Þýskubíllinn (The “Germanmobile”): a project in Iceland to provide motivation for “German as a foreign language” teaching in Iceland

Author(s): Oddný G. Sverrisdóttir
Institution/Organisation: Háskóli Íslands, Reykjavík (IS)

Description of the project

German has a long tradition in Iceland, going back to the Hanse period, Humanism and the Reformation. For more than 50 years German has been taught as the third foreign language after Danish and English. As third foreign language it competes with French and recently also with Spanish, and although German is (still) the most frequently chosen third foreign language in schools, it has experienced a dramatic decline: in Icelandic schools the number of German learners has dropped from c. 75% of a year group to under 50%, while the number of Icelanders studying in German-speaking countries fell from almost 300 to under 100. Although many important posts are currently still occupied by persons with a good or excellent knowledge of German, this will change if the current trend continues and German will become a niche language. This is despite the fact that German is the language, after English and Danish, which would be most useful to them in their working life.
One of the reasons for this negative trend is the poor image. There are a total of 27 secondary schools in Iceland, 14 of them in the capital Reykjavík and environs and 13 in rural areas. German is offered as third foreign language in all schools. One of the secondary schools is a school of commerce, which applies the same foreign-language curriculum as the rest of the secondary schools. In Iceland pupils attend primary school between the ages of 6 and 16. Compulsory school attendance and primary school are thus aligned with each other. At the age of 16 the pupils switch to grammar school and take their secondary school leaving examination four years later. Learning of the third foreign language commences only when they start attending grammar school. In some primary schools the pupils in their ninth year of school can learn the third foreign language as an elective subject. Unfortunately the primary schools and the grammar schools do not always cooperate in this area. This means that the pupils who already have a grounding in the language are not given extra support and encouragement but instead have to repeat the beginners’ lessons at the grammar school. Up until 1995 pupils could choose between German and French in the secondary schools. During this period German occupied a very strong position, because some 75% of the pupils selected German in preference to French. This strong position of the German language was in part due to tradition and the image of German as a language for gifted people. From 1995 onwards some secondary schools also offered Spanish as an elective subject, while in 2003 some 90% of the schools were offering Spanish as a third elective language.
Pupils who do not attend the languages section of a school learn German for the duration of four semesters and received six lesson periods of German per week. Each lesson period lasts for 40 minutes, and the semester lasts 13 weeks. Icelandic secondary school pupils generally receive 312 lesson periods in the subject German. Secondary school pupils in the languages section receive a further 78 lesson periods in German and thus achieve a total of 390. In addition, most schools offer two follow-up courses in German. Secondary school graduates with ‘school German’ have an elementary knowledge of the language.

Up to now, GFL teaching in Iceland has put strong emphasis on the teaching of grammar. The aim has been for pupils/students to learn ‘good and proper’ German and they should be able to read and translate. Icelandic teachers have been trained accordingly. Many of the teachers have difficulty in adopting new teaching methods in their lessons; due to the fall in the numbers of German learners hardly any new, young colleagues are being employed. Unfilled teaching positions are being abolished. The negative development can be ascribed to the poor image of the German language. Although mobility and exchange programmes give young people the opportunity to live abroad for a while, one must realise in the context that the German-speaking countries are not viewed as ‘exotic’. German culture is not communicated intensively in Iceland. For some years now, hardly any German-language productions have been shown on television and books by German-speaking authors are rarely translated, while Icelandic literature is experiencing a veritable boom in German translations. Icelandic travel agencies rarely offer cultural trips to German-speaking countries. Much of the Icelandic population is uninterested in, and feels no connection with, German-speaking culture and countries. It is crucial that this attitude be changed.
The 2006 Football World Cup in Germany presented a welcome opportunity for starting an image campaign designed precisely to combat this boring image and to motivate young Icelanders to select German as their third language of choice and to create a more lively association with German-speaking countries.

The idea behind the project

The idea for the project came when an 11-year-old boy read with great interest a small brochure – written in German – about the football World Cup in Korea 2002. I would not normally have taken any notice of the brochure and I would certainly not have considered it as suitable material for GFL teaching. The boy spontaneously told me how German terms such as “Latte” (crossbar) and “abseits” (offside) were translated into Icelandic and asked whether he could travel with me to Germany in 2006. I said yes and in turn asked him whether he wouldn’t prefer to travel to Germany a year earlier, in 2005. “No, the World Cup isn’t until 2006.” At that moment the magical effect of the World Cup became clear to me. Things really took off when he asked me the crucial question, “Can you teach me German by then? When I travel to Germany I must be able to speak German.” I stared at the boy in amazement. On the one hand it became clear to me that he might not be the only one who would like to learn German by the time the World Cup took place – the same could be true of many young people all over the world – and on the other hand I realised that this was the first time in my nearly two decades of teaching German as a foreign language that a pupil or student had approached me with this request. The 2006 World Cup in Germany might provide a unique opportunity to change the image of the German language in Iceland. I had to seize this opportunity with both hands.

