Tag Archives: foreign language learning

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 www.fremdsprachendidaktik.de.



A New Way to Teach Grammar: The Bilingual Option

by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

This is a how-to-do it article. The theory and research behind it can be read up in Butzkamm & Caldwell (2009, 120ff.). I have chosen the for +noun / pronoun+ infinitive construction. Though it is eminently useful and transparent to speakers of many languages, I believe it is not much used by German intermediate EFL learners, simply because German and other languages prefer other constructions to express the same idea.

Lift the construction from a text the students have read and ask them to translate the sentence, for instance:

  • For human rights to flourish, religious rights have to come second.
    For this to happen, we must act now.
    For this to work well, we need to know more.

Here, the for-construction is a means to express purpose. For this meaning German normally uses a subordinating conjunction, i.e. ‘damit’. In order for the students to associate the infinitive construction with the familiar dependent clause introduced by ‘damit’, we need to practice:

Step 2:
T: Damit dies passiert, …
S: For this to happen …

T: Damit dies funktioniert, …
S: For this to work …

T: Damit dies gut funktioniert, …
S: For this to work well …

T: Damit die Märkte gut funktionieren, …
S: For (the) markets to work well …

T: Damit die Schüler fleißig arbeiten, …
S: For the students to study/work hard …

The open contrast between German: dependent clause, and English: infinitive works as a kind of inoculation against unthinking transfer of mother tongue habits. If the students hesitate, for instance with the negated version, the teacher simply gives the English sentence himself and asks the students to repeat it.

Step 3:
Perhaps the above examples are enough. The teacher has set the class on the right track and hands the activity over to the students: “Now make your own sentences along the same lines.” Alternatively, the teacher can allow a few minutes of silence for the students to jot down their ideas. This step is a must. The students must get the chance to experiment with the new construction, and the activity becomes monolingual. The mother tongue drops away.

Since the construction does not only express purpose but is also widely used in slightly different forms and contexts, these should be practiced too:

T: Es ist schon okay, dass du das sagst.
S: It’s okay for you to say that.

T: Ist es okay, wenn ich das sage?
S: Is it okay for me to say that?

T: War es okay, dass ich das gesagt habe?
S: Was it okay for me to say that?

T: Es wäre falsch, wenn wir jetzt gingen.
S: It would be wrong for us to go now.

T: Ist es normal, dass das passiert?
S: Is it normal for this to happen?

The students will now find it easy to come up with their own meaningful ideas, using different adjectives and different pronouns: ‘easy for us to…’, ‘unusual for them to…’, ‘not uncommon for him to…’, ‘important for her to….’

This is easy for Germans:

  • My hope is to find a good friend.
    My dream is to be a singer in a band.

However, this needs getting used to:

German (T): Meine Hoffnung ist, dass Papa aufhört zu rauchen.
English (S): My hope is for dad to stop smoking.

German: Meine Hoffnung ist, dass die Armen Hilfe bekommen.
English: My hope is for the poor to get help.

German: Meine Hoffnung ist, dass ihr gute Zensuren bekommt.
English: My hope is for you to get good marks.

Repetition is habit-forming, and believe it or not, part of language learning is habit formation. For correct speech habits to be formed, we need plenty of language turn-over in comparatively little time. This is what the exercise provides. Count the number of sentences the students have heard and produced and compare with other exercises which take the same amount of time.

Bilingual drills will be new for most teachers, who will have to learn, through trial and error, how to use mother tongue cues effectively, what cues work best and what cues are likely to cause interference errors from the native tongue. Let me say it again: Should the students hesitate (searching for English equivalents), the teacher simply translates his own sentence and makes his pupils repeat it. This is a simple way of avoiding interference. Another way of making it easy for the students and allowing them to get into the habit of the foreign phrase is changing only little things as you go from one sentence to the next:

German: Es war richtig, dass sie weitermachten (bzw. weiter zu machen).
English: It was right for them to continue.

German: War es richtig, dass sie weitermachten?
English: Was it right for them to continue?

German: Es ist richtig, dass sie weiter macht.
English: It is right for her to continue.

This is a way of playing it safe. But it can easily become boring unless the pace is rapid. – Just one more example. Bilingual cues are so flexible we can construct drills that tell a story, sort of.  Years ago, I tried what follows with grammar school kids in their first year of English. The textbook introduced the past tense rather cautiously, restricting the new forms in a first step to was / were / had. Well, yes, this is grammar, but for the pupils was / were / had are simply new words with a clear meaning, just like bread or butter. The sentences are no longer unrelated, the pace was fast:

German: Die Party war wunderbar.
English: The party was fantastic.

German: Die Party war großartig.
English: The party was wonderful.

German: Betty war da.
English: Betty was there.

German: Tim and Tom waren da.
English: Tim and Tom were there.

