gromco
adventures in foreignness

Goethe Hell

By Val Borisov | Posted 20/Mar/2017

It was springtime, something love-like was clearly in the air, and after my winter break (a language study break, naturally, but let’s not get distracted) I felt like restarting my German project. So much so, in fact, that I was even willing to spring for a language course. And not just any course, mind you: a big-name one! Thus I came to an undisclosed city, settled into a furnished sublet at an undisclosed location, and enrolled in a 12-week "A1.3" course at the local branch of the Goethe-Institut.

The reason why I came in at A1.3 is simply that I had already taken the levels A1.1 and A1.2. As far as I can tell, at most Goethe branches, levels A1, A2, and B1 are split in 3 sub-levels, each taking a trimester to complete. This means you will have to spend at least 6 trimesters (up to 2.5 years when following an "extensive" schedule) taking classes there before you can properly call yourself an intermediate-level speaker. This no-nonsense and no-false-hopes attitude was something that had initially attracted me to Goethe. It was a welcome dose of realism compared to those language industry entrepreneurs who'd often split the length of any given language into 4 or 5 two-month chunks and attach to them increasingly nonsensical names – from the reasonable “beginner” to the delusional “advanced.” (Personally, I think the list of fields in which you can become “advanced” in 8 months is rather short. And there are certainly no human languages on that list. But I digress.)

Now, I can’t say I'd been particularly enthralled by Goethe’s A1.1 and A1.2, but I also think absolute beginners can take almost anything and run with it – especially if their teacher is engaging and their classmates are at least moderately congenial. This was indeed my case. And it worked well enough. During those initial months, I would come home from class with German sounds, phrases, and intonations all swirling in my head – a sensation that is often associated with subconscious language acquisition and which I tend to enjoy.

Slowly but surely, however, doubts started creeping in. I began figuring out what it was that I did and, especially, didn’t, like. I still wanted to continue with Goethe, their prices be damned, but by the time I swiped my credit card to pay for my A1.3 enrollment, I’d figured out the following three problematic characteristics that define the Goethe-Institut approach to language teaching.

First of all, it seems, a deliberate choice was made to eschew any grammatical explanations – at least at levels A1 and A2. The best that the textbook (Menschen) could do for its readers was those tiny little “recap” insets at the end of each chapter, which not so much explained anything as simply gave usage patterns. I am assuming the choice was made in ancipation of students’ instinctive fear of grammar and rules. Fair enough, but limiting as well.

Second, their approach assumes, rather optimistically IMO, that students will be able to quickly absorb large amounts of new vocabulary with very little in the way of use and repetition. The Menschen textbook is in German only (though it does give quick wordlist summaries in English) and for someone like me – i.e. someone who quickly gets frustrated from staring at entire sentences chokefull of unfamiliar words – it meant either looking up more than a dozen new words per large-format page (too time consuming) or just giving up and studying only sentences that made sense with the vocabulary I had already learned (far too limiting). Both alternatives were less than ideal, so I ended up charting a middle course, but wishing they’d slow down and let me see each word in different contexts instead of piling up more and more. I was retaining very little due to this lack of repetition.

Third, given the size of their classrooms (often as many as 15-18 people in low-level groups), their method relies on in-class student-to-student interaction to blend non-existent grammatical knowledge with non-existent vocabulary together and let the whole magically blossom into linguistic competency of unknown origin. And the person supposed to make this magic happen is the teacher.

A quick word of about teachers and their role. I am something of a veteran of language classes, so I speak with a certain authority when I say that in 90% of cases, the teacher is the only person worth listening or talking to in class – at least from the standpoint of learning something (as far as doing other things, after class, it can be another matter completely). And this is not just because they speak the language you’re trying to learn. In most cases, they are also the most cultured, the most intellectually mature, and the most all-around interesting, as a person, in all of the group… even when the group includes adults that are getting long in the teeth.

On the other hand, I typically find my classmates to be of zero use as far language learning is concerned. They’re in the same group, for Christssakes, what can they possibly teach me? More than that, you’re lucky if you happen to be sitting next to a person you wouldn’t mind talking to at a party somewhere. But what if it’s not the case? (It often isn’t). That is why, during the A1.1 and A1.2 which I had already finished, I came to dread the almost-inevitable “zu zwei, zu drei arbeiten,” which meant that we had to start working in pairs (or groups of 3) and that the teacher could take it easy for the next 10-20 minutes. To the credit of those teaching my two first levels, they didn’t abuse the formula.


So what happened on that faithful day when I walked into the very first class of Goethe’s A1.3? To put it simply, a slight job description mismatch was in evidence. The A1.3 teacher had apparently been misled about his role in the whole thing: he thought he was working as a wedding MC. Having gone through the roll call in 10-15 minutes, the guy did not waste any time in throwing the entire class of about sixteen or so largely uninspiring characters into a series of stupid, pointless, and mildly humiliating “exercises.”

First, we were roused from our seats and told to mingle. Task one involved approaching fellow prisoners of the classroom to pester them with identical questions in order to get everyone’s name spelled in your notebook – as if anyone cared about anyone else’s name or its exact spelling (I certainly didn’t). There’s only so many times you can mumble “Wie buchstabiert man das?” or the corresponding answer before you start cursing your own parents for giving you such a long name. As an added bonus, no-one was able to spell my name anyway. I could care less.

Afterward came activity number zwei. Armed with the list of approximate names and our non-existent knowledge of conversational German, we were supposed to prod other inmates at random and get them to disclose the most fascinating details about themselves, e.g.:

  • Have they ever scaled the Himalayas?
  • Have they ever fallen asleep at a disco?
  • Have they ever won a million dollars in a lottery?
and similar nonsense (I forget the rest). Naturally, no-one would have been able to concoct such idiocies all by themselves had the questions not been helpfully written out for us. We just needed to read and pretend to listen to the answer. Our so-called teacher walked around the classroom, rubbing his hands, grinning, saying “Ja, ja, genau!” and making sure we were sticking to the protocol. Personally, I rather felt like asking him if he ever had been stabbed in the eye with a pencil, but I lacked the vocabulary to express myself.

I won’t bother you with further examples of educational entertainment from that afternoon, but the circus continued after halftime: there were more “group” activities (smaller-scale idiocies performed in groups of 3-4, which I am more likely to accept in limited doses, but which still required interacting exclusively – and largely without supervision – with non-German-speaking folks). I had already made my decision by then, but being polite by nature, I didn’t want to make a dramatic exit.

In three hours, I don’t think I heard our “teacher” speak for more than 20 minutes in total or more than 3 minutes straight; these precious chunks of German-language airtime were invariably spent explaining the rules of the next cockamamie activity we wanted us to engage in. Needless to say, I was not getting any “acquisition din” from all this. The language acquisition device in my brain was silent. Only the anger and irritation centers were getting a decent workout.

When the class was finally over, I stepped outside into the spring air, took a deep breath, and tried to imagine that I had just woken up after falling asleep at a disco. (It was almost possible... though personally, I’d much rather having just won a million dollars playing the lottery).

Since I had already started the course, the Goethe-Institut agreed to reimburse only 80% of my A1.3 tuition fee. My three-hour ordeal ended up costing me about $100. To be fair, it allowed me to learn the spelling of a few names taken from a semi-random group of people I will never see again. And of course, paying $100 for this still beats spending a full $500 on 11 more such sessions. Thus, for now, I am a reasonably happy Mensch.

Tschüss, Goethe und danke!

P.S. In case you were curious: no-one in our class reported having scaled the Himalayas. I was shocked.