A Personal View of Foreign Language Education in Germany Today

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, foreign language education in Germany is characterized by ambivalence and tensions. While on the one hand there is a growing awareness among policy-makers, administrators, teachers and parents – and increasingly among foreign language learners themselves – that culture-sensitive foreign language learning and teaching is crucial to prepare young people for life and work in a world affected by rapid globalization, on the other hand schools are being put under growing socio-political and administrative pressure to produce measurable, comparable and reliable results. Inspired and guided by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), huge efforts have been made to construct and implement national standards, regional core curricula and assessment programmes over the last few years; however, culture-sensitive foreign language education is a complex, time-consuming endeavour, and in everyday classroom practice individual progress towards intercultural openness, sensitivity, awareness, tolerance and understanding is less transparent and more difficult to achieve than is, for instance, the development of basic foreign language skills. Since the assessment of psycho-social outcomes of intercultural learning and teaching in foreign language classrooms is problematic, there is a continuing tendency among German foreign language teachers to view intercultural education as an add-on to foreign language learning in terms of factual, more easily testable socio-cultural knowledge only.  

Despite these apparent problems, educational policy-makers and administrators in Germany (as in many other parts of the world) keep on emphasizing quality assurance in schools and the necessity to ‘raise standards’ and to ‘produce better output’. In this context, however, ‘output quality’ or ‘outcome’ is largely seen in terms of global economic competitiveness, often only in relation to current and future workforce needs. The underlying concept of education as an investment in human capital which is expected to yield measurable and calculable socio-economic dividends represents a fundamental shift away from the traditional German view of education as a carefully balanced long-term process aimed at fostering Bildung and Erziehung – intellectual and personal development in the widest sense – in an integrated way.  

On the whole, the ongoing ‘McDonaldization’ of secondary school education in terms of profitability, calculability, efficiency, uniformity, and threat of embarrassment has contributed little to the actual improvement or innovation of instruction in German foreign language classrooms up to now. The present trend to place extreme emphasis on standards and assessment as well as on stronger accountability and predictability is rather affecting the practice of foreign language learning and teaching in some undesirable ways. As more and more problems are beginning to surface, it is becoming increasingly clear that in everyday practice, foreign language education is steadily drifting away – yet again, perhaps – from attempting to build a broad spectrum of communicative competences and culture-sensitive participatory potentials to improving isolated skills performance in more or less convincing achievement tests, and that, contrary to the intentions and visions of the reform initiative, teaching is progressively reorganized towards avoiding negative results in the annual testing marathon. The overall picture beginning to emerge in the practice of foreign language learning and teaching in German secondary schools is that the current standards-driven reforms are primarily conducive to the gradual improvement of accuracy in basic learning segments such as listening and reading comprehension skills, and perhaps speaking and writing too, but that they are simultaneously having a detrimental impact on foreign language instruction, contributing to a methodological disintegration of intercultural communicative language learning and teaching as a whole.  

Teaching for accuracy has always been of central concern to foreign language teachers in Germany, especially in grammar schools (German secondary schools leading to a university-entrance qualification). So far, the reforms have been more or less ineffective in bringing about noteworthy changes in promoting complexity, fluency and appropriateness in target language production. As the First National German Report on Education and the National DESI (Video) Study (DESI = German English Student Achievement International) show, the prevailing monoculture of primarily form-focussed, teacher-dominated instruction with its typical procedural infrastructure of interaction (i.e. initiation, response and feedback) is still largely intact and pervasive. For any scholar interested in genuine classroom-based research, as opposed to supposedly classroom-oriented research, and in how theory is implemented in practice, this constitutes a huge problem. 

The contemporary trend to coat instruction with more and more layers of evaluation, forcing teachers to increasingly think and act in test intervals and to squeeze foreign language learning through the bottleneck of assessment schedules, definitely represents a step backwards on the bumpy road to meaningful and language-rich, culture-sensitive and learner-centred, more individually-tailored and flexible instructional practices designed to simultaneously achieve a variety of educational as well as foreign language learning goals. 

Since sustained high-quality support for teachers in terms of systematic in-service teacher development is expensive, more and more administrative measures are taken which are directly or indirectly harmful to the improvement of foreign language educational quality in everyday classroom practice. The recruitment of staff that is not fully or appropriately qualified, including inexperienced student teachers, and the increase in the workload of existing staff, are just two heart-breaking examples which illustrate the widening gaps between scientific expertise, political ambition, socio-economic expectation and educational reality, between theory and practice. From a bottom-up perspective, the current standards-based reform in its top-down implementation is amounting to a massive burden for teachers, not to a realistic chance for improvement. Generally speaking, current educational policies are largely inadequate to keep (foreign language) teaching an attractive profession, and to exert a pull on prospective, especially male school teachers.   

These are not the only problems though. In a premature attempt to establish ‘lean’ curricula (i.e. core curricula) by eliminating ‘seemingly unnecessary’ learning content, the already existing gap between foreign language learning and teaching and general secondary school education has been widened even more. In retrospect, a golden opportunity was missed to adjust foreign language curricula systematically to some of the most pressing questions facing the world today, especially to questions of health, ecology, citizenship and peace. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of the issues raised and dealt with in foreign language classrooms in Germany today still bear little relation to the fundamental challenges of growing-up in the twenty-first century. The pivotal communication themes and learning activities, which are usually taken from the coursebook, are largely based on a distorted view of childhood and youth which unrealistically exaggerates the sunny side of life, especially at the early level of secondary school foreign language learning. The few critical issues that are actually tackled are a long way away from representing the complexity of demands and challenges young people are confronted with nowadays, and of which they are in fact well aware. Thus, foreign language instruction in secondary schools is learner-centred to a very limited extent only, especially in terms of thematic content.  

All in all, foreign language learning and teaching in actual everyday practice adds too little to the holistic development of knowledge, skills and understanding, and of attitudes and values that enable children and adolescents to think critically and to exchange views and ideas on essential issues of life. These issues, which are global in nature but manifest themselves regionally and locally, need to be seen as important thematic content around which foreign language learning and teaching should be designed in the future.


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