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School of Arts, Languages and Cultures

German as a foreign language

New materials and approaches help students learning German as a foreign language.

Exterior shot of The Goethe-Institut roof
The Goethe-Institut for the teaching and learning of German as a Foreign Language has 170,000 participants on courses each year, in 80 countries.

Students learning German are typically taught the German equivalent of the 'Queen's English' but our research highlighted the benefits of recognising 'non-standard' usages and regional variations. New teaching materials and a revised curriculum now emphasise everyday speech.

New teaching materials emphasise language variation among German speakers in order to promote an effective and realistic knowledge of contemporary German.

Traditional text books teach students who are learning German as a foreign language to speak 'Hochdeutsch' –formal German, the equivalent of 'Queen's English'. But research by Professor Martin Durrell showed this approach is highly restrictive. He proposed that students should be exposed to methods placing greater emphasis on everyday speech.

Experts in German linguistics picked up on Professor Durrell’s work and invited him to share his research in:

  • A conference on teaching the German language attended by two hundred scholars.
  • The leading German publication aimed at language teachers.
  • A volume of papers on the principles that should underlie the teaching of German as a foreign language.

Although traditionalist teachers in Germany initially rejected the ideas, language teachers across Europe warmly welcomed Professor Durrell’s recommendations and began to change their teaching.

Key changes:

  • Systematic account now being taken of the need to base teaching of spoken German in the register which German native speakers actually use.
  • New teaching manuals reflect this.

Our research

Professor Martin Durrell, an expert on German language, investigated how people in Germany and England perceived varieties of their own languages differently. He underlined that:

  • The relative flexibility of the 'standard' norms in English allows for significant variation between formal and informal discourse.
  • Such variation was unusual for standard German, which is highly codified, relatively inflexible and learned formally.

He found that:

  • In Germany, regional dialects - once the main language of the population - are declining and a spoken form closer to the standard language is beginning to emerge.
Photograph of 'Menschen - Deutsch als Fremsprache Arbeitsbuch' text book with caption 80 countries
'Menschen - Deutsch als Fremsprache Arbeitsbuch.'

A second study investigated the implication of these finding for the teaching for German as a foreign language. Professor Durrell concluded that traditional teaching methods do not prepare learners for everyday communication.

In collaboration with Dr Nils Langer (University of Bristol), Professor Durrell produced a survey that revealed how the current curriculum:

  • Penalises students for speaking in a variety different to formal, standard German.
  • Teaches formal German as if it is a variety which is commonly used in speech in Germany.
  • Demotivates learners when they come to communicate.
  • Contrasts with practices in teaching English as a foreign language which highlights differences between the written and spoken language.

Lead academics