Why You Didn’t Learn German in School: An Interview with Steve Kaufmann

Why You Didn’t Learn German in School

Herr Antrim:
I did notice in your book it says:

You cannot learn to communicate if you rely on classroom where the focus is to try and pass a test. Only a genuine desire to communicate with another culture will ensure language learning success.

– Steve Kaufmann, The Way of the Linguist: A Language Learning Odyssey

I’m a high school teacher. That’s what I do when I’m not YouTube-ing. So I’ve heard over and over again from students, either in the hallways or my own classes, you know, “I took this many years of whatever language and I can’t even carry on a conversation.” So I guess my question is, is this a failure of the American school system, a failure of the teacher or a failure of the student, or does there even need to be blame assessed somewhere?

Steve Kaufmann:
First of all, nothing unique to the American system. In Canada, the vast majority of English speaking kids who take French at school can’t speak French. On the other hand, kids in Europe learn to speak… Best of all in Sweden, because they have… They’re inundated with English language television. So with or without the teacher, they’re learning the language because they’re exposed to it all the time.

If kids in North America, if your students had German television all the time, they’d be speaking. Besides which, if the state beside yours spoke German and you were English speaking, a lot more students would be motivated to learn German.

The difficulty is, whether it be an American kid in Illinois, where you are, or a Canadian kid here in Vancouver learning French, they have no real opportunity to use it. And so that to me is a fundamental problem. In Europe, you travel a 100 or 200 kilometers and you’ve got several different languages.

How to Improve Language Instruction in Schools

So, how do you overcome that? Like for one thing, I think the emphasis in schools, the emphasis on speaking is misplaced. The kids aren’t going to have much opportunity to speak. Once you have the emphasis on speaking, you then have the emphasis on speaking correctly. So now you set the kid up to fail because they’re going to get it wrong. The good kids will get it right, but a lot of kids will get it wrong. On any given test, the good students will get 9 out of 10, and the weaker students will get 4 out of 10, which is no fun really.

I think somehow the emphasis should be more on comprehension, exposing them with German. Find things that they find interesting in German. It could be German rock music. It could be anything, movies, cartoons, it doesn’t matter. And try to help them achieve a level of comprehension and vocabulary.

That’s why I think LingQ is a good tool for that because you’re gathering words. You’ve got the word count. A lot of people find that motivating, how many words do I know? And so the emphasis entirely on being able to understand. Because if people understand well, once they have an opportunity to speak and if they are motivated to speak, they will speak, in my opinion.

They will stumble at first, they’ll be intimidated at first, but if they have to, they’ll eventually get it out. Whereas if the emphasis is always on these grammar rules and producing stuff for tests, the kids aren’t getting a lot of exposure, like the brain isn’t being inundated with the language, then it’s going to be very difficult for them.

So I think that the method of instruction in North America generally, and I don’t know much about the situation in the States, but if I look at English language instruction in schools in Canada, the thing is kind of cart before the horse. Too much emphasis on producing the language, on producing it correctly, on passing tests, and not enough emphasis on enjoying the language and achieving a level of comprehension.

How would Steve Kaufmann grade language students?

Herr Antrim:
So I guess my question would then be, from a teacher perspective, how do I give the student some sort of grade based on this? Does the test just have a text that they have to translate? That’s my issue is I don’t know what to do with it once I have it.

Steve Kaufmann:
Well, that’s the first problem right there is that you need to grade them. I often quote the statistic in New Brunswick, which is the only officially bilingual province in Canada. It’s 30% French speaking. And in the English language school system, they get French from grade one, 30 minutes a day. They did a survey of people graduating from grade 12. The percentage of students who could maintain an intermediate… Who had what they call intermediate oral proficiency in French was 0.66%*. All of those kids, they were graded year after year after year and they still couldn’t produce the language. So you have to ask yourself, what is the purpose of grading?

*I’m not sure where he got this statistic about the oral proficiency of students graduating grade 12 in New Brunswick and their oral proficiency. I found no such study online. I did find this updated version, which claims 89% of students were able to attain intermediate or above on the oral proficiency exams.

There is also this fascinating article that claims forcing students to learn languages in school is a waste of time and money. Maybe some day I will create a response to this:

How would Steve Kaufmann teach in a classroom?

Steve Kaufmann:
If I were running it and I didn’t have to report to my principal and the school administrators and the parents and whatever other demands there are, I would judge it purely on the activity level of the student.

Here are my students, “I want you guys to be active. I want you to listen, to read, to speak, to write. I want you to doing stuff in the language. That’s all I want.” Of course, at LingQ, we have ways of measuring their activity level.

So if there’s some way to measure their activity level, those that are active will do better. Those that are not active will not do as well. Now, some may do better with less activity. Like there’s an element of skill or talent or whatever.

