One day after class, a student in an advanced German course I was teaching approached me and told me how difficult and sometimes frustrating it was to express complex ideas in a foreign language. It was a literature class and we had just discussed about Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play “Der Besuch der alten Dame.” Students had just given short presentations and very successfully spoken about central ideas of the play and demonstrated their thorough understanding of it, including this particular student. I assured him that he had actually done quite a good job on his presentation, but I also talked to him about my own experience as a German native speaker at an American university and that I very well knew the frustration and difficulties he was talking about from my initial time in the US. For a moment, he looked at me a bit puzzled and startled. After this moment of surprise, he replied that he had not been aware of the fact that I, as his instructor, could relate to his problems very well from personal experience. I encouraged him to keep trying to express his thoughts in German and not to let frustration affect his progress. Over the course of the rest of the class, he hesitated less to talk in German and more often took the risk of expressing himself in the target language, even when the subject matter was difficult. Our conversation had clearly helped him overcome some emotional barriers.
On the one hand, this anecdote illustrates the extent to which we as teachers should be aware of students’ challenges involved in learning in general, but also in learning a foreign language in particular. Living and teaching in a country in which I have to speak a foreign language myself every day can, in my opinion, be advantageous and help me to relate to the students’ learning processes.
On the other hand, it illustrates the core of my teaching philosophy and the central goal I pursue with classroom activities in everyday teaching: in encouraging students to express themselves in German and use German to communicate about their ideas and opinions in real communicative situations, they can experience the target language as a medium and tool for exchange, rather than a mere illustration for grammatical phenomena disconnected from their lives and the real world. This applies not only to learners at an advanced level, but to all levels of language proficiency. Following such a communicative, meaning-oriented approach rather than a more grammar-driven foreign language teaching method and making communication itself the focus in the classroom, I see my main task as teacher to be the following: engaging students in interactive classroom activities; providing stimulating input and opportunities to use German as a means for information exchange; reducing the artificiality of the classroom environment as far as possible; and fostering my students’ strategic skills to successfully use German as a means for information exchange.
This does not mean, however, that my instruction—beyond communicative competence—does not also aim for formal accuracy. Of course, the acquisition of grammatical and discourse competence is the goal of my teaching as well. But I achieve this by introducing grammatical concepts along with content—in other words: by contextualizing them and making them tangible. This way, grammar instruction becomes, to a large extent, part of meaning-oriented and communicative language teaching. Thus, for instance, instead of simply asking my students to talk about things they would like to own (and practicing the modal “möchten” with the accusative case), I brought realia to the classroom (i.e. funny, ugly, odd souvenirs, silly props, dated household items, etc.). That way, I was able to simulate realistic situations and to allow students to engage with new vocabulary as well as with the subject matter. In this hands-on activity, they could talk about concrete objects and, along the way, practice grammar in a guided and structured way, embedded in a realistic communicative situation. In addition to that, however, I believe, that explicit—albeit limited—grammar instruction is justified and useful to accommodate more analytical learner types and to situate the learned information within the larger framework of the German language.
By engaging students in concrete, interactive hands-on activities as described, I aim to make my instruction student-focused and to make students more responsible for and more involved in their own learning process than with “traditional” instructor-focused teaching approaches. While I acknowledge that some students might not be used to such self-guided learning and might need more initial guidance to overcome problems, I see this concept as the key to successful language instruction that aims for communicative competence, but also for student-driven learning—learning that enhances not only the student’s skill set for language learning, but also for learning in general and life outside the classroom.
Moreover, I constantly keep up with the developments in instructional technology to look for new media which can be usefully implemented in my instruction in order to include as much authentic and engaging material as possible and to facilitate language learning that not only aims for language proficiency but also for cultural understanding and competence.