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Monday
Jan212008

My Former Profession

A man of awesome learning averred that all knowledge begins with languages, a formula easily taken to heart by a certain type of person (we know who we are).  While it was once Latin, then for a while French, the language of European commerce these days is the mother tongue of Milton, Melville, Whitman, and Hopkins.  Demand for language instruction has also gone up in recent years, and many graduate students living in Germany have found it to be a pleasurable and rewarding method of paying rent and buying liverwurst.  When the sad time came to hand my courses over, each of my successors was furnished with a detailed account of what to expect and avoid.  Names have been altered more out of propriety than privacy, but as you can see, all the participants were so delightful that there could be nothing to hide (Note: Course levels: Grundstufe I - IV, Mittelstufe I - IV, and Oberstufe. Grundstufe = basic level, Mittelstufe = intermediate, Oberstufe = advanced).
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1) Günther, International Savings Bank
About the student:  About 30, well–dressed, well–off, and with a solid Oberstufe, Günther is a doctoral candidate in economics and a part–time employee of the International Savings Bank, a very pleasant, chatty fellow on the way up in the world who loves talking in equal ration about his job, his travels and his past and future plans.  His English is good and rapid, his vocabulary more advanced than one initially might think owing to his very intelligible but downright bizarre pronunciation (e.g. he lisps in English, but not in German).  In fact, this accent is what leads one to underestimate his level; a good twenty minutes of conversation, however, quickly dispels this notion.  He is invariably late and usually leaves early.  Make sure to provide him immediately with ample coffee (one cream) so that he wakes up.
 
What we did and What to do: All the banking and investment stuff has been dealt with.  We also did some presentation English which he found particularly helpful.  In essence, apart from the aforementioned accent, Günther simply needs vocabulary and the ironing out of a few grammar kinks (note, for example, the frequent abuse of the present perfect,  "yesterday I, etc. have been").  Since there remain but four or five sessions, you should feed him some articles to read and presentation and vocabulary worksheets, all of which he'll absorb and retain very fast.  Grammar points he simply races through as if he were embarrassed about having to do them in the first place.  He is a good conversationalist and has a bevy of interesting opinions to share.
 
2) Technology Unlimited Group I
About the students: Six students, Christian, Dieter, Antje, Claudia, Markus and Uwe, varying in age from about 28 (Christian) to about twice as old (Claudia).  As a consequence of her feeling insecure about her seniority, Claudia will feign ignorance and whine and moan that she doesn't understand what you just said or whatever else excuse.  Ignore any such machinations.  The eye–rolling and unabashed frowns on the part of her colleagues will tell you this routine is old hat.  In  truth, she knows a lot more than she lets on, and simply wants to be left peacefully alone instead of fully taking part in the activities.  Markus is a bit ahead of the others, and reveals flashes of Oberstufe; all other participants have a Mittelstufe I–II with various problems: Dieter is too nervous and giggly; Antje is too shy; Christian is extremely sensitive (woe to you should you mention anything about the Works Council, of which he has been a member since joining Technology Unlimited; our little Language Exercises Section (LES) III discussion he took to be a questioning of his personal integrity); Claudia, as stated, is too unmotivated; and Uwe's accent and grammar are too idiosyncratic to sustain systematic correction, owing in no small part to his very deep voice (he is, in his defense, almost seven feet tall).  That said, they are all darling people and, while not always overflowing with vigor, remain respectful and absorb as much as they can.  This is especially true of Markus, whose superior base of knowledge permits him to dominate the class only at the discretion of the instructor, because, for fear of upstaging his co–workers, Markus will rarely speak unless called upon.  There is much to be done here about ego balancing, with everyone save Antje involved in the melee of teasing, name–calling and general mockery, but, all in all, these guys like each other and exude a certain low–key chemistry that can be put to good use.
 
