An interview with Heike Uhlig
“An app can’t replace a regular language course.”

An app makes possible a first entry into learning German.
An app makes possible a first entry into learning German. | Photo (detail): © LoloStock -

Apps are to be used to support refugees when they arrive in Germany and for learning the German language. But do smartphones and apps suffice to learn German? Heike Uhlig, Head of the Department for Language of the Goethe-Institut, on the scope and limits of digital services.

Dr. Uhlig, how helpful are apps for learning German?

An app for language learning is always a self-learning service. It can make possible a first entry into learning German and make supplementary course material available. Above all, it enables the user to learn anytime, anywhere. This is a great benefit. But since no teacher is on the spot, apps can provide only closed exercise formats. Free, individual oral expression can’t be taught by such self-learning services. For systematic language learning it’s important to practice, to express yourself freely and so be able to take part in conversation. Especially people who are learning a new language need the support of a teacher to understand the structures of language, to ensure progress in the learning material and acquire learning strategies. An app can’t replace a regular language course.

Many refugees use translating or interpreting apps. Can they help in language acquisition?

Good translating apps make possible the simple, very specific exchange of information or the understanding of a short text – for instance, a label. They can help surmount initial speechlessness in certain situations. But they’re not a means of acquiring a language.

It’s important that exercises prepare for specific situations

With “Welcome – Learning German for Refugees”, the Goethe-Institut has made available a comprehensive service, including a “Vocabulary Trainer App” and an “Arrival App”, with videos, language exercises, self-learning programmes and much more. What will and can this service contribute to language acquisition for refugees?

Dr. Heike Uhlig Dr. Heike Uhlig | Photo (detail): © Goethe-Institut, Foto: Lauredana la Rocco At we’ve compiled a high-quality service for acquiring an initial knowledge of German. Both in content and method various exercise formats pave the way to formal language instruction, as in an integration course, and so can prepare users for a language course. It’s also important that exercises prepare for specific situations. It’s not enough to cram individual words or grammar bits, even if of course you can’t lean a language without learning vocabulary.

At therefore you offer a “Vocabulary Trainer App”.

Such apps are basically suited to practice specific vocabulary: in preparation, but also during a course. The special thing about our Vocabulary Trainer App is that the A1 vocabulary has already been translated into fourteen language, including Arabic, so that even beginners can work with it.

To what extent does your service take into consideration the special situation of refugees in Germany?

The contents of the Arrival App are tailored exactly to this target group. The male and female characters that appear in the language course frequently come from countries of origin such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Example dialogue that corresponds to the lives of the refugees provides specific linguistic help in everyday life. The language course presents original documents with which refugees will be confronted in the asylum process – for example, the residence permit – and the vocabulary and useful phrases of the Arrival App refer to everyday actions of particular importance for refugees. This includes shopping, going to the doctor, orientation at place of residence and the choice of clothing. Many of these topics are handled only later in traditional language courses and at a higher language level. By adapting the topics and phrases, this app is useful in specific life situations.

Digital applications allow for individual practice in the classroom

What are the advantages of digital services for German lessons in welcoming classes compared with traditional study materials?

Digital services used in the classroom are suitable for internal differentiation: While a teacher is working on something with one part of the class, the other part can practice individually. In the closed tasks of the digital service the students get immediate feedback, without having to turn to the teacher. Moreover, digital applications allow in principle for individual practice in the classroom. In listening exercises they also often lead to greater learning success. And the playful aspect shouldn’t be underestimated. It promotes the motivation and stamina needed for the lengthy process of learning a language.

The people who have fled to Germany come from various countries of origin and have different levels of education. How can digital services meet the corresponding challenges?

Most self-learning services are more suitable for people with experience in learning. Someone who has never before learned a foreign language will have a difficult time. For these people the Goethe-Institut’s playful applications such as City of Words can be well suited for making a first acquaintance with a new language. But here too the rule applies: the different approaches of different apps are helpful. A successful application, however, often requires the support of learning guides so that especially inexperienced learners find the right applications and are assisted.

The Welcome Service of the Goethe-Institut is aimed at both learners and learning guides. Why?

In their efforts to learn German most of the refugees are supported to begin with by volunteers. While some of these are trained teachers, they still need materials for teaching German as a foreign language. But many of the volunteers aren’t trained teachers and need tips and guidance on how to deal with their new task as learning guides. Teachers at schools are also facing new challenges. Many have no specialized training in teaching German as a foreign or second language – hence our offer of specialized training in this area is in high demand. But GFL teachers too are grateful for tips on teaching materials which, for example, are suitable for the internal differentiation of the heterogeneous language support classes.

The Goethe-Institut will present itself at the Didacta (16.–20.02.2016 in Cologne), the largest education fair in Europe, with among other things a panel discussion entitled German for Refugees with Smartphones & Apps – Is That Enough?. In addition to Dr. Heike Uhlig, Head of the Department for Language of the Goethe-Institut, participants include Ernst Schatz, computer scientist and organizer of accompanied online self-learning in Landsberg; Ines Paland, Head of German Uni Online at the University of Munich; and Stefanie Janke, classroom and online teacher.