And if a kid is very active in the language and doesn’t learn that quickly, that’s not his fault or her fault either. I feel we should have some way of monitoring their activity level.

And in German, like, what are you’re interested in? Are you interested in soccer? Are you interested in cooking? Are you interested in rock music? Because apparently German rock is quite the thing. I no nothing about rock music, but yeah. That’s what I would do. But I know you have tests.

Herr Antrim:
It’s that fine line of how do we teach the language, but still be able to say, “I taught the language” whenever the administrator comes into my room and says, “Hey, what are you doing?” It’s like, “Well, they’re active.”

Steve Kaufmann:
But I understand your situation. It’s not unique. Those are the pressures that you have, yes. There’s no easy solutions.

Steve Kaufmann’s Take on Comprehensible/Compelling Input (CI)

Herr Antrim:
I went to a couple of conferences in the past year before COVID. One of the things that kept coming up was this idea of comprehensible input. I don’t know how familiar you are with the concept, but it seems to very much align itself to the kind of thing that you say about LingQ and the way that you learn languages.

Generally, the idea is that you give the students some sort of input. This input would start at lower level, conversational type things, and then kind of build upon that until you get to more complex topics. How much do you know about this movement and what are your thoughts on how this might be applied in the classroom?

Steve Kaufmann:
I’m quite familiar with it. I’ve been to conferences. I know Stephen Krashen quite well and I’ve talked to people. I mean, there’s sort of various takes on it. First of all, you have comprehensible input and compelling input. First of all, the issue is when you start from zero, nothing is comprehensible. So, we have to be a little bit flexible in how we deal with this, right? You’re starting from zero.

So therefore… In my own case, if I started a language from zero, we have these mini stories at LingQ where we have lots of repetition, and there is a technique. I combined two techniques, which again, came from people surrounding Stephen Krashen or some of these other people. What is it? TPRS, teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling.

Click here to read Stephen Krashen’s paper “The Case for Comprehensible Input”.

Click here to purchase Stephen Krashen’s book “Comprehensible and Compelling: The Causes and Effects of Free Voluntary Reading” on Amazon.

Point of View Stories & Circling Questions for Language Learners

Steve Kaufmann:
There’s a lot of this activity and people have different ideas. And one of them is that you have these point of view stories. So, she goes to the store, she does this, she does that. And the second story is she did, or she went to the store or you went to the store. You change the person or you change the tense, right? So that’s the second point of view.

And then they have what they call circling questions, which I think are very powerful. And I use them all the time. What you do is you say, “She went to the store.” So you give the answer. I find that one of the worst things in language instruction is forcing people to think about stuff outside the language. Like, what happened in the story? “I don’t remember.” So forget it. Give them the answer.

She went to, let’s say the library, and then the question is, did she go the butcher shop? No, she went to the library. It’s all there. You got the negative, you got the question, and it’s all the same vocabulary that showed up in the story. Each story has like 10 lines in it. So we have 60 of those stories.

To me, that is the best way to get into a language because that becomes comprehensible, because there’s so much repetition, and you listen to it over and over again. The problem with that is it’s not tremendously compelling. In the beginning, at least I am motivated to learn the language. So I can do that for so long and then I can’t do it anymore, then I have to go and find genuinely compelling content.

Compelling Input (CI)

CI is sometimes used for comprehensible input, sometimes for compelling input. And then the next stage is how do you provide compelling input? And I think there, conversations are genuinely easier than a newspaper articles or books or that kind of thing. So that’s kind of an intermediate level of content.

The difficulty is that you can pack a lot of high frequency vocabulary into the sort of like the mini stories, the beginning stuff, point of view, circling questions, lots of repetitive vocabulary, lots of high frequency vocabulary,

But as you know, frequency drops off very, very quickly. It’s not like it’s a gradual, you’re going to the next level, where you’ve got the next level of frequency of words and stuff like that. It just drops off so dramatically that after a while, you’re having to learn words that show up once every 10 pages in a book or three times in the book.

So with that, you have to kind of move towards ingesting the language through stuff that’s genuinely interesting, so that you stay with it because you’re interested in it, because the subject matter is interesting to you.

Meaningful Messages

So, yeah, depending on the level of the student, I think that, as Krashen says, “We learn languages through messages that are meaningful to us.” So, we have to give people something that is meaningful. So, you can go with stories, but you want to have a lot of repetition.

I don’t like children’s stories where they introduce a fox and a crow and a bunch of stuff like that, that I’m not interested in knowing the word for fox, whereas it’s got to be more sort of every day type stuff, familiar environment.