German: Ja, sie waren da.
English: Yes, they were there.

German: Alle  meine Freunde waren da.
English: All my friends were there.

German: Ich war in der Küche mit Tom.
English: I was in the kitchen with Tom.

German: Ja, wir waren in der Küche.
English: Yes, we were in the kitchen.

German: Wir waren hungrig.
English: We were hungry.

German: Wir hatten Würstchen.
English: We had sausages.

German: Die Würstchen waren gut.
English: The sausages were good.

German: Die Getränke waren auch gut.
English: The drinks were good. too.

German: I hatte ‘ne Cola.
English: I had a Coke.

German: Einige waren im Garten.
English: Some were in the garden.

German: Betty was so nett / freundlich.
English: Betty was so nice.

German: Sie war nett zu Tom.
English: She was nice to Tom.

German: Aber Tom war nicht nett.
English: But Tom wasn’t nice.

German: Tom war schlimm/schrecklich.
English: Tom was awful.

German: Aber du warst da.
English: But you were there.

German: Ich war glücklich.
English: I was happy.

German: Weil ich mit dir war (weil ich war …).
English: Because I was with you.

German: .. und weil du mit mir warst.
English: .. and because you were with me.

German: Es war 11 Uhr.
English: It was 11 o-clock.

German: Die Party war vorbei.
English: The party was over.

German: Zu schnell.
English: Too soon.

Mother tongue stimuli here work better than anything else, because of their flexibility. Many emotional overtones and nuances of meaning can be conveyed by the voice alone. Both the L1 cue ‘zu schnell’ as well as its English equivalent carry the tones and the facial expressions of regret. Or notice the emphasis your voice can convey when saying fantastisch/fantastic. In other words, we pretend as if the stimulus sentences and the corresponding responses were serious utterances, and can thus enhance meaning.

Well, yes, this is pre-communicative practice, but see Butzkamm & Caldwell (2009) to show you how this kind of drill can lead a class right into message-oriented communication. Bilingual techniques such as the ones proposed here must become known, tried out and tested more widely than heretofore. Proponents of a monolingual approach, however, pull the rug out from under their learners’ feet. If you have tried this out with other languages, please give me some feedback: wbutzkamm@web.de

Butzkamm, Wolfgang & Caldwell, John A.W. (2009). The Bilingual Reform. A Paradigm Shift in Foreign Language Teaching. Tübingen: Narr.

Now Available: The Dortmund Historical Corpus of Classroom English (DOHCCE)

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


The Dortmund Historical Corpus of Classroom English (DOHCCE) is a digitally reconstructed duplicate of a hitherto unpublished collection of classroom transcripts compiled by a small research team at the former Ruhr University of Education, Dortmund in the early 1970s. It comprises a total of 36 originally typewritten and carefully annotated paper transcripts of English as a Foreign Language lessons conducted in several comprehensive schools in the federal German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Since all lessons were held before the inception and widespread uptake of the communicative approach in Germany, the transcripts provide a unique glimpse into an era of instructed language learning that still echoes today.

Brief extract:

Grade 9 (February 15, 1974; Transcript #22 in the Pre-Digital EFL Corpus)

16562 L. Our topic at the moment is Canada. So we have heard
16563 a little bit about the history of Canada already. Now,
16564 when you compare the history of Canada and the
16565 history of Germany … yes, please?
16567 S. The or no [ähm] the people are not [äh] so long in Canada.
16568 L. Hmm.
16569 S. The state is not so long … old.
16570 L. The state, the country as such is not
16571 very old. Anything that you can tell me about how old
16572 Canada as a nation is?
16573 S. [äh] 1967 they had had the … 100th birthday.
16574 L. Could you give the date again?
16575 S. [äh] 1967.

Previous research on the history of foreign language teaching and learning in Europe (and, perhaps, elsewhere in the world) has largely been based on cultural artefacts such as formerly used textbooks, workbooks, old school curricula, etc. Historical corpora of spoken classroom English such as the DOHCCE may help to shed some more light on instruction and learning in the past.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2013). The Dortmund Historical Corpus of Classroom English (DOHCCE). Flensburg: Flensburg University Press (608 pgs.)

The book is now available as a print on demand-publication. For further information, please click here.

Interview with Alan Maley | Liverpool Online: “The Dark Matter of Classrooms”

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

Over the past 15 years, I have been interested in the question of how to balance scripted (pre-planned) and unscripted (spontaneous) communication in English as a Foreign Language classes. I started off with what H.H. Stern (1992: 199) referred to as the predictability-unpredictability continuum of instructed learning. Focusing on the notion of ‘improvisation in structured learning environments’, I created a number of prototype activities designed to give learners more room to talk and to allow for more spontaneous, creative, and flexible language use in the classroom (as documented on this blog and, in much more detail, e.g. in Kurtz 2001 and Kurtz 2011).

