In School in Germany: Teaching Latin

There is a German saying that is stressed in the classroom at both the university as well as in school:

 

You don’t know about history unless you’ve mastered Latin.

 

Yet this argument can be encountered with that of Latin not being relevant to the curriculum:

 

Latin is dead, and so is Caesar!

 

In all the years I’ve been teaching English here in Germany, there is no subject that has been overly stressed as the language you have to master other than Latin.  What is understood by Latin is NOT in connection with Latin American dances! If you connect these two elements, then you best move down to Costa Rica or Ecuador where you can get your training in.

 

Latin is a combination of language and history into one. Language because almost every single language derives from Latin, including English and German, as well as the Romance languages, like French, Spanish and Italian. Even the alphabet was adopted from Latin. It is one of the most logical languages ever to be taught in the classroom, yet also the most difficult if you struggle with grammar.  History because Latin originated from the Roman Empire. At the peak of its powerful existence in 117 AD, all of Europe, northern Africa and western Asia were dominated by the Romans, and each culture occupied by the Empire adopted the vocabulary and the grammar rules pertaining to Latin. Even when the Empire ceased to exist in 476 AD (with the dissolving of the western  kingdom through Odoacer and the relocation of the eastern Roman capital to Constantinople in 395 AD) elements of Latin were soon integrated into the languages of the areas once conquered, without knowing the fact that the languages we speak are derived from Latin.

 

There are many reasons why Latin is important and why some schools that have not introduced it should, based on my observations during my practical training as a high school teacher in Germany. Here are some reasons:

 

1. Grammar:  The grammatical structure of each language originated from the Latin language, including some elements that exist in the English and German language.  This includes various verb forms and tenses, articles and even suffixes that even exist today, just to name a few.

 

 

 

2. Vocabulary:  No matter if it is from religion, history or even everyday use, it is certain that the majority of words we use have their origin in the Latin language. In fact, over half of our words in English come from Latin, 30 percent come from French thanks to the 1066 Norman Conquest of English, and the rest come from other languages, whose words we ended up adopting, including Spanish, German, Russian and even the Natives.

 

 

3. History:  As a general rule of thumb, all forms of history run through Rome. Latin allows a student to learn more about the history of civilization, how empires rise, fall and be conquered, how certain sports like wrestling and track had its origins in Rome, political systems that exist today were formed, how buildings and the infrastructure were formed, and how half of philosophy had its origin (the other half came from the Greek side before the Romans conquered the country).

 

 

 4. Foreign Languages:  Latin serves as a key bridge connecting foreign languages, like the Overseas Highway connecting the islands in the Florida Keys. People having the basis of Latin are more likely to pick up languages in the same family more quickly than those with no foundation. The reason is the common traits that the languages share, in particular, with vocabulary. Another reason why more Americans should pick up Spanish and Canadians should also learn French. It has nothing to do with the minorities living there or any immigrants moving to these parts.

 

 

5. Translation Skills: Latin provides students a chance to learn how to translate from one language to another, avoiding pitfalls in the process. This is important for Latin is a bridge between two languages and some words do have similarities thanks to this language.

 

 

6. Religion: While Martin Luther became the first person to translate the Bible into another language (German) in 1587, much of the text about the rise, fall and ascension of Christ are still found in Latin, and in either the Bible, forms of music, or both. Speaking from experience singing for choirs in high school and college, it is important to have a true meaning of the song when reading the lyrics in Latin. Try Kyrie, Mozart’s Requieum and Agnus Dei, and you will understand why. With Latin you can decipher the meanings as you perform this at a concert.

 

 

 

Keeping these facts in mind, the next question is when and how to learn Latin. The first answer I can give you right now: as early as possible. Schools in Germany start with Latin in the sixth grade, and students are expected to learn Latin until they graduate.  Yet given the course load students have to deal with and the degree of difficulty Latin has to offer, Latin should be given in medicinal sips until students have the basic foundation.  The best way to approach Latin is to have the class run parallel to the ancient history class at the beginning, whereby in Latin, history is provided as background information but vocabulary and grammar are in the foreground. This way students can have a grasp at the language before learning how to translate from Latin into English.

