Who is your personal superhero? – Now, for me it’s Alexander Argüelles, a person who is able to effectively use around 50 languages.
Why is this relevant? Because people like Alexander prove a few things to me: they nourish my hope about the possibility of learning more than one foreign language and they actually prove such a possibility. What does this mean? Our brain is an endless source of superpowers and knowing a few languages simply gives a delight of turning into a usual citizen in more than one country. That’s why after being admitted to the FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg my first question was “How can I apply for language courses here?” (and my target was not only German)
The answer to my query was the Language Centre at the FAU. Currently it offers courses in 28 different languages including specialized courses that are a part of BA or MA programs. In the WS 2014/15 the Language Centre helped around 8700 participants to improve their language skills, in SS 2015 this number increased to almost 9300 participants. Here you can also prepare for and take such language exams as UNIcert®, DSH, TestDaF, TOEFL, mobility tests in all languages taught, and others. For more information about the work of the Centre, let me introduce you to the Head of the Language Centre, Dr. Gunter Lorenz.
Hello, Dr. Lorenz. The Language Centre offers a great number of language courses and related activities. Are these courses open and free of charge only for students of the university?
Gunter Lorenz: The courses are free of charge for the enrolled students of the university. Outsiders and employees of the university are subject to the availability of places, which is often an obstruction. In general, a non-student can attend courses as a “guest” (Gasthörer). All you have to do is register at the central office (Studentenkanzlei) and pay a fee of 30 euros per weekly course hour, which adds up to a total of 60 euros for the whole semester of a two-hour course. As I said, however, the availability of a place is always an issue, as the priority has to lie with our regular students.
How is a new language introduced at the Language Centre?
Gunter Lorenz: We always introduce a new language on a trial basis and usually at the instigation of students, so it is hardly ever a “top down” process. This semester we have introduced a course in sign language for the hearing impaired, and this is actually a ‘model case’ of how a new language course comes about at the Language Centre. First, we receive queries from students about the possibility of such a course; then one of our heads of the department decides to follow this up, gets in touch with me about the availability of funds, and tries to find a suitable teacher. So more often than not it all starts with the students telling us about their interests and needs. As with the new course in sign language, which does not require all that many resources, we are very happy to be able to satisfy most of the students‘ requests.
What are the most popular languages studied at the Centre?
Gunter Lorenz: As could be expected, the popularity prize obviously goes to English. About a third of our students learn or study this language. In this context, “learn or study” includes both the students who study English to become language professionals (either as English teachers or in the context of a BA/MA programme) as well as students of other subjects who learn English as part of their professional or academic profile. The second and the third places in this ranking are taken by Spanish and German, followed by French and Italian. Not many surprises there, as German is needed by the large number of international students at FAU, and the other three languages can also be studied as part of language degrees.
The main language of instruction at the Language Centre is German. However, as you have mentioned, there are many international students at the university. These may have an insufficient command of German, but would still like to learn a foreign language. Is it possible to learn a new language through English?
Gunter Lorenz: No, you cannot learn Spanish or Korean through English with us. But most of our courses aim to maximise the exposure to the target language itself, and they are mainly taught by native speakers. This makes it perfectly possible for speakers of languages other than German to learn a new language with us. There are very few classes, like Advanced Grammar, for example, where fine points may be discussed in contrast to German, but these cases are very rare.
How much time does one need to master a new language on a sufficient level?
Gunter Lorenz: Forever. The more you know about language, the more reluctant you will become to give a precise time frame for mastering a language. Myself, I’m a native speaker of German but still learn new details about my own language. And I have been learning and teaching English for a long time, and some say I can speak it fairly well, but I would never say there is nothing left for me to learn. No, you are never ‚done‘ with learning a language, but you can set some restricted goals for yourself, like “being able to read Spanish on an academic level“, if the literature for your research is mainly Spanish. Such a restricted target can be reached relatively quickly, given high motivation and a bit of tenacity. Our elementary courses, for example, are four hours per week. Say you take such a course for four consecutive semesters; that will take you to a relatively comfortable level of communication. Having said that, to avoid frustration, please make sure you allow for the time to put sufficient effort into the task. Don’t learn a language half-heartedly! Make maximum exposure to the foreign language and try to listen to the authentic language as much as possible. Give yourself some time, give it your all, identify with the language and its speakers, then you will be pleased with the progress you make.
So, is it possible at all to learn a foreign language on your own?
Gunter Lorenz: As far as many aspects are concerned – absolutely! We have a Self-Access Centre which offers great study opportunities and plenty of learning materials. We also have foreign language counselling which can advise you on how to learn a language for the chosen goal, starting with self-assessment – Where am I? What are my goals? What is my preferred mode of learning? – and will accompany you during the first steps of your learning process. Moreover, for our main languages we have online Blended Learning courses which are flexible in terms of time, as much of the learning can take place online through the platform of the VHB (Virtuelle Hochschule Bayern). In this type of course you also have intensive face-to-face phases where tutors will help you put the acquired knowledge into practice.
Whatever your individual goals for learning a language may be, we will try to come up with a suitable course or learning format for you!
Thank you for the interview!