Category Archives: foreign language pedagogy

Denial of Assistance: Language lessons for migrants come too late and could be more effective

by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

In Europe, asylum seekers are taken care of by state agencies. They get accommodation and food, but that’s about it. Some of them have been living here in Germany for almost a year and they are still waiting for a final decision about whether they can stay or will be sent back. When I first met some of them, I found that even after several months of being in my country some knew only about a dozen German words and phrases. That means, there had been only very little contact with their German neighbours.

However, church communities and other people are now becoming aware of the problem and people like me who are retired and have some time on their hands have arranged regular meetings where they try to talk to them and teach them some German.

But here lies another problem. What is the most effective way of teaching real beginners who often come to us with mother tongues which nobody knows, for instance Tigrinya? There is absolutely no doubt about it that, for beginners, a bilingual approach where the teacher can use the learner’s mother tongue (or another language the learner is somewhat familiar with) is much more effective than a monolingual teaching-learning situation where only the target language can be used. Unfortunately the latter situation is often the case as present-day immigrants often speak only one of the lesser known “little” languages of Africa. So it seems that a monolingual German-only approach (also: direct method, Berlitz method) is the only possible way. So far as I can see, this has been the policy of the German courses sponsored by the government for those migrants who were granted asylum.  Learning German this way is an arduous task and painstakingly slow. It is a sink or swim method, leaving many learners frustrated in spite of coursebooks peppered with colourful pictures.

However, the situation could be effectively remedied, even in multilingual classes. Experts would simply have to agree upon, let’s say 30 dialogues of the type found in almost every coursebook and create an internet site for each of the European languages concerned. Then an appeal should be launched to those bilinguals well integrated in their respective host countries and ready to provide the same texts in their home language, perhaps even free of charge. Teachers, voluntary or professional, could study the dialogues with their classes and act them out in groups. This would be comparatively easy, because every client could fully understand what he is doing and saying. With our social brains and our emotional expertise we are naturally born performers. Learners can enjoy team work and create moments of excellence for themselves and their audiences. Moreover, reference to the learners’ mother tongues implies an appreciation of indigenous languages and cultures.

Comprehensible input is precisely the basic condition for language acquisition. But the outmoded pedagogic approach à la Berlitz, which is still the rule in many language courses worldwide, is an outright denial of assistance. See Butzkamm & Caldwell, The bilingual reform.  A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching (2009) and



CAES International Conference: Faces of English Theory, Practice and Pedagogy

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

The Centre for Applied English Studies at Hong Kong University will be hosting an international conference titled “Faces of English: Theory, Practice and Pedagogy” in Hong Kong on 11-13 June 2015. According to the organisers, the conference aims to bring together academics, researchers, practitioners and research students from around the world to discuss the interdependence between theory and practice, with papers which focus on the analysis, description and teaching of English in order to better understand the ways in which theory, research and pedagogy interact and inform each other. It also welcomes participants to share practical ideas and teaching materials related to the use of English in a variety of social, professional, educational and virtual contexts.The keynote speakers and post-conference workshop facilitators are:

Rod Ellis, The University of Auckland, New Zealand
Keynote: Teacher as input; Workshop: Consciousness-raising tasks for grammar teaching

Bonny Norton, University of British Columbia, Canada
Keynote: Digital ways, unequal worlds: Identity, investment, and English language learners in changing times;  Workshop: Critical practices in the assessment of writing

David Nunan, The University of Hong Kong
Keynote: Language learning beyond the classroom;  Workshop: Designing projects for out-of-class learning

Wen Qiufang, Beijing Foreign Studies University, China
Keynote: Production-oriented approach to teaching adult English learners in Mainland China;  Workshop: How to implement POA in English teaching

Ken Hyland, The University of Hong Kong
Keynote: Anecdote, attitude and evidence. Does English disadvantage EAL authors in international publishing? Workshop: Writing for international publication in Applied Linguistics and EFL journals

I have been invited to give a talk on ‘Standards-based instruction in EFL classrooms in Germany: Creaticide by design?’. This is my abstract:

Looking at recent education reforms in the U.S., the American education psychologist David Berliner (2012) cautions against placing too many expectations on standards-based reforms, on thinning down school curricula, and ultimately, on conceptualizing education in terms of testing and measurable outcome primarily. In his view, reducing education to competency-based instruction and the demonstration of knowledge and skills in centralized performance tests may eventually have some undesirable backwash effects. Sooner or later, frontline practitioners might adopt a ‘teaching to the test-mentality’ which in turn could contribute to a classroom learning atmosphere overshadowed by fear of failure. In this context, Berliner (2012) warns against ‘creaticide by design’ in the classroom.