 

In Germany, as the language is more logical than English, it is especially important that students are able to translate from Latin into German without having to commit many grammar mistakes in the German language.  That is why one can expect a session to look like something I observed many times during my practical training as a teacher: Vocabulary review from last session,  History (background info) for session, dictation in Latin, new vocabulary, translation, homework- learning new vocabulary and translation.  In the end, tests that are more often than the tests in other classes. Materials in a form of book and supplemental materials are used very often, and frontal teaching (especially for vocabulary) is used almost exclusively.  Tough if you lose track or are frustrated with the language, but effective.

 

But this is one way of learning Latin, albeit it is easy to learn it that way. There are many ways Latin can be taught in the classroom. It is a question of when to start teaching it in schools that don’t have it yet.  But keep in mind: just because Latin is dead, it doesn’t mean it can exist in a different form, as seen under the various reasons why Latin should be introduced in the classroom. The danger of not introducing Latin in schools is as grave as life without bees. Without the bees, life cannot exist because they do a great deal for the food chain. Without Latin, we become too one-dimensional in our thinking.  We have seen this in the US with several schools not even having foreign languages in the classroom, which is fatal to the development of the country and its influence throughout the world.  But having such basics like Latin can open the doors to new dimensions and avert this ignorance.

 

To end this article, there is a nice German saying worth thinking about: Ich bin nicht am Ende mit meinem Latein, sondern am Anfang.  I’m not at my end with Latin but right at the beginning.  The most basics can make a big difference in the long term, especially as all roads go through Rome.

 

 

 

In School in Germany: English Exams

 

To start off this entry, here is a question for all educators teaching foreign languages: Does your school offer foreign language proficiency exams? If so, for which grades (Germ.: Klasse) and what do these exams consist of?  For those who do not have a foreign language exam, should schools offer it and if yes, for which foreign languages and why?

As part of the European Union, it is expected that students learn at least English and French in addition to their native language. Germany is no exception as the two languages are stressed in the classroom as early as possible. And with that, tests (sometimes with certificates) are administered to test the knowledge of the foreign language as well as the skills developed during their time in school and later in college- namely, listening, reading, oral, and written. Grammar serves as a bridge connecting these skills and is only taught and tested in the classroom.

I have had the privilege to participate in every single English proficiency exam, both as an administrator as well as an observer, looking at the degree of difficulty, the structure and other elements that are either beneficial or a setback to the success of the students. In other words, I have been around the block. For teachers who are about to enter the field of foreign languages at school or at the university, and for students who are going to school or to the university in Germany, here are the exams that you will most likely expect to face while in Germany. Please keep in mind, these exams are meant to foster the development of the students and are not meant to pass or fail them, yet there are some differences that you should keep in mind, speaking from experience.

Besondere Leistungsfeststellung (BLF):  This exam was introduced in 2004 in response to the massacre that had occurred at the Guttenberg Gymnasium in Erfurt two years earlier. There, the person instigating the shooting spree (where 16 people were killed before he took his own life), left school without a degree, one of many reasons for his revenge. The massacre resulted in massive reforms in the education system and with that, the introduction of stringent requirements, including the BLF Exam. This exam can be found in Thuringia, Hesse and Saxony, but will most likely be found in other German states in the future. The BLF applies to subjects in German, Math, Science and a Foreign Language, in particular, English.  Students in the tenth grade are required to take the BLF exam and have the entire year to prepare for it through classes and other work. This includes a year of intensive English classes, where they have the opportunity to focus on current events and cultural issues and improve on their writing, reading, listening and speaking skills.  When the exam occurs close to the end of the school year, students are assigned to their examiners, and the dates are chosen by the administrators. Most of the time, they will be assigned in groups of two or three and are given 30 minutes of preparation time before the exam, as they will be given a topic to do their presentation in. These topics are sometimes based on their preferences in the class, so one can expect a presentation on US culture-related themes, for example because of their preference.

