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Intermediate German, Northwestern University

09 Sept 2018


Students at Weinberg College at Northwestern have a 2-year language requirement (six quarters) and they choose between around 20 languages. In the German department, we also see students from other schools (faculties) at NU who may have a different (usually shorter) language requirement. The German department at NU offers language courses at all levels. The student population in our courses comes from all backgrounds and disciplines.

Course Description

The second quarter of Intermediate German at NU focuses on colloquial and idiomatic contemporary language. We first read the script and then watch “Türkisch für Anfänger,” a television comedy about a mixed Turkish-German family. To complement the insight into everyday culture and contemporary politics, we also devote the last unit of the quarter to working with newspaper editorials and contemporary music. This year, we will use political commentaries on the recent parliamentary elections and the aftermath of the recent immigration wave to Germany.

Having read and watched the popular culture story, our students are eager and willing to go further and the last unit on the recent political environment in Germany is well received. The opportunity to converse with native speakers is a great opportunity for our students and broadens their perspective on the greater world. We educate about 45-55 students a year in our intermediate program and, for most of them, it is the last year they focus on a foreign language and culture.

The online grammar that we have been using for more than a decade includes only limited video and audio segments. Our Intermediate German curriculum is at a crossroads. For the past 20 years, we have been using a Northwestern-made grammar platform “Intermatik” and our own selection of readings and cultural topics. We are currently considering either updating or recreating a similar platform or switching to a commercial textbook. We would like to continue the Northwestern-made course, but the conversational segment presents a continual challenge because it ages very quickly if scripted and it is also the most difficult and labor intensive one to update.

Thus, the strengths of our current curriculum are:

  1. Flexibility (content, pace, topic, reading/grammar balance)
  2. More complex graduate student training - they are involved in the creation of the teaching materials
  3. Financial – The low cost of the materials for the students have attracted many students in the past who eventually became German minors or majors. This may seem irrelevant, but the educational cost at a private university is already very challenging. Students on fellowships find the textbooks costs especially hard to cover. TalkAbroad would be the only cost the students will have to cover if we continue using our own materials.

Current weaknesses are: an insufficient audio and visual input; editing is not always flawless; and, as in any other classes, individual feedback is limited.

Our curriculum breaks down into roughly three areas in each quarter – Grammar (online through Intermatik), readings (adapted by NU teaching staff and bound in a course pack) and vocabulary (based on both the readings and the grammar topics). I am currently responsible for the Intermediate German curriculum development.

TalkAbroad Implementation

The ease of integrating TalkAbroad online conversations into our current curriculum demonstrates the flexibility of our homemade curriculum. During each quarter, we cover four units. In this upcoming winter quarter, we have units on:

Besides the grammar and vocabulary part, the students read 150 pages of the “Türkisch für Anfänger” text in German and then watch the movie without any subtitles (stretched over three units). They will be asked to prepare and incorporate a few cultural questions arising from their experience with this popular culture sample into the TalkAbroad conversations. The last unit is devoted to the political landscape in Germany. We will read political newspaper commentaries on the last parliamentary elections and discuss those two pictures of German society side by side.

Our goals for incorporating TalkAbroad conversations are to:

  1. motivate students to explore and understand other cultures,
  2. ensure student satisfaction with speaking and comprehension abilities and achievements and
  3. open the possibility to become proficient in the language.

The academic year at NU is divided into three quarters. Each quarter covers four thematic and grammar units. We assigned a conversation for each unit and one concluding conversation at the end of the quarter.

We incorporated one conversation into each chapter and one final closing conversation to be scheduled during the reading week. We originally envisioned that the topics for each unit would be congruent with the topics for conversations, but decided after the first conversations to open it up to more general chatting as that seemed to be a more viable and enjoyable option at this level. In the future, I still believe it would be more productive to prepare more systematically and practice with specific vocabulary, but in this more intensive trial run, many students felt simply overwhelmed and not ready.

Only the last, graded conversation will be more structured as our students will have more time to prepare for a topic-centered conversation. It will be a graded conversation, accounting for 10 percent of their final grade. Students will be required to listen to their own conversation again and to one additional conversation their peer student led. They will also submit their self-evaluation and one evaluation of their classmate’s conversation. The instructor will then combine the self-evaluation, the peer evaluation and his/her own to provide feedback.


Preliminary Report (Feb. 2019): As of today, when I’m writing this preliminary report, 59 Intermediate German students at Northwestern have completed at least one conversation out of five and the majority of them have completed two conversations. The project has been running mostly smoothly, with minor issues with scheduling and occasional technical problems. Overall, I’m happy to report that most users have been enjoying this special opportunity to speak with native speakers.

Seen from my side, as an instructor and coordinator, the experience has been thus far very positive, from the scheduling mode to retrieving results. Students seem to be getting used to the technical, as well as the human aspect of a real conversation. Using TalkAbroad has been a positive experience so far - easy for instructors and enthusiastically received by most students.

Final Report (May 2019): This report covers our experience incorporating TalkAbroad conversations for the first time into the Intermediate German Curriculum at Northwestern University in winter 2018. The college operates on a quarter system and each of the quarters is thematically and grammatically structured. Our students had four quarters of study of German before they participated in the conversations via TalkAbroad.

In addition to studying grammar, our students worked with 20th century historical and literary materials (a play by Bert Brecht, literary story from the 50’s about the former Western Germany by H. Böll and a movie about everyday life in the East Germany). In the winter 2018 quarter, we worked with contemporary popular German culture. The topics from fall quarter proved less suitable for a spontaneous conversation than popular culture. Music and politics were best received, though politics presented a struggle for some students and/or their partners.

The first trial run was fairly intensive: five conversations for each student, at the end of each unit to practice topics and vocabulary covered in the respective units, more or less independently, as an additional supplemental boost.

Fifty-nine Intermediate German students at Northwestern have completed mostly five conversations with minor issues with scheduling and occasional technical problems. The technical side was mainly a smooth experience, from the scheduling mode to retrieving results. Students reported occasionally problems with seeing or hearing their partner, but this was, to my knowledge, usually remedied by TalkAbroad in offering another conversation for no charge. This solution certainly worked for the instructors, but the students responded less enthusiastically simply because it meant another time commitment.

With high frequency, the topics originally planned for each conversation turned out to be rather irrelevant or at least complicating matters. In barely two weeks (which is one unit in a quarter system, for a total of four units in the quarter), students at the intermediate level had not had sufficient time to prepare for a topic-centered conversation. Only our strongest students would prefer a theme in 2019. We opened up the assignments to a general chat to relieve the tension.

Our goals for the semester:

The unexpected:

Students’ reflection:

Using TalkAbroad has been a much more positive experience in 2019: easy for instructors and enthusiastically received by most students. It came at the cost of the existing curricula, which needed to be adapted. We are looking forward to collaborating with TalkAbroad in the future. We would like to thank TalkAbroad for the grant we received for the trial run in 2018. We would not have gotten involved with this platform so intensively without this possibility.

To read more about Prof. Kerlova’s feedback on how to successfully integrate TalkAbroad into a language curriculum, take a look at her Best Practices Case Study.

Project Lead

Martina Kerlova, Northwestern University