A few days ago, I stumbled upon the following interview with Alan Maley, who also problematizes this issue. What I like best is his distinction between preparation and preparedness. In my view, this hits it on the nail.

Interview with Alan Maley | Liverpool Online. (29.03.2014: Unfortunately, the interview is no longer available online. In order to find out more about what it means to be prepared for the unexpected, watch this:

Kurtz, Jürgen (2001): Improvisierendes Sprechen im Fremdsprachenunterricht. Eine Untersuchung zur Entwicklung spontansprachlicher Handlungskompetenz in der Zielsprache. Tübingen: Narr.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2011): Breaking through the Communicative Cocoon: Improvisation in Secondary School EFL Classrooms. In: Sawyer, R. Keith (ed.) (2011): Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 131-160.

Stern, H.H. (1992): Issues and Options in Language Teaching. Oxford: University Press.

DGFF Conference 2011 Workshop Proposal

Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

The 24th Biennial Conference 2011 of the German Society for Foreign Language Research (DGFF) will be held September 28 to October 1 at the University of Hamburg, Germany. The conference theme is: Globalization – Migration – Foreign Language Learning and Teaching (Globalisierung – Migration – Fremdsprachenunterricht). The call for papers is not out yet, but the organizers have already issued a call for workshop proposals. I’d like to organize such a workshop (or an international research symposium) focusing on “Enhancing Young Learners’ Developing Concepts of Self and Other in the Primary FL classroom”. Here’s the abstract I have already submitted to the conference organizers – I’m very interested to hear what you think about the overall project:

Enhancing Young Learners’ Developing Concepts of Self and Other in the Primary FL Classroom

Current primary school EFL curricula in Germany (see, for instance, North-Rhine Westphalia 2008) place considerable emphasis on the incorporation of intercultural learning and teaching (fostering language and culture awareness, etc.) into a comprehension-driven, usage-based framework of instruction aimed above all at the development of basic communication skills in ways that are appropriate for children. Culture-sensitive language learning and teaching is thus not (or no longer) conceived of as an aside, but as an integral part of foreign language education in primary schools. However, in view of the current state-of-the-art of foreign language research in this area, the optimism shining through in curricular statements such as the one below may not be entirely warranted. The main reasons for some skepticism might include: a) we still know very little about the intricate mix of ((meta-)cognitive, (meta-)linguistic, affective, sociocultural, moral, etc.) dispositions, abilities and constraints involved in culture-sensitive education in primary EFL classrooms, b) the patchwork of case studies on adequate and fruitful instructional designs and activities (arguably) does not provide a fully reliable basis for the development and implementation of long-term instructional programs as yet, c) the limited amount of time allocated to the teaching of English in primary schools (90 minutes a week in Germany), and d) the fact that FL teacher education in this area (in Germany and, perhaps, elsewhere) is only just beginning to meet the challenges resulting from such a complex endeavor:

„Ausgehend von ihren eigenen Erfahrungen erhalten die Kinder Einblick in fremde Kulturen und Lebensweisen. Sie erkennen dabei Gemeinsamkeiten und Unterschiede zwischen ihrer eigenen Situation und den Lebensumständen anderer. In Gesprächen über die mehrsprachige, multikulturelle Wirklichkeit von Kindern im englischen Sprachraum wird ihnen die kulturelle und sprachliche Vielgestaltigkeit der eigenen Lebenswirklichkeit zunehmend bewusster. Dies stärkt die Entwicklung von Aufgeschlossenheit, Verständnisbereitschaft und Toleranz. Eine wesentliche Voraussetzung für das Verständnis fremder Kulturen und Lebensweisen ist Authentizität. An diesem Anspruch müssen sich Themen, Situationen und vor allem Materialien messen lassen.“ (MSW NRW 2008: 10).

This interdisciplinary workshop / research symposium is intended to address and illuminate some fundamental aspects of intercultural education in primary FL classrooms, seeking to bridge theory and practice as far as possible. i.e.:

a) The concept of (the aspects of) intercultural communicative competence to be targeted in primary FL classrooms (openness towards other cultures, transcultural curiosity, ability to adopt a different perspective?); as Kramsch (2008: 24) points out, “In Europe, researchers stress education for citizenship and moral responsibility in the multicultural societies of Europe, they emphasize democratic debate, tolerance of the Other and reflection of the Self. In the U.S., advocates of intercultural competence stress individual learner development and community spirit, participation and task-based collaboration.”

b) The significance of acculturation and enculturation in today’s primary school FL classrooms (focusing on aspects of migration, pluriculturalism and plurilingualism).

c) The sociology and psychology of child language development (focusing on the child’s developing (meta-)cognitive, (meta-)linguistic, affective, social and moral capacities).

d) The implications of current research for creating curricula and for implementing convincing and successful instructional programs and classroom practices, in the primary FL classroom as well as in (pre-service) FL teacher education.

