What to do over semester break… ahem: was tun während des Semesterferiens? Deutsch!

So I recently found myself in the midst of a huge semester break – from the middle of February until the middle of April – wondering what I should do with myself for 2 months. Then I noticed how quickly one can start reading and speaking English too often, again, and decided that I had to do something else to keep the German alive in these dark and cold Southern-German months!

I thought: I could travel. I had recently taken a several hour car trip with www.mitfahrgelegenheit.de    (‘with-ride-opportunity’, a ride sharing/cost- and eco-friendly option!), which was a good chance to talk with random native Heidelbergers. At any rate this is much better than going by train – the DB train prices are absolutely exorbitant by comparison to, believe it or not, Amtrak in the US (… although, to be fair to the German system, we have so few connections that our system is virtually useless to most people at present). Moreover, one is not typically locked into a small cabin with 3 strangers with nothing but awkward silence if they do not speak: what an opportunity! I would really encourage this because it is cheap and fun, and safer than it seems. At first I was worried, but there are rating systems (much as with amazon or ebay) and I don’t think that there are problems with sharing rides like the ‘hitchhiker’ stereotypes in the States.

But no, I decided against traveling this month at least. Although I have done loads of language courses over the past few years, I thought, ‘why not’. I signed up for a C1.2 course at the Heidelberger Paedagogicum, which is located just across the Neckar from Bismarckplatz, several blocks past the bridge towards Neuenheimerfeld. (I am glad the course has taken me to this side of the city actually, as it has given a little bit of a different perspective on Heidelberg… it is very easy to stay in the old city!)

In general, I have found my experience there to be quite good. In what follows I will describe what I take to be the advantages of taking a course there, and what may be seen as a ‘drawback’.

So far in my experience with learning ‘Deutsch als Fremdsprache’ (DaF, ‘German as a foreign language’) in Europe, I have taken courses at IFK GmbH in Salzburg (Austria), the center for living languages (CLT) in Leuven (Belgium), the Goethe Institute (in Brussels) and more recently the Max Weber Haus here in participation with the University of Heidelberg. The C1.2 course at the Heidelberger Paedagogicum is as good as any of these, with certain advantages. It has been in operation for about 40 years and as far as I can tell has a (deservedly) good reputation.

First, by comparison to the C1 class I attended earlier this in here in Heidelberg, there is about a quarter of the number of students there at any time: there are about 7-10 in a class at the Heidelberger Paedagogicum. The small class size really makes a difference in discussion and when we are going through some of the tougher German grammar review… I know this is always said, but it’s true.

Second, the teacher in my course is especially helpful, clear and patient. We use a combination of exercises that he puts together and the C1 Erkundungen text book that is standard in DaF classes everywhere I have been. We talk about current global and German affairs, as well as topics historically and culturally relevant to a German class. I will put it this way: German grammar has ceased to be a horror (but maybe the course is just working… in any case that is good regarding the course!).

The course is comparatively cheap: 285 Euros for 80 hours of instruction over the course of a month (20 a week, mornings – there are also night courses but only up to the B level). In contrast to the Goethe Institute, this is very good. (To give you an idea, if you were also to book accommodations there for the summer-month, this would only cost an additional 235 Euros… cheaper than a semester’s text books.) Also, another language school in Heidelberg, the quality of which I can say nothing about, offers intensive courses for 120 Euros a week, after a 25 euro registration fee – approx. 100 Euros more. The course at Heidelberger Paedagogicum is only 15 euros cheaper than the one offered by the Max Weber Haus though, and there is no breakfast included – so perhaps bear that in mind. But…

Third, the atmosphere there is very different than other university language courses. For example, there is much more diversity, and there are fewer people from North America (I am the only one I so far as I know…). This, I think, is especially good, because during breaks, of course, there is conversation and people get to know each other or make friendships, and in the university courses there always seems to be either a group of North Americans or British students that make remaining in German impossible – this is really dangerous if you actually want to work on your German. Also, it has less of a grammar school feeling, perhaps ironically, because it is solely a language school… the students that are there are there to learn the language for many different reasons: not everyone is an erasmus student, or even a European, and this makes conversation much more interesting, breakfast or no.

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Additionally, I found out that the other european languages are taught there, as well as Latin and Ancient Greek, in case you are interested in learning another language while you are here and do not manage to find a place in the Uni. There are also TestDaF and DSH preparation courses that are available there. (I will do a follow up on this in later posts should I take one later this year.)

The only thing that I thing could be seen as negative is that the operation in the school (not related to the teaching) is much less formal and perhaps a bit old fashioned (if you are used to North American interiors). For instance, cigarette smoke can abounds during the break and the boss (I believe) smokes in his office – hello old world/middle Europe! I think this is great, but if you like clinical interiors etc. then maybe you would find this less appealing. All things considered, however, these are rather trivial details.

So, to conclude, I have to say that in general it is a positive experience, even to repeat a German class or just to keep in the atmosphere of German discussion where you can ask questions about grammar that may perhaps be out of place in casual conversation with German friends.

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