The exam is orally based and consists of three parts: The first part is small talk, where the examiner asks the students some questions about school life, their future and their favorite interests. The second part features a presentation from each student of the group of 2-3, based on the topic given for preparing. And in the third part, the students are given a scene where they play out a scene. The exam takes 30 minutes and students are given a grade in the end. That grade will represent half of the total grade for the subject for that particular year.  Judging by the observations, students taking this exam are more flexible in the first part than in the rest as they have the ability to use the vocabulary and speak freely than in the other two parts. Most mistake-prone is in the second part with the presentations, where they are forced to stick to the topic and use the vocabulary pertaining to it. Add the grammar to that and for a tenth grader, it can be very difficult if there are some areas lacking.

 

Abitur English:  Going up a notch is the Abitur exam, taken by those in the 12th or 13th grade who are on their way out of the Gymnasium and heading to college or the real world. The oral portion exam is structured like the BLF- meaning three parts with one of the parts requiring  preparation time of 30 minutes before the time of the exam. In that part, the student is given a text to prepare. This usually goes first as a way of “dumping him/her into icy cold water.” Well, it is not that cruel, but the student has  to answer the (unexpected) questions provided by the examiner that have to coincide with the text to test the reading comprehension- and with own words.  The second and third parts of the exam comprises of conversation testing listening and oral skills, with the second part focusing on current events and the third part focusing on personal questions, etc. This includes future plans, high school life and other topics dealing with one’s life.  The grade of the oral exam is combined with the grade of the written exam, which is usually given prior to the oral part. Students have a chance to choose which subject to do the Abitur, yet the final grades will influence the decision of the universities in Germany to admit or reject the applications. In other words, be aware of the Numerus Clausus when you want to apply for a degree program at the university, for if you do not have a 1,3 or better, you may not be admitted to the program of your choice.  One more thing: The Abitur Exam means A-level exams in English and are applicable in Germany.

 

UNICERT:   Developed by the Technical University of Dresden, the UNICERT exam applies to college students studying in the field of business, sciences, law and humanities. Students can receive the certificate with the grade level of I-IV, pending on which university offers what level of UNICERT certificates and what level of difficulty for languages. That means level I applies to A-B1 language niveau according to the European Language Reference, whereas level IV is up to C2 level.  For example, the University of Bayreuth (Bavaria), where I taught English for a couple years offers UNICERT up to level four, whereas the University of Halle (Saxony-Anhalt) only offers UNICERT up to level two.  The UNICERT is perhaps one of the most rigorous of exams, for in order to receive a UNICERT Certificate, students not only have to attend certain numbers of accredited English classes and pass the courses, but as soon as they obtained enough credits for the UNICERT exams, they have to achieve the highest possible score for the four-part exam, each part featuring reading comprehension, listening comprehension, oral communication, and essay writing based on a given theme.  While both reading and listening feature questions to answer, in listening comprehension, you listen to the audio clip twice before answering the questions. In oral communication, the format is the same as in the Abitur and BLF Exams- 30 minutes of preparation time with a text with possible questions to be answered followed by 30 minutes of small talk, text questions and current event questions.  Speaking from experience, while students think the UNICERT is really difficult, the teachers find preparing each and every theme for the given parts to be really difficult, for the themes must fit to the students’ field of study as well as the current events, especially if the theme suggestions are rejected, altered or accepted with reservations by other members of the language institute. But that is a different topic to be saved for a lousy day of teaching.  UNICERT exams are found at many German universities, as well as those in Austria, Switzerland, France and the Czech Republic, yet they are frowned upon as being insufficient for proof of language skills for the future jobs. That is why one will see UNICERT-accredited universities mostly in the southern half of Germany, as well as Saxony, Hesse and Berlin, but are rejected in the  northern half in states, like  Hamburg, Lower Saxony Mecklenburg-Pommerania and Schleswig-Holstein, cities like Cologne, Frankfurt and Dusseldorf, and at almost every technical university and university of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen).  But it does not mean that at these institutions where UNICERT does not exist that there are no exams to test the language proficiency of the students, as will be seen with the TOEIC.

