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.

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