Friday, May 09, 2008

Goethe Institute 2 week Superintensive German class

I spent the last two weeks at the SuperIntensive German course at the Goethe Institute. I figured that the start of a new work assignment is the best time to take the class, since I would then get to use my new found language skills (if I acquired any), for the rest of my stay.

The class is conducted in 10 days, from 8:30 to 5:00pm every day, in 4 sessions of 1.5 hours each, and a 1.5 hour lunch break. It is a full immersion class, where the instructors speak to you completely in German from day 1, and my class at least, had only 3 students per instructor, so the instruction was really really personal. In fact, the instructors take a survey at the start asking you what you want to know, and everything you need will be covered, up to a point.

The point, unfortunately, is that German is a difficult language, structurally speaking. No lesser a man than Mark Twain himself has written a treatise on how difficult the language is to learn. (The article is a lot more funny when you've burnt 40 hours attempting to learn the language) Of course, there are benefits to learning German --- you don't have to remember as much vocabulary because there are a lot of similar words to English.

My goals were very simple: to be able to do simple tasks (get a hotel room, ask for directions), and to be able to listen in on colleague's conversations, as well as make myself understood. I'm afraid I wasn't terribly successful at the first, and my German accent is apparently thick enough that I'm going to have to carry a dictionary so I can point at a word in frustration if I can't pronounce it well.

This is indeed the biggest fault of the Goethe Institute: it does not have a language lab. It has a media center, but to get rid of strong and heavy accents like the one I have, you'd have to have a real language lab --- one that records your attempts to say a word, plays it back to you along with the correct enunciation, and thereby provides you proper feedback to modulate your voice. As evidence of this, I used a language lab as part of my Japanese class at Berkeley 15 years ago, and I enunciate Japanese perfectly --- I might not know much Japanese, but my pronunciation is so good that people assume I know more than I do.

As it is, I can understand about one quarter of typical spoken German, and I can read the train site now without much trouble. I no longer need an English menu at a restaurant, and I can count. This is pretty good progress for 2 weeks, so I'm pretty satisfied. Obviously, at 38, I'm no longer young and find it tough to learn new languages.

All in all, if you had to learn German in a hurry, this is probably a good way to go. If you have a month, the institute also has month long classes that aren't as intensive, which is probably a good thing --- you have more time to absorb what you're being taught, and it isn't as all consuming. But then you'd have to take a month. If you have that much time, then perhaps enrolling at UC Berkeley or some institute of higher learning where you have access to a language lab would give you better results. But then you need at least a quarter or so and the results might not be so immediate and personally tailored.
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