In my talk, I would like to briefly outline and problematize the state-of-the-art of competency-, standards- and test-oriented theorizing in Germany, placing special emphasis on the (largely neglected) role of creativity and improvisation in learning English as a foreign language. Based on qualitative-empirical case research carried out in a number of EFL classrooms in Germany over the past 20 years, I would also like to illustrate how teachers can foster creativity and improvisation in meaningful, task-driven, partly scripted and unscripted classroom settings.

Berliner, D. (2012) ‘Narrowing Curriculum, Assessments, and Conceptions of What It Means to Be Smart in the US Schools: Creaticide by Design’, in Ambrose D. and Sternberg, R.J. (eds), How Dogmatic Beliefs Harm Creativity and Higher-Level Thinking. New York: Routledge, 79-93.

26th Biennial DGFF Conference 2015

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus-Liebig-University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

The 26th Biennial Conference of the German Association of Foreign Language Research (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Fremdsprachenforschung, DGFF) will be held at Ludwigsburg University of Education, Germany, September 30 – October 3, 2015. The conference theme is “Teaching Languages“.

2015 DGFF Poster

Research into the practice and development of teaching and teaching procedures is a fundamental concern of second and foreign language education studies. Quality has always been a precondition for successful teaching, and remains so. What actually constitutes good teaching, however, is a question that is under constant review. Teachers are called upon to perform in the most diverse contexts, both within school domains and outside them, whether in the instruction of foreign languages or of second languages. Teaching staff are obliged – especially in the light of general political and educational demands for new learning cultures – to deal with an increasing number of responsibilities and challenges. Their qualifications, competence, and professional involvement are decisive factors in the successful implementation of educational reform. The 26th DGFF Conference will place teaching in the focus of its attention, enquiring into its practical procedures and parameters as well as its theoretical and scientific principles.

  • How can various theoretical perspectives in FL research contribute to the issues of the teacher?
  • What, in the light of large-scale studies on general features of classroom interaction, are the particular characteristics of teaching and learning a foreign language?
  • How can the professionalization of teaching staff be successfully accomplished?
  • What experience and insights have we gained from the history of foreign language teaching?
  • How does the teaching task present itself in various contexts and with regard to heterogeneous groups of participants?
  • What advances have been made in conveying particular content aspects of foreign language education?
  • What are the potentialities and limitations of teaching? What innovative instructional strategies and materials do we have at our disposal today? What goals can be realized through the use of these? How is their practical efficacy and reliability to be judged?

These are among the many questions to be addressed in 12 sections, as well as in numerous discussion fora and plenary sessions. For further information, please click here.

Complexity Thinking in German Englischdidaktik

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University, Giessen, Germany

In a recent publication, Sarah Mercer (2013: 376) states that at present “SLA is undergoing what could be termed a ‚complexity turn’ as researchers become increasingly aware of and sensitive to the inherent complexity and dynamism in learning and teaching foreign languages”. While this may be true for SLA research, it is difficult to generalize across all academic disciplines concerned with foreign language learning and teaching in Europe and elsewhere in the world. I come from a different background – referred to as Englischdidaktik in Germany (English ‘Didactics’).

As an academic discipline, Englischdidaktik is by no means restricted to teaching, and it is not at all to be confused with a didactic, i.e. schoolmasterely chalk-and-talk approach to foreign language instruction built upon simplified assumptions of cause and effect. Rather, Englischdidaktik is a tradition of thinking about and studying teaching and learning that has always been sensitive and fully aware of the complexities, the richness, and the dynamic and emergent character of language pedagogical encounters, as well as the messy nature of foreign language learning. This does not mean, of course, that teachers and teaching should be messy, too. Teaching is more than setting the conditions for learning, because this would be a teaching strategy that is largely based on hope, not more than that. At its core, teaching is highly complex, professional decision-making, before, during, and after instruction, in order to increase the probability of learning.

