Northwestern University Case Study - Lessons Learned in Intermediate German

Prepared in conjunction with the coordinator of the Intermediate program at NU, Martina Kerlova

Northwestern University in Evanston, IL incorporated TalkAbroad into their intermediate German curriculum in their winter 2018 quarter. The integration was led by Associate Professor of Instruction Martina Kerlova in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. In addition to studying grammar, intermediate German students at Northwestern worked with 20th century historical and literary materials and with contemporary popular German culture.

Their first trial run with TalkAbroad included five conversations at the end of each unit to practice topics and vocabulary covered in the respective units. Fifty-nine students completed the conversations. To learn more about Kerlova’s experience integrating TalkAbroad into her curriculum, please read her shared curriculum, that elaborates on her goals in using TalkAbroad and her end-of-semester conclusions and reflection.

As Prof. Kerlova looked at the future of her program, she provided fellow professors with incredible advice in how to successfully incorporate TalkAbroad into existing curriculum based on her experiences. Here are a few of her key pieces of feedback.

  1. For programs using TalkAbroad for the first time, some training might be helpful, such as:
    • Collect topics together with your students that they’d be comfortable discussing.
    • Collect expectations. Share anxieties in class in German.
    • Brainstorm together in class what questions the partners could possibly ask and help everyone prepare questions for the partner.
    • Work with the profiles the partners in Germany have posted. Study German topography and geography.
    • Have your students submit written feedback about both their emotional experience and their own “performance.” Don’t grade the actual conversation, only the follow-up work.
    • Have students listen to the conversations – their own and their classmates perhaps and come up with strategies for their next conversation. This also could be done as peer-editing exercise where students listen also to their partner’s conversation and give suggestions.
    • Build up the expectations that TalkAbroad is a highlight of the course.
    • Shift focus from “ich” to the content of the conversation: collect cultural information, facts that we learned from the partners - to reduce anxiety.
    • Select an American cultural topic and have students collect their partner’s opinion to raise awareness of other ways to think and live., e.g.: Showering in the evening or in the morning; the place of a public library in the educational system; student life, sweatpants, the place of national anthem in the cultural awareness and identity, etc.
    • Select a German cultural topic and collect opinions. e.g. Germans at the dinner table, Germans and their media, Germans using medicine.
  2. If TalkAbroad is used at the intermediate level, it needs to be a focal point of at least one unit. In a strong and a rigorous program with three or four levels, it might be easier to use TalkAbroad after the students covered some basic vocabulary and reach a level of at least 4-5,000 words. If this isn’t possible, the space needs to be carved out for this activity, or else it’s not as effective.
  3. If the existing curriculum is packed with required material, as it is in a college-level quarter system, it might not be easy to Integrate TalkAbroad as an enhancement. At the intermediate level, we still have to spend the majority of the time preparing the ground before we throw them into an unscripted conversation. For this reason, TalkAbroad might work best in conversational classes or more advanced, topic centered classes. But most colleges have a two-year language requirement, if any, and therefore we can continue to explore ways how to immerse our students culturally as early as we can.
  4. Our TalkAbroad assignments were heavily structured. The structured conversations worked better, which takes us away from the spontaneity and also carves out time from the other material presented in class, but it got us closer to the original goal – it boosted motivation, satisfaction, confidence for most students.
  5. Political themes are unavoidable. That could serve as both a negative or a positive, and it should be expected and integrated into a post-conversational session. It’s an excellent stimulus and a conversation starter.

Thank you, Prof. Kerlova, for sharing your teaching strategies and tips for being successful!