In German, bitte, or maybe not

Chalkboard with text "Auf Deutsch, bitte"

Can you spend a year in a class in high school and come out knowing less about the subject than when you started?

It’s possible. I saw it happen.

I started learning German in 7th grade. One year we had a teacher who was actually from Germany. Awesome. She went beyond “school German” and made the language come alive.

Then in 9th grade I had a teacher, Inga-Lisa, who was married to a German. Each year she arranged exchange trips to West-Berlin. Swedish students traveled there and stayed with German families for a week. Then the German students came to stay with the Swedish families. It was a great. I made fast friends in my host family in Berlin and went back several times over the following years.

Spiraling down

But this is about another year of German classes, in Senior High. Our teacher, let’s call him Mr. Svensson, was not German. I have no idea what led him to the teaching profession in the first place. He may have been just fine other years, but certainly this particular year, he seemed out of his element. Not that our class was particularly difficult. Mostly average kids. Who took German because the other option was French and they thought German was easier. Or something.

In our class of 20 or so students, 3 of us had family or friends in Germany and actually used German outside the classroom. For the others, what happened in the classroom was the extent of their language practice.

We had the usual lesson components: reading, writing, drilling grammar. Plus audio recordings. Mr. Svensson played tapes featuring native German speakers reading news items of general interest or pieces with dialog. We’d listen and then there was supposed to be discussion and follow-up questions. 

It covered listening comprehension, formulating new sentences and expressing them. Even conversation. That was the idea.

In reality, it worked more like this: Mr. Svensson played the tape. Everyone listened. Then he asked a question to start the conversation. Silence. Crickets. More silence.

You see, we’d discovered that Mr. Svensson had a habit of perfectionism. As in, it’s more important that what you say is grammatically correct than that you have a lively conversation.

So after a few weeks of getting corrected (sometimes in quite nitpicky ways), most students in the class decided that they were certainly not going to be the one starting out the conversation. Why put yourself out there to get picked on?

I’m not sure how Mr. Svensson interpreted the silence when there ought to be conversation. It clearly bugged him. Sure, the 3 of us with German connections could jump in and did. But even we got corrected. For one thing, my friends were all in Berlin. So I’d picked up a Berlin accent. Which is most definitely not high German, the way the Swedish school system had decided it should be taught. So I got corrected on pronunciation every so often. 

Yes, my German friends were heaps more forgiving than my teacher in school. That’s not to say that they didn’t, when needed, point out mistakes I made to help me not make a total fool of myself. 

Back to that silence after the tape played. One day, Mr. Svensson had enough. He needed conversation. Now. Class time with silence is really bad. So he crossed a line in the sand that should never have been crossed. Or drawn.

This day, since there was not enough response after playing the audio tape, he relented to asking us students to just tell him in Swedish what we’d just heard on the recording. 

Ouch. The bar wasn’t just lowered. It dropped all the way to the basement.

In one fell swoop we went from a decent teaching exercise that includes listening comprehension, ability to formulate sentences in a foreign language and expressing yourself, to just looking for the most basic comprehension. Expressed in your native language. Wow.

Somebody obliged and answered in Swedish. We got through the class.

But the line had been crossed. Classes were never the same again. Now everyone knew that if they would just wait a bit, they didn’t have to risk making a mistake and get corrected. Because Mr. Svensson was still ready to correct whatever you did say or write in German. Because perfection.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy to be done at the end of a school year, as I was with Mr. Svensson’s class.

It seemed that at the end of the year, everybody in that classroom left a little dumber. Less able to speak German than when they entered. It should of course be the other way around. We should all be significantly more proficient after one more year of a foreign language.

Of course the 3 of us who used German outside school didn’t loose anything. But we also didn’t gain what we could have gained. Because we too had to do what was needed to fit into the class. 

I truly wish I could say that one year of German in High School was the only time I had that experience of going into an environment and coming out less able, less confident.

Chipping away at confidence

But it wasn’t. There have been other times — jobs, relationships — that worked the same way: Because of a critical environment, confidence just seemed to get sucked out and I’d find myself less confident in how to do my job or handle the friendship.

We all know the friend who sucks the life out of the party. Always has to rain on your parade, whether it needs raining on or not. So eventually that friendship dies. Because we need encouragement to thrive.

Work is different. Even when we’re working for a boss who does just about everything to knock confidence and initiative out of his or her team, we usually can’t just pick up and go. After all: job = paycheck.

That boss may nitpick and block ideas. Tell you work wasn’t done fast enough. Or isn’t good enough. Or micromanages so much that nobody will take any initiative. There’s no freedom to try and fail. As a result, nothing much happens. The worker bees just hunker down and try to survive, lest their careers be ruined.

Then by the time you do go looking for another job, confidence is shot and those job interviews are so much harder than they would be if you were confident in yourself.

Our interactions with others

On the receiving end

I need to be in situations where I get encouragement. We all do. Nobody will thrive for long without encouragement. We need challenge too. But challenge without encouragement quickly becomes criticism that just tears down. So we need challenge and encouragement.

In a personal relationship or friendship, it means being careful about situations that are not mutually uplifting. We’ve all been there at some time or other, when one person starts putting the other person down. There should be healthy give and take. If not, maybe it’s time to look for the exit.

On the giving end

When I’m leading, as in a work relationship, I need to be sure to encourage those I work with. To catch them doing things right. Foster initiative. Maybe things won’t be done exactly the way I would have done it, but the key is that it got done. 

This also applies in non-work relationships. I have the opportunity to set the tone in friendships and can do a lot for it to be a place that’s safe, encouraging and one that lets the other persons become all they were created to be.

It’s about practice

In language class, the one thing that counts above all the other is practice. Because I’m not just going to wake up one morning, speaking that foreign language perfectly. So students must be encouraged and comfortable to express themselves and use their skills at whatever level they’re at. Use builds confidence. More use means more confidence. 

Yes, the grammar stuff is important too. Being able to correctly express yourself matters. But only once you’re expressing yourself at all.

In too many situations, in school, work, or relationships, that freedom to express ourselves is just not there. And when it’s not, everyone suffers for it. Conversely, when we bring encouragement, amazing things can happen.

Unfortunately, I can only try to imagine what would have happened if Mr. Svensson had tried an approach of freedom and encouragement in his classroom. He might just have been shocked at how much his students really could have talked. In German.