Learning German in America

May 2017

Margarete Orlik-Walsh teaches German as a foreign language at the Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor in the US state of Michigan. She relates her experiences of teaching main lessons in a foreign language and talks about how it is possible to master a third foreign language while at school.

Mihály Hevesi | Mrs. Orlik-Walsh, how was your Waldorf School founded?

Margarete Orlik-Walsh | Ann Arbor was established in the early nineteenth century by Swabians, so that was still before the American Civil War. You hear children hear saying: “Yeah, my grandmother also learned German, and she still spoke it.” Our school was co-founded 35 years ago by Peter Gobel, who was at the Stuttgart Teacher Training Seminar.

As an American, he brought a lot of connections to Stuttgart and Germany with him. A lot of people from Germany contributed to the establishment of our school. In addition to this, there was also a second co-founder, Ruth Nilson who came from Norway, and she absolutely loved the German language. And I have been teaching German at the school for 21 years.

MH | Do the children here still speak German?

MOW | A lot of the time the children still have an inner connection to the language, however they don’t speak it at home anymore. In the meantime, we have started to teach three foreign languages at the school. At first it was French and German, and when we couldn’t find a replacement for the French teacher we started looking for somebody who could teach Spanish. Two years ago we also started teaching the official Chinese language, that is Mandarin.

MH | What led to this?

MOW | Our association, the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA), recommended to us at our last evaluation, which takes place every five years: “You should have a wider cultural spectrum at the school. Take a look at the pupils who attend your school, which religions and ethnic groups are represented, and take account of that in the curriculum.” We agreed and started to implement this recommendation.

MH | Isn’t it difficult for the children to learn three different foreign languages all at the same time?

MOW | We teach these courses in blocks that last for four weeks, with four hours of classroom time devoted to the block per week. So, the children have a Spanish block for four weeks, then a German block for the next four weeks, and after that a Chinese block.

MH | What are your experiences with the teaching of foreign languages in blocks?

MOW | Absolutely brilliant! The inspiration to teach in blocks came from Uta Taylor-Weaver. Uta has been practicing teaching in blocks for many, many years at the Garden City Waldorf School in New York.

Teaching in blocks also makes it possible to structure the pupils’ timetable in a very rhythmical and predictable manner. For example, the first class always has their foreign language class at the same time. This strengthens the children as it becomes a force of habit. The time needed to transition to another foreign languages is maybe only half a lesson. It happens really quickly because the children associate each different language with a different teacher.

MH | Are foreign languages taught in blocks for every class in the school?

MOW | Yes, they are taught like this for each and every class, even at kindergarten level.

MH | So how many foreign language blocks does a class have in total in each school year?

MOW | In total we have ten blocks.

MH | And how many hours of classroom time does this mean for just German then?

MOW | Sixty-four hours of classroom time a year . Over the course of the last couple of years a lot of schools in the USA have started to do this. A lot of my colleagues have discovered that structuring the timetable in a rhythmic manner like this helps the pupils a lot. And to be honest, also the teachers. When we were still teaching foreign languages using the old system (two hours of classroom time per language per week), there were always things that got in the way; one week, a little party, the next, a child needs to go to the dentist. As a result, the children often had maybe only one hour per week and in that amount of time there is not a lot that can be achieved. The child’s learning process in continually interrupted. Teaching in blocks is good for the pupils and good for the teachers.

MH | How do you create enthusiasm for learning German in the USA?

MOW | I have to admit, at first it was quite difficult because children would ask, like one girl for example: “Frau Walsh, are you also a Nazi?” Uta Taylor-Weaver helped to prepare me for this. She told me: “You have to consider the fact that wherever we go, we bring the history of Germany with us. You need to be prepared that the children, and also the parents to some extent, won’t be afraid to confront you on this, or at least ask you questions about it.” And so my response to the girl, who was in class 3 or 4, was to ask: “What do you think?” Her answer was simply: “No, you aren’t a Nazi!”

The children like the German language because it feels different, because this impulse of will lives within the language. Of course, pronouncing the consonants is a completely different task from speaking Spanish. The German P, the T and the K, the children love those. “Pampelmusensalat”, for example, a poem by Hans Adolf Halbey which is not all that demanding in terms of understanding the content, but my pupils in class have leant it off by heart and say it repeatedly, almost as a little routine. And the children also say: “German tastes different!”

Indeed, the speech organs are operated completely differently when speaking German. The children have a sense of how differently they have to breathe, and they really let themselves go when speaking the language. In addition to this, the prospect of being able to go on a school exchange to a German-speaking country later when they are in upper school makes German an attractive language for a lot of pupils, even from as young an age as class 5. We have a very active exchange programme with several different schools in both Germany and in Austria.

MH | How do the school leaving exams work at your school?

MOW | We don’t have a big exam at the end of class 12. The upper school pupils get their credits after each block, a sort of certificate of participation which states how they participated in each main lesson, how well they performed. And this is prepared completely individually for each and every pupil. There is not any form of grading, and there never has been at the school. However, this is not the case everywhere. Some Waldorf schools in the USA absolutely do give grades in upper school.

When our pupils want to apply to a university in class 12, they simply present these pieces of paper with all of the credits listed and are warmly welcomed by the university. They represent a very high standard. This institution, the International Baccalaureate, one type of school leavers exam, is used by several private schools; not at ours, however. There are tests that the pupils can take to see whether or not they have the abilities needed to study, however, these then belong to the extracurricular sphere. Some pupils take these tests, others do not. It really depends upon which university the pupil is planning on applying to.

The interview was conducted by Mihály Hevesi, editor of linguaw.com (journal for teachers of foreign languages at Waldorf Schools); he teaches foreign languages in Hungary, Austria and Germany.

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