Much to my utter shock and amazement, on the basis of one (count it ONE) ten-week German language class at Occidental College in the spring of 1975 (and a passing acquaintance with the Danish language), I placed out of the introductory German class (A1.1) and into the “minnow” class (A1.2). While this is clearly a great complement to Herr Professor A., it means I will probably have a bit of catch-up to do and may spend a good deal of class time with the “deer in headlights” look on my face. My fellow students at this level have already worked their way through a rather substantial 12-chapter textbook. We’ll see how this turns out.
But before we go much further, a quick word about language learning and assessment in Europe. All languages taught and tested are based on the CEFR, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, which consists of a set of acquisition levels based on time in class, topics taught, and proficiency attained. What that means is that a grade of A 1 (introductory) or B 1 (intermediate) or C 1 (advanced) is pretty much the same across languages, schools, and grading scores. As you go up the levels, each section takes a little longer and means you are more proficient in that language according to a set of testable variables. A 1.1 is “I don’t know diddly” and C 2.2 is the equivalent of someone functioning at the master’s level. I first encountered this most reasonable system when I was teaching in Georgia and I felt like a king-sized idiot that I had neither heard of it or knew where in the US it was even in use. Just chalk it up to yet another one of those useful and widespread metrics that the world is cheerfully running along on and of which we in the US are cheerfully ignorant.
This morning sharply at 9:00 am I took my seat in my classroom, joining a woman from Italy, a man from Palestine, another man from the US, a woman from Taiwan, and five students (male and female) from China. I am clearly the oldest, although the Taiwanese woman, a teacher herself, is probably in her 40’s. The rest are college-aged (as far as I can tell). Our teacher J, a lovely woman probably in her 30’s, was born in Russia and grew up in Berlin. In addition to Russian, German, and English, she speaks a little Spanish and Portuguese. (It’s just so damn humbling.) Happily, the lingua franca at the school (used for announcements and anything really important that they don’t want us to miss) is in English. Boy, am I lucky. Class runs from 9:00 am to 11:00 am, then a break to 11:30 am, and then another stretch until 1:15. This is considered five class units (45 minutes each, even though the timing doesn’t reflect that exactly). I myself have never taught a class longer than two hours and 45 minutes, including a 15-minute break in the middle – my hat’s off to the whole team for a schedule that sustained in terms of teaching concentration.
So it was off to the races this morning with J acting out lots of words and having us guess what they were (auf Deutsch, naturlich), playing tapes of conversations, pairing us up to do worksheets with other students, and trying to teach us to puzzle out the use of the appropriate prepositions and articles for the damn Dativ case (location). We talked a lot about how the bank is next to the police station and the dog is on the sofa and so forth. I took copious notes during class which I have just finished re-copying into my crisp fresh notebook, and I’m feeling quite proud of myself, all things considered.
As part of this language learning exercise, I have already had a chat with Herr Director, ‘outing’ myself as an English teacher interested in observing another second language classroom in action to scout out best practices. He was delighted and intrigued and asked that we meet over the course of the program to discuss what I have seen and how what they are doing there compares to my experiences. So I am taking notes not only on the language, but on the language teaching as well (mostly things I am impressed with, only a few where some tweaking might be considered) and I am looking forward to the conversations to come.
But before you think I’m some kind of uber-kind, let me tell you today was hard. It was hard to sit and focus that intently for that long, to hear so much language I didn’t understand. It was hard to stare at a list of words and to try to remember what the article is (der, die, or das (singular) or die (plural)) and what the resulting dative form would be (dem or der (singular) or den (plural)). It was hard to see youngsters rippling this stuff off their tongues (the Palestinian man, as were my Arabic students in Portland, clearly the most at ease in the classroom). And by the time I staggered out of the classroom at 1:15, I was simply a tired pup.
Thankfully this week there is a holiday on Thursday (Ascension?), so after tomorrow’s class a little “pause.” (I’ll be having lunch that day with my buddy Kurt, so that will be a great treat.) Then Friday followed by a weekend. It’s only next week that the pedal will hit the metal with five straight days of class in a row….but listen to me, will ya? I’m not doing this because I have to, to form a new life in a new country because I can’t go back to my own country. I’m not doing this because my academic or professional life and that of my entire family depends on it. I’m simply doing this because…I am curious and interested to learn more about language and language learning, and because I have some free time on my hands. Nothing hangs in the balance except some minor ego adjustment. And to be humbled from time to time, me thinks, is a great blessing in itself.