One traditional heuristic for modeling complexity in general pedagogy and in foreign language learning and teaching in Germany is the ‘Extended Didactic Triangle’ (see below). Developed in the mid 19th century its origins are unclear, but the model nevertheless identifies three core components of any instructional system: student, teacher, and content (see the three corners of the triangle and the three vertices as well). Each of these components is immensely complex itself (various learner and teacher variables, etc.), and all components are interrelated in a complex, nonlinear, and dynamic way. Furthermore, they are embedded in a multi-layered societal and cultural context:

Kurtz_Complexity 1_Didactic triangle

This diagram depicts the beginnings of complexity thinking in Germany. A more recent approach to complexity is, for instance, Andreas Helmke’s ‘Affordance-Utilization-Model of Instruction and Learning’ (2009; my translation) which illustrates how many interconnected factors can actually play a role in the classroom:

Kurtz_Complexity 2_Helmke

However, in current research conducted in the field of Englischdidaktik in Germany a further, pragmatically motivated distinction is typically being made between classroom-based and classroom-oriented research, i.e. between studies that focus primarily on aspects of big C-complexity or small-c complexity, depending on the specific interests and questions of the individual researcher. Studies that focus on small-c complexity are typically conducted in the foreign language classroom (i.e. in many different ways, ranging from qualitative to quantitative, from ethnographic to experimental, employing different research methods, including participatory action research, design experiments, etc.). Studies dedicated to big-C complexity are usually representative of theoretical, rather than empirical research. However, this does not mean that conceptual (‘armchair-‘) research is less complex and important.

Kurtz_Complexity 4_Big C

I think that in the present age of competency-oriented and standards-based foreign language instruction, increasing attention needs to be given to big-C complexity (not only in Englischdidaktik-research) and how it influences or even shapes everyday classroom practices  (in terms of backwash effect):

Kurtz_Complexity 5_exogeneous

I also think that the delicate balance between big-C issues (outcome orientation) and small-c issues (process orientation) is at risk currently, not only in Germany:

Kurtz_Complexity 6_Imbalance

This is why researchers working in the field of Englischdidaktik and in its international sister disciplines need to step up their efforts to further investigate the complex relation between outcome-orientation (focusing on predictability, this way reducing complexity) and the highly complex processes involved in target language learning and teaching (which are difficult to anticipate).


Helmke, Andreas (2009). Unterrichtsqualität und Lehrerprofessionalität. Diagnose, Evaluation und Verbesserung des Unterrichts (3rd ed.). Seelze-Velber: Klett-Kallmeyer.

Mercer, Sarah (2013). “Towards a Complexity-Informed Pedagogy for Language Learning. Uma proposta de pedagogia para aprendizagem de línguas na perspectiva da complexidade”. RBLA, Belo Horizonte, v. 13, n. 2, p. 375-398, 2013.


How to Improve Foreign Language Teaching Significantly

posted by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

In my view, the theory and practice of teaching beginners is stagnating. One of the reasons for this stagnation are fundamental flaws or omissions in the language teaching theories of the mainstream. The four areas in which significant improvements can be achieved concern the communicative principle, the imitative principle,  the bilingual principle, and the generative principle. They are all based on our knowledge of how humans learn languages naturally, irrespective of educational arrangements.

(1) We are born and bred to communicate. It is our social talent that makes us smarter than all other living beings. Preschool children already have the expressive means for a magnificent array of speech intentions, using their voice, mimes and gestures. And they bring these communicative competencies to the task of foreign language learning. It follows that utterances, not words, are the primary reality of language, and dialogues, for which we need a partner, are the ideal basic texts for foreign language teaching. They define a specific situation and constitute a total communicative event. So let us teach learners to enact these situations in face-to-face communication as naturally as possible. If rightly taught, they perform them with verve and gusto no matter whether they are children, adolescent or adults, slow or fast learners. With our social brains we are naturally born performers and masters in make-believe. Most modern coursebooks are peppered with colourful pictures, but don’t contain enough short, actable and sophisticated dialogues with which learners can enjoy team work and create moments of excellence for themselves and their audiences.

