Short-wave radio stirs linguistic passions

Schau ins Land - Kenntnisse
November 24, 2000

Aimed at anyone with at least two years of prior study, Kenntnisse is the sort of learning pack that university German departments increasingly prescribe or develop themselves. It is "broadly practical and communicative", building on "the idiom that both academic and vocational college students have become accustomed to at school". Those working alone through the course, without the benefit of the small - group interaction beloved of progressive pedagogical theorists, will not always find the answers to imaginatively devised practical exercises - for instance, model résumés - in the teacher’s book to which they are referred.

This complementary volume is nevertheless a resourceful classroom guide that provides a key to most drills, some of which are genuinely innovatory, besides audiotape transcripts. The chapters are intended to be self contained, only the final one drawing threads together and pitching the level of "debate and essay" at degree standard, while the other modules’ organisational principle is one of linguistic register: job applications and career, story and radio play, summary writing, studying in Germany, report writing, statistics and surveys, press and news, electronic communication, and translation. These are all shrewdly chosen and topically illustrated, though the often-cited government survey figures from 1995 on post-unification trends and perceptions might have been brought up to date.

A simplified, but sound rehearsal of basic grammar at the end of chapters is, appropriately, in English (the teaching medium is otherwise German). This helps clear the fog created, even at allegedly advanced levels of study, by the switch from "teaching not so much language as communication through language" (as one erstwhile pundit, cited not altogether disapprovingly by the authors, put it). Though not arranged in any obvious sequence, this reinforcement of the rudiments is not entirely random. Thus, allusion to the equivalence of " müssen " plus "passive" and " sein " plus " zu " plus "infinitive" illustrates a characteristic of the Beamtendeutsch covered in the same chapter; or a text on claims to the Jewish gold acquired by Swiss banks during the second world war is aptly followed by subjunctive, modal and passive constructions (what "ought to have been " ).

If there still remains a certain sense of discrepancy between the elementary grammar points and the linguistic complexity of the texts, it is enhanced by the accompanying audio tapes. Bavarian, Austrian and Swiss speakers add to a palette of authentic local and linguistic colour, in itself welcome, and less of an obstacle to the learner than the interference which habitually, even comically, distorts the short-wave radio broadcasts from which most of these talks and interviews were taken.

An appendix in both books argues the case for the exploitation of short-wave broadcasting in language learning with a passion and technical know-how more often associated with the computer enthusiast, but alas, even knowledge of the 49m aerial ("only possible in a rural setting") or advocacy of  "a detailed handbook which deserves meticulous study" fails to outweigh the evidence of our ears. Another piece of special pleading more than compensates, however - a splendid impromptu interview with Yehudi Menuhin - the quality of whose spoken German "would put many an honours student to shame".

With numerous tips on getting by in Germany and in German, drawing on the most lively and controversial issues of the day (the quixotic orthography reform, doomed or not, is comprehensively covered), Kenntnisse deserves its niche in a very competitive market.

The host of Schau ins Land , the hour-long monthly programme on cassette or CD, is the popular media personality Axel Fitzke, who heads a team of regular correspondents providing an entertaining, often sharp-edged mini-course in German culture. The format is a winning one, given the professional journalistic flair of the contributors, and the mix of current affairs and in-depth reportage, political and celebrity profiles, popular and satirical songs, is an ideal vehicle for absorbing the language.

Lengthy study supplements use the audio material to test grammar and comprehension, but, though these exercises are painstakingly devised, this extra pedagogical dimension is not central to spirit of the enterprise. The magazine itself, in handy A5 format, provides the complete transcript, then a further 20-odd pages of vocabulary, while the final third consists of extensive notes. Even relatively advanced German speakers will probably profit from leafing through the vocabulary section, which is lightened by the occasional anecdote and wry definition. Most readers will certainly learn much from the impressively researched notes.

All in all, a polished and already justifiably successful magazine with little opposition in its field. The same team’s Stimmen der Zeit, a succinct and vivid audio survey of German history and culture since 1900, including historic recordings of the German and Austrian k aisers, with accompanying book, could scarcely be bettered.
 Fred Bridgham is senior lecturer in German, University of Leeds.

Schau ins Land

Editor - Ingrid Sevin
ISBN - 1041 2018
Publisher - Champs-Elysées Ltd
Price - £55.00 (5-mth sub), £99.00 (11-mth sub) + optional extras

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