Monday, September 23, 2013

Learning German at the Volkhochschule

I haven't taken any further university courses toward my German degree since May, and I've felt quite restless about continuing my language learning. It's never a good thing to allow a lapse in this, as one might forget quite a lot. To keep up my skills, I am pursuing several other ways to learn German outside of the university environment.

I signed up for a class through one of the American community groups. That class has been really good; it even uses the same book that my German teacher in the US had used with me, so there was the bonus of having the book already and being familiar with it. This particular class is mostly in English since all of us are Americans who are taking it.

There are pros and cons to studying a foreign language with the commentary in your native language. Our teacher is able to explain the complicated German grammar to us in English so it's easier to process. We then practice it in German. However, we aren't as immersed in German and about 1/2 - 3/4 of the class is in English. Don't get me wrong; I really like this class and I appreciate the foundation it's giving me. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around modal verbs, prepositions that express movement verses being static, etc., and learning this in English first is so much easier.

As a counterpoint to the German class mostly in English, I also signed up for a class at the Volkshochschule. The VHS is a local institution that offers adult/continuing education. Our local one offers non-credit classes in foreign languages, flower arranging, yoga, and many other topics. I found that the prices are very reasonable; my German class works out to be about 7 euros per lesson.

I was initially apprehensive about signing up for the course because it's entirely in German. Of course, being immersed is one of the best ways to learn a language, but I was very accustomed to having my hand held because all of my other classes were mostly in English.

There is a free online placement test to determine the right level to take. I took the A1 test (which is the first level in German) and received a 91%. I did a lot of guessing on it and I'm strongest at reading German. The VHS had an open house before classes started so I made sure to go for assistance. At the open house, instructors from the courses were there to help students find the correct class for their levels. The person I consulted initially told me that I should sign up for the level A2 class since I had a good score on the placement test. I told her that I had guessed on a lot of it and I'm good at guessing so I was worried I might have scored a bit higher than what is my actual ability.

I've done this before, to negative results; I took a Spanish placement for college and was placed in the last class one takes in Spanish before studying the literature. I was way behind in class and ended up getting a C+. Of course, I have to admit that I didn't do any of the homework or actually try to get a better grade (this was in my bratty high school days), but I didn't want to make this mistake again. I'd rather be in a slightly lower level class than where my ability lies and learn the content very well than be in over my head and flounder.

Based on my input, the instructor recommended that I take level A1, part 2. This ended up being very good advice; the class has been a good fit for me. However, I didn't know this until the first class session, so of course I worried about it a bit, which is ridiculous. After all, one doesn't receive a grade in the class!

Before the class, I picked up the textbook. The local VHS doesn't sell the books, but the local bookstore in town, Thalia, does. It was about 14 euros, I believe.

I was impressed that the VHS's language courses correspond to the European Framework of Reference, or, in German, the "Gesamt-Europäischen Referenzrahmens." According to the Council of Europe, "this scheme makes it possible to compare tests and examinations across languages and national boundaries... It also provides a basis for recognising language qualifications and thus facilitating educational and occupational mobility." So, in other words, if I pass the exams for each level, those levels are recognized throughout Europe. Everything is standardized. I love that idea.

After buying my textbook, I was ready for my first class. I showed up early (punctuality is very important ;) and was slightly relieved to see that most of the class was Americans. I probably wouldn't be the weakest one in class. I was even more pleased when in walked one of my colleagues! I had no idea that he was going to take the class too. Since pretty much everyone else in class knew each other (presumably from level A1, part 1), it was nice to see him.

The class began and I was a bit nervous at first, getting accustomed to hearing everything in German. However, I was delighted when, by the end of class, I realized that I understood anywhere from 85-90% of what the teacher was saying. My friend, who's lived here for 5 years and even defended his thesis in German, said that he usually understands about 85% of what people are saying in German and fills in the gaps from there, so I felt on target.

Everyone who has taken the immersion classes has said that the teachers are really good at making things clear without using the learner's native language. I was skeptical about this; if one is familiar with German grammar, she'd know why -- it's complicated! Our teacher used simple language, pictures, and activities to explain things. Sometimes I wasn't quite sure what she was saying at first, but it became clear as she used other activities.

Our teacher is really good. I have a teaching degree, myself, and was impressed at all the learning styles she managed to encompass. We did plenty of auditory learning but she interspersed it with bodily-kinesthetic learning (which I think is one of the hardest to incorporate) by having us use the imperative form and invite people to sit next to us in a game of musical chairs. She also included verbal linguistic and visual learning, of course. We laughed like crazy when she had us sing the German version of the preschool song, "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes." The German version is "Head and Shoulders, Belly and Legs." We had to sing it faster and faster, which made many of us erupt in giggles. It feels absolutely silly to sing a kids' song in a roomful of adults, but it was a great way to memorize body parts.

This week was my second class and I'm still impressed. I think my German will really progress with this class. Even after I finish my university degree, I plan to take additional VHS classes and my goal is to pass at least the B2 exam, if not eventually the C2 exam. 

So, would I recommend a VHS class for those entirely new in the German language? Well, I haven't been in that situation, so I couldn't say for sure. I do like the part 2 class a LOT and think it's great. Since some of the basics of learning German are quite involved, I might recommend taking the very first class in English if it's an option through another organization, or getting some materials in English, such as German Made Simple by Arnold Leitner*, to gain exposure to the language first. However, the teachers at the VHS are accustomed to teaching those with no previous knowledge, so if that's the only option, go for it.

*This is the book that my teacher in the US, and my teacher in the English-version of the class uses. It is really good, explains the grammar well, and is inexpensive.

1 comment:

  1. 7 euro a class is pretty reasonable. I have never taken a class all in German before but it sounds interesting. My last formal class in German was in high school and most of that was trying to teach us what the teacher for the first three years hadn't. As a result of the way she taught I know a fair bit of vocabulary but I'm terrible with speaking and writing. I've tried to beef up my German a bit on my own by watching movies in German with the English subtitles, listening to music in German and translating it (or listening to German versions of songs I already know in English) and trying to participate in online groups with German speakers.