When Matt Heenan decided to learn German he went all the way. Here’s his account of the immersion way to master the language.
Most language theorists agree that living in a country while studying its language is the best way to learn. I agree, but the true secret to my success in learning German was Bavarian beer — and lots of it. Reasoning that it was better to go where English was barely spoken, I had chosen to study German at the Goethe Institut located in the little-known Bavarian town of Prien am Chiemsee. Prien am Chiemsee is a picture-perfect town of 9,000 people on the shores of the Chiemsee, Bavaria’s largest lake. With typical visions of Bavarian grandeur, Prien locals call the Chiemsee the Bavarian Ocean and they proudly claim that the height of their church steeple exactly matches the depth of the lake. But the beauty of the town was of course secondary. After all, I was here to learn German, not succumb to whimsy of local folklore.
I had enrolled in an eight-week intensive, total immersion German course. This meant I was forced to speak German right from the start, and it made for some pretty unpleasant moments, especially in the first week or two. There are many different options for studying at the Goethe Institut including evening courses and business German classes, but all courses share the same philosophy of total immersion. The Institut attracts students from all over the world, and my course included Giuseppe from Italy, a salesman in a construction firm with many German clients, and Igor, a German teacher from Uzbekistan looking to stay one step ahead of his students. With such a disparate group of students, the only common language we shared was German, so right from Day One I was faced with a simple choice — speak German or stay quiet. Each day’s instruction at the Goethe Institut started at the startlingly early time of 8.30am. Lessons then ran through to 1pm.
In 2002 the Goethe Institut merged with Inter Nationes, forming the new organisation, Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes has courses available in Berlin, Bonn, Bremen, Dresden, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Freiburg, Göttingen, Hamburg, Mannheim, Murnau, Munich, Prien, Rothenburg, Schwäbisch Hall, Weimar. There are two central offices: Central office Munich
Dachauer Straße 122
Phone: (0 89) 1 59 21-0
Fax: (0 89) 1 59 21-4 50
email@example.com Central office Bonn
Phone: (0 228) 880 0
Info@inter-nationes.de Tuition fees (excluding accommodation) range from EUR 665 for week-long business German courses to EUR 2,545 for intensive 12-week programmes. Evening courses are available in Berlin, Bonn, Dresden, Frankfurt, Mannheim and Munich. Information, dates and prices can be obtained directly from the institutes. For more information, including full contact details for every location, visit www.goethe.de
The afternoon was then free time, although we were encouraged to make use of the extensive range of resources available in the library. I spent most of my library time watching German films, including Metropolis and The Tin Drum. It’s debatable whether this improved my German to any great extent, but it was certainly a great place to be on rainy afternoons. The teaching emphasis of the Goethe Institute is on the fundamentals of the German language, which means a lot of work on that most difficult aspect — grammar. Although I found these lessons painful, I stuck with them, and eventually even started to find them vaguely tolerable. Like most people however, I was more concerned with being able to express myself in German than using the correct verb form, and here’s where the Bavarian beer played its important hand. It can be an intimidating situation, trying to make jokes to a table of Bavarian locals with only some students from non-English speaking lands for support. I quickly found that a large glass or two of beer helped me get over the doubts about whether anything I was saying actually made sense. And oddly enough, the more relaxed about speaking German I became, the more I seemed to make sense. But the Goethe Institute aims not only to teach people throughout the world the German language, but also to remind the world of the cultural delights that Germany has to offer. A lofty ideal maybe, but for me the highlights were the brewery tour in a town even smaller than Prien, where we were led by a drunken Bavarian with an impenetrable accent, and Bavarian Dance 101, a bizarre evening that involved slapping our knees a lot. This combination of fun and education made the lessons, even the grammar lessons, that much more bearable. Strangely enough, after two months of living and breathing German, I really did start to find my German getting to an acceptable conversation level. It’s not a cheap option, but studying Deutsch in a small Bavarian town really does seem to be one of the best ways to learn the language.