio-Lingual Method (ALM) of language instruction. This method started in the 60s and did not die truly out for about 20 years. Under this method, students memorize dialogues and repeat them over-and-over again. These dialogues were built to include certain grammatical structures and vocabulary, and grew progressively longer as instruction continued. Thus, the students’ grammar and vocabulary was supposed to gradually expand. The hope was that students would also be able to replace syntactically similar elements with each other when needed, that the structures would “get into the brain,” as one German professor put it. The first issue one may notice with this method is that this recognition of syntactically similar elements is not guaranteed. Furthermore, according to a German professor, this method is not great for visual learners, as the only sense engaged is hearing; students are “not able to see” the morphology or syntax. One German professor I spoke with told me of the “Dartmouth Method,” which is fairly similar to ALM. Through this method, students perform high-intensity drills, usually led by Teaching Assistants. An example of such a drill in English would be “Das ist meine Mutter. Sie heiβt Rebecca” (That is my mother. She is called Rebecca). Students repeat these phrases, and then change the subject’s gender, number, or person, thus grammatically changing the drill. The purpose was to repeat these changes multiple times and quickly, in hopes that the fast-paced nature of the exercise would force students to memorize certain grammatical structures. According to the professor, this method was rather “intimidating” for students.

Communicative Approach

Around the mid 70s, in response to issues with ALM came the Communicative Approach to language instruction. This approach was the first big push to teach the four basic language skills: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. This approach is one that I need to research more, because it is still fairly confusing to me, which is slightly ironic, considering it is (according to dates and instructors) the approach used in my high school German classes. From what I can gather from one German teacher, instruction under the Communicative Approach utilizes what is called the “functional-notional situation.” A unit or lesson takes a real-life situation, teaches students all vocabulary surrounding the situation, and then has students work with the situation in the target language. For example, students could be presented with the situation of travelling by plane, and thus would need all vocabulary in the target language concerning airports, airplanes, travel, etc. After this they are theoretically able to discuss travelling on airplanes, write about such a situation, listen to and understand a recording about air travel, or read a passage about an airport. As far as I can tell, grammar is taught alongside these situations as a separate part of a unit or lesson. A German teacher did tell me that he felt the communicative approach “lacks speaking.”

The Natural Approach / IB Approach / Teach Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling

Around the late 80ps and early 90s, a new approach to language instruction appeared. The most key player in this new approach is a man by the name of Stephen Krashen, a man about whom I have yet to learn more. This approach is much more proficiency based in that it looks to build overall communication skills over time. These skills are built primarily through “comprehensible input,” which can be audible or visual; however, it must be at a level that the student is mentally prepared to understand. Thus, the student must have mastered most of the grammatical structures and vocabulary presented in the input. I emphasize most here because growth in proficiency is achieved under this method by the presence of unfamiliar structures and vocabulary. On the other hand, if there is too much new material, the student becomes uncomfortable and his/her anxiety level is raised too high, turning on what Krashen calls an “affective filter” (Krashen 3). This filter sifts out most items that the student is not prepared to learn, making him/her “not responsible” for it and thus lowering anxiety.

In theory, as comprehensible input becomes longer and more complex, more structures and vocabulary will be acquired, and proficiency will increase. This is named the Natural Approach, as students theoretically learn language the natural way through it. I have yet to see, though, where it differs from first-language acquisition. I will speak more of this approach in my final paper in order to avoid rambling too much here, but I would like to cite the monograph that taught me a lot so far about it:

Krashen, Stephen D. Foreign Language Education The Easy Way. Culver City,
California: Language Education Associates, 1997. Print.

This is also, according to a German teacher, the approach used in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, as well as the foundation for the approach properly named Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). TPRS uses reading and storytelling as written and audible comprehensible input. Grammar under these approaches is not a focus, and thus some currently call it the “black sheep” of language pedagogy. An Italian teacher described his grammar discussions under TPRS as “pop-up grammar.” The idea is to let the students learn grammar as naturally as possible and only discuss and teach it as it appears in context, so that the grammar is always attached to meaning. For example, rather than teach students that the preposition “mit” (with) always takes an object in the dative case, the hope is that students will eventually see “mit” followed by objects having dative-case markers enough that this grammatical “rule” will eventually be followed naturally. Overall, the goal is to expose students to as many repetitions of certain structures and words as possible in a low-stress environment, so that they acquire them naturally.

That’s all for now, folks! I’ll check in again for my second blog, hopefully sooner rather than later! Hope everyone’s summer is going well! 😀

Comments

  1. irmorrisonmonc says:

    Mike!

    Your project looks amazing, and this is not just because I am doing the same thing with Latin for my senior thesis :P. Have you come across anything that compares the pedagogy of German to Classical Languages? In my research they often mention how they do it in the modern foreign languages so I was wondering if anything you have come across gives a nod in the other direction. I like how all the language approaches have nice names; this would make my work a bit easier, haha. Looks great, I am excited to continue to follow you this summer!