One of the items on my hopelessly optimistic plan for the summer was attending a German language course at the Goethe Institute. I was determined to pick up some basic German this summer, because I don't want to handle three foreign languages during the semester (I have my hands full with Latin and Greek), and I realized I don't want to wait two more years before beginning to learn German.
I'm very happy with that decision. I've taken an intensive three-week four-hours-a-day course that holds a semester's worth of study, starting from the beginning (G1). The course was quite good, the teacher experienced and competent. But it was not optimal for me:
I like lunging right at the formal elements of a language, I'm curious about grammar, and I want to understand the language as profoundly as possible right from the start. I realize most people aren't like that, and I realize too that my grasp of grammar in general (i.e. telling prepositions from prefixes, adverbs from adjectives) and of Indo-European grammar in particular (i.e. cases, declensions, noun genders etc.) is, thanks to my studies of Latin and Greek, significantly more solid than that of many of my counterparts.
Now, the course was designed according to the "natural" school of teaching languages -- the teacher spoke German from the first moment, only resorting to Hebrew to explain difficult or abstract word meanings, and the focus was on learning whole expressions and sentences without worrying about their grammatical makeup. For instance, we were taught that the masculine definite article 'der' becomes 'den' "when used after a verb that's not 'sein' (to be)". Never, throughout the entire course, was the word "akkusativ" (accusative) mentioned, nor the concept of "direct object" employed. So the students knew that they're supposed to say "ich sehe den Mann", but were not sure why. It was clear enough to me, of course, but it irked me that the teacher ran circles around herself trying to explain to the slower students why words changed in certain ways without using the simple formal explanation of syntax. I know, many people forgot all their high-school grammar, and can't tell an adjective from an adverb, certainly not in foreign tongues, but nevertheless, I found it a bit ridiculous.
But other than that, I was very pleased. We learned new words every day, worked with an excellent, balanced textbook, listened to tapes and watched brief television shows for proper pronunciation, and real progress was made every day.
However, by the end of the course I was not satisfied with my German at all. We haven't even learned any past tense! How useful is that? I decided to pursue the option of another intensive course for the next level (G2). I was able to spur some interest among my fellow students, and from members of the three intensive G1 groups, a single intensive G2 group was formed. The G2 course would end only a couple of days before the university semester begins, and that's definitely bad news for all my other summer plans, but at least I'll significantly improve my German:
The G2 course differs sharply from the first one. Grammar is explicitly taught and discussed (after three days, we learned the past tense using auxiliary verbs and the perfect participle) , and the pace is quicker. I find the G2 teacher absolutely impressive and inspiring -- she storms into class with such vibrant energies (at 08:00am, mind!), keeps the pace up, demonstrates everything vividly, and does a good job of explaining differently for different people. I have high hopes for the level of my German after this course.
In the meantime, I welcome any exercise I can get: I've already borrowed a learner's book from the Institute's library, with simplified grammar and vocabulary, working toward being able to read Winnie-the-Pooh, but I'd love some written exchanges with native speakers of German as well. If you'd like to help, just send me an e-mail or instant message in German. Don't worry about the level -- I can look things up, and I'll say exactly what I can't understand. Also, please don't be shy about correcting my spelling, grammar, syntax, or even style. I need to be told this to improve. Thanks!