What we did and What to do: We have already done practically all the conventional grammar, texts and Language Exercises Section (LES) III stuff.  Normally they need a little bit of warm human conversation at the beginning of class to remind them that, if only provisionally, they are no longer IT drones buzzing through the facility's anodyne halls.  You might try some role playing and more independent projects.  I had a very successful class allowing each one of them to present his or her favorite article from the newsletter.  Their bane is still getting out from under the all–too–easy Mittelstufe yoke and making some strides towards the Oberstufe.  Review the tenses and prepositions, because I have been pummeling them with that for some time now and they should be acquiring a better grasp of the subject.  Ask them for their own suggestions and you will get a volley of heterogeneous statements that will ultimately prove to be unproductive.  You will have to make them talk, even on the really half–awake days, and at least through grammar they can have the impression that they might learn something.

3) Technology Unlimited, Group II
About the students: A young and sleepy group.  The primary participants are Azubis Philip and Sandra (about 23) and Creative Planning employees and officemates Daniela and Sven (early 30s).  The others, Janna (late 20s, Creative Planning) and Gabriella (early 30s, Creative Planning manager) come somewhat sporadically, and seem constantly swamped with work.  The last two, Carsten and Wolfgang, relics of the same disbanded group which begot Gabriella, have not come since January.  Why their names are still on the attendance list is not ours to ponder.  Philip, Sandra, Daniela and Sven all have about the same level, i.e. about Mittelstufe II+; Janna and especially Gabriella are somewhat better.  Although late Friday morning is normally not a period that generates awe–inspiring energy, this bunch has always been very endearing and friendly but not exactly talkative or entrepreneurial.  Bear in mind that while Philip and Sandra know each other extremely well and are very good friends, they only see the others — who all work quite closely together —  in this class.  One senses not a fissure (although they will invariably seat themselves on opposite sides of the table) but rather a lack of common history between the two groups that, while never spilling over into petty debate, more often than not results in both sides not wishing to say the wrong thing for fear of creating the wrong image.  This used to produce some awkward silences and monotonous exchanges until I stopped trying to make them function as a unit and acceded to their unsaid wishes of remaining apart.  Since then, things have gone much better.
 
What we did and What to do: The best method is to drown them in grammar, a technique that obliges them to reconsider their reticence and prod them into active usage, even if that simply means complaining about something.  Without fear of perjury I can claim, for all intents and purposes, to have exhausted the conventional grammar resources at hand.  As such, new grammar from anyone of the upper level books (even pre–advanced or upper intermediate books will do as long as they are dense) in the office should be employed.  These should be supplemented by various texts on issues affecting twenty– and thirtysomethings within and without Germany.  Role playing, attempted on a few, courageous occasions, was amusing but hardly beneficial; recourse to the newsletter will only result in deep sighs and histrionic groaning.  The best solution, in the last few weeks, was to vary the material, activity and even level of difficulty, throw in a healthy dose of clowning and stand–up routine and put them in a good mood.  Trying to inject some continuity might be problematic since Philip, Sandra and often others as well cannot remember their binders, much less what was in them from last week.  In our best sessions, we had a lot of grammar, jokes, sardonic remarks and pantomime.  On the whole, some very, very sweet if easily distracted people.

4) Big House Construction, Group I
About the students: Jens, Robert, and Ulrich are all young members of the development branch, each with his own advantages and disadvantages.  Jens's English is easily the best, in terms of vocabulary, grammar and fluency an Oberstufe I–II, yet difficult to understand at times because of his overimitating an English speaker's natural swallowing of syllables.  Robert's English is the weakest, Mittelstufe II or at little better when he has less on his mind, but his fluent French (his partner is French) allows him to draw upon a sophisticated vocabulary common to both French and English that belies his primitive grammar.  Ulrich, Oberstufe I, speaks very clearly and thoughtfully, opting to pass when he cannot find the best word.  Expect Jens to dominate, Robert to lag behind and Ulrich to balance them out nicely.  The fourth participant, Suzanne, has never come and never will, owing to an aversion to early–morning activity.
 