 

TOEIC: TOEIC, which stands for the Test of International Communication is the most internationally recognized exam to be administered both in academia as well as in the business environment. It was first developed in the 1970s by the US-based Educational Testing Services and features two part: The Listening-Reading Test and the Speaking and Writing Test. The former features multiple choice questions and live conversations with people of different cultural backgrounds and speaking different dialects. The exam lasts 2 hours and a person can receive up to 900 points. The latter features 20 minutes of oral communication and 60 minutes of writing, and the person can receive up to 400 points. The exams are ordered by the institutions and as soon as the exams are completed, they are sent to the language testing center, where they are corrected and evaluated, and the certificates are sent to the institutions and/or examinees. Yet prior to the exam, preparation classes are required, where materials pertaining to TOEIC are used almost exclusively. One can present additional materials to class as long as they are relevant to the subjects that are covered for the exam. This makes the TOEIC the most centralized of exams and also the strictest, for guidelines must be met in order for the exam and the certificates to be valid. This is speaking from experience of a teacher who has a TOEIC Examiner License for over 4 years now.  Unlike UNICERT, teachers wanting to administer TOEIC must complete training at a language center and take some additional courses to update your knowledge of TOEIC. These can cost some money, but the training is worth it. TOEIC can be found at almost all the Fachhochschulen, universities that do not have UNICERT, and several business institutions. They are open for both students and adults alike, including those who are unemployed and are changing careers.

Note: TOEIC rivals the exams administered by Cambridge University and Trinity School of London as they follow similar guidelines, yet these exams can be found at the universities and institutions of continuing education (Volkshochschulen). More information about the TOEIC can be found here

 

So which exams are the toughest? Speaking from experience as a teacher, the exams can be compared to a flight of stairs a person has to go up in order to succeed. That means for students, the BLF is perhaps the easiest and the first step, whereas the UNICERT is the most difficult. Abitur and TOEIC are right in the middle. But this is in regards to the degree of difficulty that is expected. However, from the teacher’s point of view, the TOEIC is perhaps the easiest as there is little preparation time and the materials are provided. It is just a matter of following the units and ensure that you have an agenda to follow for the students in order to achieve the unit. The UNICERT is the most difficult for you need to develop the test and course curriculum yourself. While the course portion is not a problem if you are doing that individually and develop your own guidelines that fits the UNICERT requirements, when you work together with your colleagues at the university, you can run into several conflicts which can turn a harmonious relation into guerrilla warfare, which could make working together be a discord, and most times, the students taking the exam suffer in the end. But if asked which certificate would be most suitable for any job after school, then clearly the TOEIC would be the choice, for the Abitur is only a bridge to entering college and may be difficult to be accepted by the employer, and the UNICERT is restricted to Germany and the European stage.  But before proving your knowledge of a foreign language like English through certificates, it is best to work with the language so that you have enough confidence and skills mustered to pursue the Abitur, UNICERT or TOEIC. It is given that a proficiency exam, like the BLF will be given in the 10th grade. But for the others, the best way to master this success is interaction with others with native-speaker knowledge or even the native speaker him/herself. Sometimes a trip to that country for half a year will do the trick. 😉

 

What about other foreign language proficiency exams in the schools? Apart from BLF, what other exams exist in the German Bundesländern? Place your comments here or in the Files’ facebook page or send the author a line at flensburg.bridgehunter.av@googlemail.com. Don’t forget to share your thoughts about foreign language proficiency exams in the US, as mentioned at the beginning of this article.