Learning in the land of freedom and narrow lanes

30 August 2012

The German language is not difficult and it even can make fun to learn it – this is the motto promoted by Michaela Küper and her team. They welcomed 115 participants from 31 nations at this year's 64th International Summer Course at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), who were eager to discover not only the German language, but also the country.

Kumushai Suiunduk kyzy did wonder a little about Germany. "There are so many laws and people really abide by them. They don't even cross the road when the light is red." The student from Kyrgyzstan likes the city of Mainz, although she is surprised again and again: "The roads here are so narrow. Our roads are much wider."

Suiunduk kyzy is participating in the 64th International Summer Course presented by Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. This year’s 115 participants from 31 nations have met on the campus to learn German or to improve their knowledge of the language. And to discover Germany, Rhenish Hesse, and the city of Mainz – by strolling across the weekly market, taking a trip along the Rhine, visiting Heidelberg, or spending an evening in a nightclub.

High expectations of the teaching staff

"Our Summer Course participants can get a three-week all-inclusive package from us, if they want it," Michaela Küper says. This is already the 13th time that she has headed the course. Her team consists of 15 teachers and seven student tutors. "I do expect a lot from the teaching staff. A background in teaching German as a foreign language is obligatory as well as some teaching experience."

The student tutors take care of all the aspects outside the classroom. "They are responsible for providing contact and information on an entirely different level." Most of the course participants are students themselves, which means that there are no barriers to overcome and contact is quickly established.

One of this year’s teachers, Dr. Dana Drmlová, first visited Mainz as a student – on a JGU Summer Course program. This was in 1988 when she was studying German. "Later, I was able to become a tutor in Mainz and then a teacher," Drmlová recalls. She travels to Germany from the Czech Republic each year just for this purpose. "Teaching in the Summer Course poses quite different challenges to me than it does at home at Prague University. In the Summer Course, I am teaching a very heterogeneous group of people from many nations. It is often hard to exactly know how much background knowledge I can assume the participants to have and what they are interested in. I have to improvise a lot."

Ten language classes for 115 students

The 64th International Summer Course offers ten language classes, divided into levels for beginning, intermediate, and advanced students. The classes are always small. Drmlová has been teaching 13 female students and only one male this year. "This is rather extreme numerical proportion," she says, "but generally speaking, women are in the majority." They make up about two thirds of the participants.

Sofi Torosyan from Armenia is one of Drmlová's students and has quickly made friends with Suiunduk kyzy. Both are the same age, both speak Russian – a special connection. Torosyan is studying law in Armenia’s capital Yerevan. She will soon be completing her Bachelor's degree there and has already made plans for the next future: "I definitely want to come back to Mainz and continue my studies here."

Both young women have already studied German in their home countries. Suiunduk kyzy is taking German Studies. She is attending the intermediate-level course in Mainz. "The classes here are far more fun," she says. "They are less serious and strict than at home."

Learning German and having fun

"Things are really different here to what many participants expect from language courses in their home countries," confirms Küper. Strict face-to-face teaching and passive absorption of information are not her style. "One can do it quite differently, in a way that motivates people much more. German is always seen as a difficult language. What we aim at is offering students the experience that learning German can even be fun."

Drmlová likes to divide her class further into small groups, which she then involves in discussions or role play. "In threes and fours they speak much more freely." Everyone gets a chance to say something. "It is also important to me that the participants tell each other something about their home countries." In this way, they find out more about China or France, Israel or Columbia, Rwanda or Cyprus. In total, people from 31 nations attend the this year’s JGU International Summer Course.

According to Küper, getting to know each other is an important aspect. "This is why the number of participants will remain stable in the future, between 100 and 120," she says. "In Heidelberg, for example, they are working with 600 or 700 students. I don't want to do that in Mainz. With the size we have, everyone has an opportunity to get to know anyone else in the course."

German departments closed

Many things have changed in the 13 years in which Küper has been heading the course. "There used to be more interest in intermediate- and advanced-level classes, whereas now the focus is more on the beginner's level." Many foreign universities have closed their German departments, which is why participants in Mainz often start from scratch. In recent years, however, interest in learning German has risen.

Suiunduk kyzy and Torosyan and their fellow students are lucky to have gained a place in the course. By the beginning of June it was booked up. "We still received a lot of applications after that," says Küper.

At the beginner's level, the Summer Course focuses entirely on language acquisition. Other aspects are added at the intermediate and advanced levels. This time we offered the opportunity to attend a seminar on Frederick II of Prussia. "The most common choice is Business English," Küper adds, "but law seminars are also very popular."

Making contacts is the order of the day

It is probably Küper’s desire to keep the group reasonably small that accounts for its success. It makes it easy to make contacts. Drmlová can tell: Only last year she met with friends in Riga whom she had first met at the JGU International Summer Course back in 1992.

"Quite apart from that, we have simply been lucky with our location," Küper comments. "We have never had the problem that one of our students has experienced trouble due to being a foreigner. The region of Rhenish Hesse also provides a wonderful environment. People are very open around here and easily start a conversation," says Küper, who hails from Westphalia.

Paris is not really part of the program

"I feel very free here," says Suiunduk kyzy. "In our country, we always look to see what other people are doing. Things are quite different in Germany." Together with Torosyan, she took advantage of this freedom during the Summer Course. "When the others were in Heidelberg, we decided to go to Paris." She looks a little uncertain when recounting this. Should she have a bit of a guilty conscience?

Not according to Küper and her team. Here people get as much help and comfort as they need. "When they have the self-confidence to jump in the deep end, we like to see that. If not, we help them swim a little."

This will remain the same during the 65th International Summer Course at JGU next year. Küper and Drmlová will once again be there. "Every course is different," they say, almost simultaneously. "And it comes as a surprise each time."