(2) Imitation is our “motor for culture” (Gopnik); it forges the neuronal link between hearing and speaking. Language learning and teaching is at the very beginning strikingly physical: ear-training, articulatory training and body language combined. Listening plus imitating is therefore our most basic form of practice. It must first and foremost begin with short utterances in the context of the mimicry-memorization of dialogues. To achieve this, precision techniques have been developed. However, repeated intensive and noisefree imitation is often neglected. But without ears and articulatory organs attuned to the foreign language we cannot take much pleasure in it.

(3) Sophisticated dialogues are possible from the very beginning because we teach them with systematic mother tongue support, via the bilingual sandwich-technique. In a laudable effort to make teachers conduct classrooms in the foreign language, mainstream philosophy has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. However, a naturally acquired language is the greatest pedagogical resource that learners bring to foreign language classes, as it lays the foundations for all other languages we might want to learn. Two thousand years of documented language teaching, as well as modern brain research, have shown that foreign language learning is fundamentally a bilingual endeavour. Because, in a deep sense, we only learn language once. All languages help us to make sense of the world, so they all dance the same dance. All humans can talk about persons and things, time and space, past and future, basic event types like give & take, possession, number, instrument, agent, obligation, condition etc. etc. In our first five years we have accumulated a huge cognitive capital for the rest of our lives, usually via the mother tongue. It would be sheer madness to cut learners off from what is the very foundation of language. It follows that it is not just a more flexible and less rigid attitude towards own-language use which is needed, but the well-targeted, systematic exploitation of the explanatory potential of learners’ own language(s), however with the foreign language still being the working language of the classroom.

(4) In language, we make “infinite use of finite means” (Humboldt). A finite stock of words or word groups can be recombined again and again to produce innumerable novel sentences – and thus, new ideas. This combinatorial infinity is according to Chomsky the core capacity of all human languages. It means that the words and constructions of the basic dialogues, stories or songs must not remain encapsulated in those texts, but must be extracted, recombined and varied in order to fit new situations and personal communicative needs.  (What shall we do with the drunken sailor? => What shall I do with my hair? => What shall I do with my life?). Children are excellent pattern detectives, which is visible from the two word stage on. But 3- hours-per-week learners must be helped to shorten the process of pattern recognition – by mother tongue mirroring, for instance – and by repetition cum variation of basic constructions, which is also evidenced in child language. The practical solution proposed are semi-communicative bilingual pattern drills as stepping stones towards communication – so mother tongue support again. If constructions are fully understood, they can take root and learners feel encouraged to risk something new on the analogy of what is familiar. Bilingual pattern practice ought to be a cornerstone in our teaching methodology. It is conspicuously absent in our coursebooks.

After forty years of working with foreign and second language learners and observing them in and outside classrooms I have come to the conclusion that we must free ourselves from two dogmas which have harmed, and not helped, the teaching profession: The monolingual dogma tried to banish the learners’ native language from the classroom. The communicative dogma led to the wholesale rejection of pattern drills. Let us re-orient ourselves and make a significant step forward.

FFF Conference 2014 on Early Foreign Language Learning

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University Giessen, Germany

The 4th German FFF Conference 2014 (FFF = Fortschritte im Frühen  Fremdsprachenlernen; Advances in Early Foreign Language Learning) will be held October 2-4, 2014 at Leipzig University, Germany. The conference will serve as a meeting place for everyone professionally interested and involved in the theory and/or practice of foreign language education in elementary schools and at kindergarten level. This year, it will focus in particular (not exclusively) on language learning research conducted in the pre-school sector, addressing fundamental questions related to adequate and efficient instruction and the transition from pre-school to elementary school. The conference will take place over three days, featuring one plenary lecture, a total of 40 presentations, and five themed workshops. For more detailed information (in German), please click here.



Infographic: Many Languages, One America

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

Many languages,one america
an infographic from