What we did and What to do:  They need to do more English presentations, but this a somewhat recent policy.  Grammar is universally approved and handy for the warm–up part of the class, but do allow them to talk about themselves.  Jens in particular is ready to discuss any topic for any length of time if given the go–ahead.  I used some grammar and mistake exercises, plus a long series of exercises from Jens's prepositions book, all of which was greeted with some degree of enthusiasm.  The construction stuff important to their job needs to come out in the presentations they are to be making in the coming weeks.  By Friday they are, however, normally beat and require a bit of entertainment, so a dose of light chatting will help pave the way to more serious matters.  Newsletter articles and current events get them to speak about their office projects and the missing vocabulary then comes out in the heat of discussion.  A very nice group with, alas, poor attendance by virtue of unpredictable work assignments.  Ulrich seems to be the only one with a confident mastery of the verb tenses, make sure you drill that into them at some point early on.  We spent a lot of time on the passive, which should also be reviewed.  
 
5) Big House Construction, Group II
About the students: Tobias and Bernd both have Oberstufe, but are of strikingly different approaches to language learning.  While Bernd is more wary of making mistakes, and thus the less fluent speaker, he is also the only one who enjoys grammar exercises; whenever you only have him, make sure to consecrate a good 30–45 minutes to some topic.  He is attentive and quite sharp.  Tobias, even sharper, uses his massive vocabulary with little inhibition, and will have nothing to do with any kind of grammar or structured learning.  You can try to correct his fantastic distortions of English syntax (e.g. "This is deepened to/from/by"  is his long–standing idea of  "it depends on"), but he will only correct himself once he has spotted a mistake in a text or in some work of his own.  Both are categorical yet surprisingly deferential at times, and on the whole very nice, with Tobias, the branch’s head honcho, being a hilarious walking encyclopedia of local history.  Bernd is a little colder and slightly pompous, but remember it is Tobias's show, and both he and Bernd expect him to dominate any discussion.
 
What we did and What to do:  At the beginning of the course, I tried feeding them the construction stuff we had prepared with mixed results.  After exhausting our collective patience with the floorplan descriptions, the two of them decided by secret ballot to transform our sessions into a conversation class with an automated corrector (yours truly) who would occasionally relate his own anecdotes and opinions.  With Bernd, grammar and mistake exercises, then some text.  With Tobias or the two of them, the procedure was quite standard: read a text (newsletter, article, etc.) and then pontificate at length on the implications for Germany and the rest of humanity.  Bernd usually asks for vocabulary when he hits a wall; Tobias just keeps talking.  Getting them into discussions about any current event is easy, rewarding and what they want anyway, since their English small talk is what troubles them the most.  As long as they enjoy themselves and learn new expressions, they will be very happy.  A sense of humor is more than vital, it is the main appeal of this brief intermission in their otherwise stress–plagued office existence.  With them it is no longer a matter of building, but sculpting and shaping their expansive block of knowledge.

6) Lenses R Us
About the students: A bright, wonderful and enthusiastic sextet working for one of the world's leading contact lens manufacturers, the group is composed of Monika, Ursula (both in their 20s), Manuela and Max (30s), and Martina and Petra (40s).  Alas, although my perfect group in temperament and desire to learn, their levels are staggered: Ursula, Martina and Max are already Oberstufe; Monika is well on her way; Petra and Manuela are both Mittelstufe II, but whereas Petra is fully conscious of her small disadvantage and giggles her way through it in a most charming and lovely way (she is just an angel in all respects), Manuela has tended to be somewhat disruptive.  A few weeks ago, she informed me that, through ensuing internal discussions, she might very well drop out of the group.  She has not appeared since.  Do not make any inquiries into the matter, it will be (or has been) resolved shortly.  
 
What we did and What to do: A little bit of everything, since the class's success is based on the moods and blood caffeine levels of the students.  They all like to laugh, have a wonderful sense for the infantilization process of teaching and learning (Martina, Max and Petra have three, two and two children, respectively), and go along with just about anything.  They are diligent and most days even perfectionist.  Make use of all this with a balanced diet of grammar, Language Exercises Section (LES) III, texts and vocabulary exercises.  They ask copious questions and want to be entertained.  By the way, we have never done any texts or exercises specifically relating to the contact lens industry, although accounting (Manuela's domain) and telephoning and email writing (Petra's primary responsibilities) have been featured in the past.  With this group, you might do well to ask them whether they have any suggestions of their own.

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