BLC Travel Grant Report

Thanks to generous support from the BLC, I was able to attend the weeklong International Convention of Teachers of German (ITD, Internationale Tagung der Deutschlehrer und Deutschlehrerinnen), which took place in summer 2013 in Bolzano, the capital of Italy’s autonomous province of South Tyrol, where a special statute protects the rights of a German-speaking minority. Before its annexation by Italy after World War I, Bolzano had been part of the Austro-Hungarian province Tyrol and primarily German-speaking. The beautiful mixture of alpine surroundings and Mediterranean flair provided an extremely stimulating context for one of the largest international meetings of Teachers of German as a Foreign or Second Language with over 2,600 participants from all over the world. A rich, interesting, and at times dense program ensured five days packed with plenary sessions, lectures, reports, mini-seminars and performances—plenty of stimulating experiences of which I want to briefly sketch out three.

Some of the most interesting discussions were closely tied to the widely discussed 2007 report from the MLA ad hoc Committee on Foreign Languages with its call for a broadened transcultural and transnational perspective in educating today’s foreign language learners. Several lectures and panels were specifically addressing this issue by repositioning the study of the German language outside of a national context of the German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Southern Tyrol) and advocating language skills and intercultural competence as the central key to access and participate in an European and global, multicultural and multilingual world. Here lies the potential for a profound impact on curriculum development as well as on ‘branding’ language study to potential students in the context of German Studies in the US, where the study of German has a long tradition of being tied to a rather monolithic national culture and literature and is persistently advertised through national symbols and representations.

A second important stimulus came from one of the main plenary lectures on a current project at the University of Munich, which uses studies in cognitive linguistics as the basis for the development of an online learning platform for the German as a Foreign Language (DUO). The speaker, Jörg Roche, pointed out how the predominant model of grammar instruction is oriented on and dominated by descriptive linguistics rather than focusing on how rules are conceptualized by the learner. Based on the assumption that knowledge of grammar is conceptual in nature, Roche showed several examples of innovative computer-animated grammar presentations on word order and prepositional use that have recently been developed by a team of researchers in Munich and Bochum.

The third experience concerned my own presentation, “Poetry Alive in the German Language Classroom,” which was embedded in a two-day long symposium on Language and Cultural Learning with Literature, focusing on exploring the aesthetic dimension of literary texts in the foreign language classroom. Coincidentally, my talk followed a morning plenary lecture by Wolfgang Hackl (Innsbruck) who proposed using literary texts to create “comprehension competence,” a concept he closely related to Claire Kramsch’s “symbolic competence.” This allowed me to amend the layout of a theoretical framework with an example of its practical implications and applications: the presentation of a pragmatic, multiple-step process to teach poetry as language, adapted from Kramsch’s Culture and Context in Language Teaching (1993) and utilizing a method based on Reader’s Theatre. The lively and at times controversial discussion which followed greatly helped me in preparing a three-hour workshop on Teaching (Literary) Texts in the Foreign Language Classroom which I gave to a group of multilingual educators at the University of San Francisco upon my return in late August.

The international character of this convention in addition to its sheer size provided a significant additional dimension far beyond the typical professional exchanges, allowing insights into truly different perspectives as well as into a broad variety of institutional and instructional contexts. It was a true privilege to attend and present at a conference of this magnitude and importance and I am deeply grateful to the BLC for having made it possible.