Shaking hands with Hans

Breakthrough German - Breakthrough German 2
November 27, 1998

The Breakthrough German course, first published in 1982, now honed and polished in its third, extensively revised edition, combines an attractively glossy manual, richly and often amusingly illustrated, with four lively cassettes. Many of the new German-speakers among the several million satisfied users claimed for the eight languages in the series will have progressed to the Further German course (now similarly updated, with three cassettes), though this is somewhat shorter and smaller in format, uses colour only on alternate pages, and costs more. But the high standard is maintained, and together they form an impressive package, user-friendly also in the sensible, regularly interspersed hints about how to optimise one's learning.

No one need be left behind, and the beginner, immersed in basic real-life mini-conversations, will find the combination of book and tape ideal, also for practising pronunciation (starting logically, if slightly surprisingly, with the letters of the alphabet). "Immersion" suggests an experiential approach to learning in proximity to native speakers, who provide a pleasing blend of authentic accents and attitudes, playing variations on simple situations, helping to consolidate and reinforce linguistic acquisitions, with a sensible distinction between active and passive vocabulary.

One key question must be how points of grammar are introduced in what is explicitly not a grammar course. The answer is: very slowly indeed, somewhat apologetically, and then only as and when explanation is required for comprehension. Though each section ends with a page of grammar, one does not have to be a traditionalist advocate of learning by rote to expect the imperfect tense of "to be" and "to have" before page 214, for instance, or to hope one's grammatical gratification might have been deferred to the end of each book.

On the other hand, it makes sense to confine, say, introduction of the modals to müssen , können and wollen , for mögen later comes into its own in the "Likes and dislikes" section, and the others only in the second book. Technical terms are bypassed or simplified. Even the grammatical sense of "to take a case" is explained, though an analysis of Wo sind die neuen Weingläser ? consisting of "definite article, neuter, accusative, plural" should have been in one of the "spot the mistake" exercises, along with Zahntechnerin rendered as "dental assistant".

The author seldom misses a trick. Each of the sections throws up its own practical exercises, such as following directions or timetables or menus, in a well-paced progression from the basic "Talking about yourself" through to the sophisticated level of "The art of conversation". Useful "Did you know?" pages, ranging from when to shake hands to a potted history of Germany, flesh out the course into a real Kulturführer .

Fred Bridgham is senior lecturer in German, University of Leeds.


Breakthrough German

Author - Ruth Rach
ISBN - 0 333 63713 5 and 63714 3 (pack)
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £10.99 (4 cassette pack £35.00)
Pages - 249

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