The concept, equipment and target group

The “Germanmobile” project created a non-school situation in which German was spoken outside the classroom. Speaking the German language was linked to the theme of football in Germany. The theme was intended to open the door to young people who voluntarily came into contact with the German language during their leisure time. This was also intended to prevent German once more being associated with swotting up and learning lots of grammar and vocabulary. The aim was for the love of football and the enjoyment of playing to be transferred positively to the German language. The focus was on leisure fun, not learning a language in the classroom. The teacher practicing with the children was called a “German trainer” – who didn’t teach German, but instead trained ‘football German’. In order to ensure that the language was really practiced during a game, the training took place on a sports ground, in a sports hall or in the playground, and never in a classroom. Shooting the ball at the goal wall served to create the right atmosphere for direct and authentic communication. The children tried their skills with the goal wall and the German trainer spoke to them only in German. Since the children were familiar with the theme of football, they were in one sense equal-status interlocutors when communicating with the German trainer. The aim was show the children that they could participate in genuine communication in German without ever having learned German before – and to arouse the wish in them: “I would like to speak German – German is fun.” The project consisted of the Þýskubíllinn – a car that was clearly marked as the “Germanmobile” and thus fulfilled an advertising purpose –, a goal wall, flyers for distribution, posters, T-shirts, a carpet with a map measuring 4x8 metres, a homepage and a national quiz. The realisation of the sessions was the responsibility of the German trainer.
The target group was children between the ages of 9 and 14 who until then had had no experience of the German language. In schools, German is first offered as an elective subject in class 9.

Practical realisation

Many sports clubs and schools in various parts of Iceland received a visit from the Germanmobile. The young people who took part in the project thus gained their first contact with the German language. The vocabulary that they already had in the area of sport was used to introduce the German language.
The German trainer was responsible for the realisation of the project ‘on the ground’ and trained with a small group of children, generally numbering 15 to 18, for almost an hour. He introduced himself in German to each child: “Ich heiße Kristian, wie heißt du?” (“I’m called Kristian, what are you called?”). The children then spoke their name in response. [Translator’s note: All further German quotes are provided in English only] The German trainer then asked the following child to say his/her name by saying, “The next one, please.” After the introductory round the group then began practicing with the goal wall. This was a goal wall constructed for the project to the same dimensions as the goal wall in Germany’s well-known ZDF sports programme; it was always transported by the Germanmobile in a trailer and set up on the sports ground. The children kicked balls at the goal wall and the German trainer gave them instructions in short, simple sentences that the children could understand from the context of the situation. “Again”, “Fetch the ball”, “Super”, “Very close”, “Almost”, “Super, great”, “A goal, super”, were phrases called out by the German trainer. The top scorer in each group received a T-shirt specially made for the project. This T-shirt resembled a sports shirt. There were black/red/gold stripes on the sleeves, the slogan “Þú skorar með þýskunni”‚ (“You score goals with German”) on the front, and a map with the World Cup cities on the back. The fact that some children tried time and again to score on the goal wall is one indication that the T-shirts were very popular with the young people.
The children received a small flyer with football vocabulary and some information about German geography and culture. Since the children were familiar with the theme of football they immediately recognised the content and were able to assign the Icelandic term to the pictures with the German expression. The pupils saw, for instance, a football boot, a red card, a whistle and a goal. They knew what these things are and were able to add the German terms without help from the German trainer. The twelve German World Cup cities were shown on a map on the flyer. The children were also able to enter their favourite team and also to say who they thought might win the tournament.
One important element for the project realisation was that the communication took place directly with the German trainer. No Icelandic German teachers or sports teachers were required to serve as translator. Under no circumstances should sentences such as “’Ich heiße Kristian’ means ‘Ég heiti Kristian’ or ‘Hann heitir Kristian’” be spoken. It was best when the group trained alone with the German trainer and a possible assistant. The children were thus granted a sense of achievement on realising ‘I can understand him’.
The Germanmobile project was a nationwide project. A silver-grey Porsche Cayenne was used to ensure that not only pupils in the capital Reykjavík received a visit from the German trainer. The Germanmobile visited the Icelandic towns three times, namely in autumn 2005, in spring 2006 and in autumn 2006.
It was important to have a vehicle that could stand up to the Icelandic winter and drive safely on dirt roads with potholes. The car was clearly recognisable as the Þýskubíllinn or Germanmobile and stood out in traffic thanks to the German colours on the bodywork and the map. Passers-by often stopped and studied this map with interest. The Germanmobile was thus not only a practical means of transportation for the German trainer with all his equipment, but also a good means of advertising.
The visit by the Germanmobile was announced several days in advance by a poster at the sports hall, at the kiosk or on a notice board in the town or district. The residents of each place were thus informed of the impending visit.
A nationwide quiz linking sport and language was carried out as part of the project in the weeks before the World Cup. The participants answered questions about German geography and culture.
There were two main prizes: a ticket for a World Cup match in Berlin including the flight and hotel expenses, and a visit to the Porsche works in Zuffhausen und Stuttgart with guided tour.
The draw for the two main prizes was held in cooperation with the Icelandic press.

