Teaching English in Germany

I was teaching a group of engineers in Düsseldorf—my first group class—and there is nothing more German than a German engineer. All the stereotypes of both are magnified.

In one lesson I was talking about the usage of the word ‘about’ when we approximate a time.

‘I will be finished about 4 o’ clock.’

The engineers looked around at each other. I did a few more examples, and one of them finally said, ‘Why say zhis? Just say the right time, yes?’ Let’s call him Martin.

I pulled some more examples out of my sleeve and even mentioned the word ‘ungefähr’ (approximately), and said we usually use it to the closest quarter of an hour, to give him some kind of detail to hold on to.

Eventually he begrudgingly accepted it, still eyeing me suspiciously as he sat down. So I got the group to respond to some questions, and when one of the guys said ‘about 4 ‘o clock’ and the time I had given them was 3.51, I said, ‘good, yes…’ But Hans jumped up again and said, ‘No, wrong; it should be “about a quarter to four”, because it is closer to this quarter by three minutes!’

My interest in learning German and French predates my interest in teaching English, but teaching your native tongue to others does give you some interesting insights into your own learning experience. Martin here was being very German – precise even about imprecision – but he was actively getting involved in the language, and approaching it with confidence. The English word ‘about’ is tricky for a German learner, since it also can mean ‘on the topic of’ and has various different senses in German (with über, um, von … and others, depending on context etc.) He wasn’t just going to let it slide.

Getting involved in the language and pushing the language to work for you seems to be the way English-learners in Germany succeed; the ones that don’t worry so much about getting it wrong, are the ones that tend to get it right the most, and improve more quickly. Once they are prepared enough with some key vocabulary, it’s a matter of drilling forms over and over again, similar to the Preaching technique in SmarterGerman.

My engineer class were somewhat reluctant students too. It was quite obvious from day one that they would prefer to be doing their ‘real work’. They were almost always late and took days off on class days as often as they could. Their company is developing a larger interest in the USA, hence the drive on English. When the Virus (Covid) hit and we had to move lessons to online, they had to be ‘convinced’ by the company all over again. Many other German companies, like Aldi for example, have actually changed their ‘corporate language’ to English, due to its adjunct status as a business lingua franca (the language most used to communicate between people with different first languages). Quite often, these kinds of students are not highly motivated … they didn’t ask for this to happen. Why should they have to learn a foreign language in their own country?

And it’s not as if most Business English course materials are high-octane adrenalin-pumping resources to work with, either. Today, for example, it was all about instructions on how to explain the features of a laminating machine to someone … and there’s only so much you can do to jazz that up.

Despite all this they were good students, and they improved their English. And I’d say that’s because they approach their learning with confidence and a willingness to be wrong.

It’s something I can also observe on myself when learning German with SmarterGerman. And, fortunately, their materials are much more interesting!

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