Learning German – how hard is it really?

Learning German together is fun, says Gisela Breuker. This language teacher at the Goethe-Institut in Bonn explains exactly what happens in a language class and reveals a few tricks to help you build your language skills even outside classes.

Interview with language teacher Gisela Breuker at the Goethe-Institut in Bonn

Why should professionals moving to Germany learn German? How important is the language?
The German language is the entry ticket to German culture. If you're unable to speak the language, you can't really immerse yourself in the culture. It's not just about having conversations while out shopping. You really need to be able to express your feelings, to communicate and to say things in a distinguished manner.

What is the first thing you teach beginners?
We start off by speaking. I come into the room and say "Guten Tag". Then I'm happy if someone responds by saying "Guten Tag". We then continue with "Guten Tag, ich heiße..." and "ich komme aus...". After two lessons, the participants can introduce themselves and say what they do for a living. They are also able to respond: "Wie geht es Ihnen?" "Danke, gut. Und Ihnen?" Then they can start making conversation with others. 

That really gives them a sense of achievement: The participants go home knowing that they are able to introduce themselves and respond when someone starts talking to them. Moving from not speaking to speaking – it's a great learning achievement, especially in the courses at A1 level. I have a lot or respect for these students, because they put enormous effort in.

How many participants are there in your courses?
In my courses, there are up to 16 participants from many different countries. We practise listening, speaking, reading, grammar and pronunciation in all of the courses, no matter what level. The courses take five hours per day, and we try to motivate participants on an ongoing basis. They spend a lot of time moving around the room, they create their own content, they react. The work with cards, CDs and a textbook. We try to use many different teaching methods. Sometimes our students forget all about the time, since we approach them in many different ways over five hours.

We also go outside. I might take my students to a museum about German history, for example. I also assign research tasks, for example about bread. As the students work on these tasks, they learn many new words; they might go into a bakery and complete different tasks. Then they come back, tell us about their experiences and write a short essay. Together, this ends up as a package, which makes the participants feel like they are taking something home with them: They might have learned something about bread, they know new words, and they know where to go the next day if they want to buy bread. That's "German" in itself.

How long does it take before students can find their way round everyday life in Germany?
After a four-week beginners' A1 course, I can have a cup of coffee with my students and we can talk about everyday matters. At level B2, they'll have completed seven or eight courses. Then you can take entry exams at universities or start a job.

When is the best time to start learning German?
If you have the opportunity, it might be best to start learning German while still in your home country. It makes things easier if you know the alphabet at least. Students who have learned foreign languages before have many advantages. They're familiar with the shock of having to learn every word from scratch. Students from Asian or Arabic countries have often completed a pre-course already, which is really helpful.

Are there techniques or tricks for learning German more quickly?
We do try to work those out.  There a people who say "show me a picture, and I'll understand what you mean." Others might say, "I need to hear you." Again others might say, "show me the word." We try to accommodate these preferences. We teach techniques that might help students learn new words and practise pronunciation at home. We have a media centre, and we have young people who help our students get to know German culture.

Our courses are called "Deutsch lernen, Deutschland kennenlernen." We try and introduce our participants to German culture, too. We don't do that in the classroom only. We also encourage them to go and buy a cup of coffee at a kiosk, to experience "real" communication. I might set that kind of task as homework. The next day, I'm really happy when my students say, "I managed to get my coffee."

Beyond courses, what else can students do to improve their German?
I often tell my students who've been here for a bit longer that a lot of communication in Germany takes place in clubs and associations. If they have a hobby, like playing a musical instrument, it's easier for them to integrate into this kind of social network. A lot of young people also do sports, they join a gym and go on dates. That's what real communication is about – they don't need us for that.

Are there areas where it's particularly difficult to speak German?
Well, Germans really like to speak English. A lot of my students tell me that they get answers in English when they speak to someone in clear and slow German. 

What is the difference between learning German in group lessons compared to one-to-one tuition?
Many people want to go to university here, they want to stay here and build up their lives – and they want to learn as much as they can as quickly as possible. For that purposes, language courses are best. One-to-one tuition is more expensive, too. However, there are people who don't have time to spend five hours in a German course every day. These kind of people might choose flexible classes in the evenings, and ideally their employer might pay for them.

About

Gisela Breuker studied English and Catholic religion at university. After period of practical training, she spent a year as an assistant teacher for German as a foreign language at a US high school. In Chicago, she came across a Goethe-Institut for the first time and decided to teach German at an institute rather than at a school. Since 1989, she has worked at various Goethe-Instituts in Germany, both as a teacher and in period of practical training. She likes teaching because it gives her the opportunity to learn about different cultures, which in turn gives her a new perspective on her own culture.