Envisioned concept of the workshop / research symposium: brief statements/presentations, plenary debate; workshop languages: English and German


Kramsch, Claire (2008). The intercultural yesterday and today: Political perspectives. In Renate Schulz & ErwinTschirner (Eds.) Communicating across Borders: Developing Intercultural Competence in German as a Foreign Language. Munich: iudicium, 2008, 5-27.

MSW NRW (2008). Lehrplan Englisch für die Grundschulen des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen. Available online.

Focus on Form in the Foreign Language Classroom: Planned, Incidental, Improvised?

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

In this presentation, Danijela Trenkic and Michael Sharwood Smith (2001) raise some fundamental questions concerning ‘form-focused instruction’ (more precisely, they focus on learners’ attention to formal aspects of the target language in communicative SLA environments). Does it make sense to focus on form (FonF) in the classroom? Trenkic and Sharwoold Smith come to the conclusion that “there is a place for FonF instruction and feedback in [the; JK] language classroom” and “that there is a possibility that it can ultimately influence ‘knowledge of language’” – “a question to be theoretically and empirically addressed by future FonF research.” This is vague, but due to the paucity of FonF research carried out in actual secondary school foreign language classrooms, it is almost impossible to come up with further (research-based) recommendations, appropriate and suitable to the needs of all language learners. Here are, nevertheless, some additional thoughts on this subject:

As two thousand years (and perhaps more) of foreign language learning and teaching show, focusing on the form of the target language is indespensable. However, since (intercultural) communicative competence is the ultimate goal of instruction today,  ‘form-focused instruction’ needs to be placed in the wider context of developing accuracy, complexity, fluency and appropriateness as a whole.

At present, ‘message before accuracy’ seems to be the best guideline for orchestrating everyday classroom discourse and interaction in secondary schools, but – in the age of standards-based instruction and increased orientation toward measurable, skills-oriented outcome – balancing out form-focused and message-oriented communication has (arguably) become more difficult. How can learners be prepared best for the annual assessment and testing marathon (largely focused on skills, on accuracy and on discrete-point testing)? How is it possible to develop communicative complexity, fluency and situational appropriateness under these  circumstances?

Task-based instruction appears to be a promising strategy, but as research in this area shows, it is still unclear when and how a focus of form should come (before or after the task?). At any rate, mixing up form-focused and message-oriented discouse should be avoided as far as possible (see, for instance, Doff & Klippel 2007: 198-204). – ‘As far as possible’ means that learners should only be interrupted by the teacher if their utterances are unintelligable, inappropriate, etc. Otherwise, teachers run the risk of demotivating learners to use the target language productively and spontaneously.

Spontaneity (in general) should not be underestimated in this context. Since instruction always takes place in the here-and-now of the classroom situation, planning a focus on form is possible, and – whenever new grammatical structures are introduced – necessary and advisable, but in everyday classroom discourse and interaction, reacting flexibly to what learners say on the spur of the moment is equally important (i.e. treating errors spontaneously,  expanding learner utterances immediately, etc.). Future FonF research should therefore be directed at developing a more comprehensive pedagogical framework which takes into account the discrepancies of planned and unplanned (incidental), scripted and unscripted (improvised). process- and product-oriented  instruction and learning.


Doff, Sabine & Klippel, Friederike (2007). Englischdidaktik. Praxishandbuch für die Sekundarstufe I und II. Berlin: Cornelsen.

International ALA Conference 2010

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

The 10th International Conference of the Association for Language Awareness (ALA) will be held July 25-28 at the University of Kassel, Germany. Central theme: “Awareness Matters: Language, Culture, Literacy”.

The conference will focus on research related to language, culture and literacy with an emphasis on awareness. The discussions will center on first, second, third, fourth, etc. and foreign language acquisition, teacher training, research in language and culture as well as on the role of language awareness and cultural awareness in the workplace.

Plenary speakers: Michael Byram (University of Durham, UK), Patricia Edwards (Michigan State University, USA), Reinhard Hünerberg & Andrea Geile (University of Kassel, GER), Günter Nold (TU Dortmund, GER), Patricia Ruggiano Schmidt (Le Moyne College, USA).

Main areas:

– Language Awareness in Language Learning and Language Teaching in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts
– Language Awareness in Diverse Workplaces, such as Business, Marketing, Health, etc.
– Language Awareness and the Use of Media
– Cultural Awareness in Language Learning and Language Teaching in Diverse Settings
– Cultural Awareness in the Workplace, such as Business, Marketing, Health, etc.
– Cultural Awareness and the Use of Media
– Language Awareness and Literacy Development in Language Learning and Teaching
– Language Awareness and Professional Literacy Development

The call for papers is out now. For further details, click