Multilingualism and education

EuroComGerm: A Quick Route to Reading Comprehension

EuroComGerm is an initiative with the objective of very quickly acquiring a reading knowledge of related languages.  Photo: © EuroComEuroComGerm is an initiative with the objective of very quickly acquiring a reading knowledge of related languages.  Photo: © EuroComA research group working on the EuroComGerm project has prepared instructions for the quick acquisition of reading comprehension abilities in Germanic languages. Project director Professor Britta Hufeisen of the Technische Universität Darmstadt explains how to cleverly apply one’s existing linguistic knowledge.

Professor Hufeisen, can you briefly outline the objective of the EuroComGerm project?

EuroComGerm is an initiative that began in Germany with the objective of very quickly acquiring a reading knowledge of related languages in a language family. We started from the assumption that almost everyone who lives in Germany learns English as their first foreign language. And that means they are already half way to learning languages such as Dutch, Swedish or Danish. To put it casually, our approach is to say, hey guys, look what you already know of foreign languages and how you can apply it without time-consuming language lessons. Then all you need are a few strategies and techniques to acquire a reading knowledge of related languages.

How did the idea come about?

Who speaks English is already half way to learning languages such as Dutch, Swedish or Danish.  Photo: diego cervo © iStockphotoThe idea comes from Romance languages colleagues Horst Klein and Tilmann Stegmann of the University of Frankfurt. They developed techniques in the EuroComRom project in the late nineties for learning how to understand parallel texts in six languages using French as a bridge language. Meanwhile, there are projects on two other language families: EuroComSlav for Slavic languages and EuroComGerm for Germanic languages.

Does the method work in a similar way for all languages?

Yes, the basic principle does, but the details are different for the different language families. In our case, for example, there is the special feature that our mother tongue, German, is itself a Germanic language. And in acquiring a reading knowledge of Danish, for example, English is not always helpful as a bridge language. Instead, it is much simpler to go straight from German to Danish.

Can you describe the acquisition techniques?

We have described seven reading techniques that help people to understand texts in a Germanic language. Our so-called Seven Sieves are organised a bit differently to those used in the EuroComRom project. They range from internationalisms and a common Germanic vocabulary to function words such as pronouns and prepositions, and equivalent phonemes, graphemes and syntactic structures.

What is the current stage of the project?

The book “EuroComGerm – Die sieben Siebe. Germanische Sprachen lesen lernen”  Photo: © Shaker VerlagAt the moment, we are working on the second edition of our book EuroComGerm – Die sieben Siebe. Germanische Sprachen lesen lernen, in which we described the procedure for Dutch, Swedish, Danish, the two variations of Norwegian and Icelandic. In parallel, we are also writing a second book, in which the procedure is applied to so-called smaller languages such as Letzenburgish and Faroese.

How is the first book being used?

We offer courses here at the university in Darmstadt, for example. We have seen that most participants come out of interest in one particular language. Very few wish to use this brilliant technique for all the Germanic languages. There are also schools that work regularly with the material, for example in project weeks, and it has been a success. The pupils become curious about effective, time-saving techniques and acquire a heightened awareness of linguistic structures in general.

Are there any questions still open in this field?

Oh, yes! We are continuing to take a scientific approach to try to discover why the concept works so well in the first place. A doctoral thesis is being written at the moment which addresses the question of the relevance of the reader’s level of skill in the bridge language. Do you have to know an awful lot of English in order to benefit from the Seven Sieves for the other target languages? Or is it first and foremost a knowledge of certain learning strategies that leads to success?

We know that there are cross-language links in peoples’ minds.  Photo: Anthia Cumming © iStockphotoIt would also be exciting to find out why Dutch is by far the easiest language for all the test persons to understand, regardless of the region of Germany in which they live, while Icelandic is the most difficult for everyone. We would like to find out more about language learning generally. We know that there are cross-language links in peoples’ minds, but we would like to gain an even better understanding of how these links function and how we can make them ourselves.

Shouldn’t that also impact on the order in which foreign languages are learned at school?

That would make sense, of course. At the moment, however, it seems politically impossible to enforce anything but starting to learn English as early as possible, even though from an academic point of view, that does not make much sense.

The strategies for reading comprehension taught by EuroComGerm use intelligent guesswork as a method and invite one to re-evaluate mistakes …

Yes. Mistakes are usually incredibly productive. If a child says:”I goed home“, it clearly shows that it has understood how the past tense is formed. The fact that the child has inflected an irregular verb regularly is completely irrelevant in the first instance. Learners generally enjoy using intelligent guesswork and playing the detective, but unfortunately, they are all too seldom given the opportunity to do so in foreign language lessons.

Literature:

Britta Hufeisen, Nicole Marx (ed.):
EuroComGerm – Die sieben Siebe. Germanische Sprachen lesen lernen (Shaker Verlag, 2007)

Dagmar Giersberg
held the interview. She works as a freelance publicist in Bonn.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
April 2012

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