Don’t give them too much folklore, for example. That’s another trap that language books get into. Give them familiar stuff, brush my teeth, go to bed and get up, put my pajamas on, whatever it is. That kind of stuff with a lot of repetition to lead them into where they possibly could access say, transcribed conversations amongst friends, which is interesting, or even people talking about themselves.

I’ve had these done out for Persian. Like, what are my preoccupations? What do I think about living in Tehran? You’re getting to meet people, but it’s easier vocabulary. And then you move on to stuff that’s more difficult.

But the idea that you want to make that content as comprehensible as can be, and as compelling as can be so that the brain can be bombarded with as much of a language as possible so that the brain can develop a sense for the language, so that when you then introduce grammar, explanations, these grammar explanations refer to something that the brain that you are already familiar with. So, I think that’s the way to teach languages. A bit of a long-winded explanation.

How to Teach Grammar

Herr Antrim:
No, no, that’s fine. I’m actually taking notes in my head at the moment and thinking. We’re starting a new chapter this week, actually in my German 1 classes. So I’m thinking, how can I take the vocabulary that I have to teach and the grammar that I have to teach, and then put that into the kind of thing that you’re talking about here. And I think it should be actually relatively easy to do, especially since we’re actually going all remote for the rest of the month. It may actually be easier for me.

Steve Kaufmann:
One of the things I would do, if I were doing it, say in German, I would focus on the input. Say, “Here’s a story.” And then I would say, “Now, here are some of the structures, here are some of the patterns.” But without any obligation on their part to remember it. “I just want to make you aware that this is what’s happening in the language. You’re going to see this again and again, just start to notice it, here’s this thing.”

What tends to happen is we got a lesson on something and then I’m going to test you on it. And I just think that’s wrong. I think rather, it’s a matter of, “This might help you. It might help you to know that this is a pattern that’s going to repeat. Here’s how they do things in German. It’s different than English. Make a little mental note of it. I’ll bring it to your attention again. The main thing is, you know, focus on the content, focus on the words, try to understand what’s going on.”

Herr Antrim:
I got a little bit of flexibility now with the way that we have to do things with the remote learning, so I can kind of tweak the curriculum a little bit more than I could in previous years. So, I may experiment in the next chapter and I’ll send you an email and let you know how it goes.

What does Herr Antrim teach?

Steve Kaufmann:
What age group are you teaching?

Herr Antrim:
9th grade through 12th grade, but mostly it’s 9th and 10th graders.

Steve Kaufmann:
And they’re beginners?

Herr Antrim:
Yeah. So this is the first time they’ve been introduced to German. First any of the… Most of my students have learned German is in August when we started.

How to Pass Your Proficiency Exam

Herr Antrim:
I’ve seen in several of your other interviews and a Reddit thread that you’ve only taken the one or two proficiency exams in all of the language learning that you’ve done. And this is mostly just because, again, the reason that you learn languages is not to pass a test or anything.

But my question would be, what if you are one of those people who you need to a certain proficiency test in order to study in that country or immigrate to that country, what would you do in order to get to that level and to pass the actual test?

Steve Kaufmann:
The only proficiency test I have taken was for Mandarin Chinese because the government was paying for my study. They wanted to make sure I learned something. I’m familiar to some extent with TOEIC and TOEFL, which are tests of English proficiency.

My approach would not be any different. I would focus entirely on massive input. I firmly believe that if you give the brain enough input, the brain is going to start creating patterns. The brain is a pattern producing machine. So, you have to have a lot of input. Once you have enough input, then the grammar explanations make sense, you’re able to remember the grammar explanations, the grammar explanations start referring to things that you’re already familiar with.

In TOEIC and TOEFL, they have comprehension questions. So obviously, if you listen to a lot of say, German or English in the case of TOEFL, it’s going to be easier for you to answer questions about what you just heard, because you’re so good at listening.

Similarly with reading. I would also make sure that I can read fast because in all of those tests, you don’t want to be stuck with a third of the test yet to do. So I think it’s so important to read fast on those tests.

Of course, people want to, and I want to look at the rules of grammar. I find it very difficult to remember the rules of grammar, but I think the rules of reading the rules of grammar helps us notice certain things that we’ve kind of already seen, we’ve already experienced. So I would also spend a little bit of time with grammar.

But mostly I want to get to where I can understand audio books in German, I can read difficult stuff in German, I have a broad vocabulary. I instinctively know what’s correct and what’s not correct because I’ve been exposed to so much of it. But of course, I would also read up on the rules of grammar just to… There will be things that I miss, that it will point things out that I hadn’t noticed, or it’ll confirm certain things, but that would be my emphasis.

And I would get a hold of a couple of copies of the tests as everyone does, and just see what’s on the test, so that there are no surprises.

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