Reporting in the media

The project started in mid-July with a kick-off on the capital’s biggest sports ground in cooperation with the Icelandic football association. A short press conference was held, at which the former president of Iceland, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany and two Icelandic children took a test drive in the Germanmobile on the football pitch. The project was inaugurated on the sports ground to underline that the project linked language and sport. The daily newspapers and both Icelandic television channels, as well as German newspapers and magazines, reported on the project several times. Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation) broadcast a report on the project. There was considerable media coverage and the tone of the reports was very positive.
An editorial entitled “Þýskubíllinn þræðir þjóðvegina” (The Germanmobile travels the national highway) in Iceland’s biggest newspaper included the following:

"Skólar, íþrótta- og æskulýðsfélög geta fengið bílinn til sín í heimsókn og verða af því tilefni settar upp knattspyrnþrautir og tungumálaleikir. Markmiðið er að virkja börnin til að ná tökum á bæði knattspyrnu og þýskri tungu með því að tvinna þessa tvo þætti saman í leik. Íslensk börn hafa ekki átt þess kost að læra þýsku í grunnskóla nema á allra síðustu stigum hans og er þetta verkefni því mjög áhugaverð viðbót við það sem börnunum stendur til bóta í skólastarfinu. Eins og oft hefur verið bent á er mjög brýnt að íslensk börn tileinki sér sem flest tungumál á unga aldri – enda leggur það grunninn að seinni tíma þekkingu þeirra á því sviði. Ljóst er að þjóðir sem búa á mjög smáum málsvæðum þurfa að vera duglegri en aðrar við tungumálanám ef þær vilja geta átt orðastað við umheiminn. Þetta skemmtilega verkefni er framúrskarandi dæmi um hvað hægt er að gera til að innleiða tungumálaþekkingu í umhverfi barna og víkka þarmeð stjóndeildarhringinn með skemmtilegum og skapandi hætti."
“Schools, sports clubs and youth clubs can receive a visit from the Germanmobile, together with the goal wall and language games. The aim is to encourage the children to link up football and German in one game. So far, Icelandic children have had a chance to learn German only in the last years of primary school. It has often been stated how important it is for Icelandic children to learn foreign languages in their early years. Small language communities need to put greater emphasis on foreign languages if they want to be able to communicate with other nations. This remarkable project is an outstanding example of how foreign languages can be introduced into the experiential world of children and expand their horizon in an interesting and creative way.”
The positive media coverage was extremely important for the broad-based effect of the project.

The providers and partners of the project

The initiative originated with the research institute for foreign languages at the University of Iceland, the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute. Further project providers were the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Iceland, the German Department of the university and the Icelandic association of German teachers. Partners and important sponsors of the project were the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the Würth Stiftung, DAAD, Icelandair, the Goethe Centre in Reykjavík, Bílabúð Benna, Blue Lagoon and Smith&Norland. The German trainer was funded through support from the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

Concluding remarks

The project was very popular with the children and generated a highly positive atmosphere. Considerable media coverage was given to the Germanmobile. The Germanmobile project showed that an initiative like this can really achieve something. The World Cup in Germany was the springboard for drawing the attention of Icelandic children aged between 9 and 13 to the German language and to Germany itself by means of football and the World Cup. In the coming years one can hope that the project will cause more pupils to choose German as a third foreign language than has been the case in previous years.

It should be stressed that a project such as the Germanmobile cannot radically change the situation of the German language in Iceland. The initial project should be followed up by other ones. Those engaged in teaching German in Iceland can draw on the experiences gained in the course of the project. The positive response that the Germanmobile project received in Iceland can encourage others to combine language teaching and sport in various ways in the future.