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Language Center

Learn German at turbo speed

The Language Center of the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich has developed a new, nine-month intensive German course. This highly practical course aims to open the way for better integration of doctoral students from outside Switzerland. The graduates of the first course have plenty of success stories to share.
Alice Werner


Working hard (from left): Dennis Samuylov from Russia, Helen Parker from England and Abhinav Kumar from India. (Image: Frank Brüderli)

Nicole Sani-Kast from Israel is giving a short presentation in German about the long-nosed crocodile, “a fish-eating crocodile with 25 top teeth and 26 bottom teeth”. Abhinav Kumar from India has prepared his own German lecture on the “differences between the harmless milk snake and the dangerous coral snake”. Xuan Wang and her three Chinese colleagues also have something to tell their classmates in their new language: Wang talks about “the fun experiences to be had when you travel”.

Language students always say that German is much easier to understand than to speak. If this is true, then the course participants are facing the ultimate challenge today: delivering a presentation. The course includes language students from as far afield as China, India, Canada, Spain, Armenia, Israel, Ethiopia, Brazil, Honduras, Italy, the United Kingdom, Russia and Lebanon. None of them have sweat running down their foreheads, and this must be at least some small testament to the noticeable atmosphere of solidarity in the classroom.

No one laughs when a presenter stumbles over German syntax, no one looks furtively at the clock when their colleague attempts the same sentence again for the third time. Melanie Kutz, who leads the sessions, is happy that her students have long overcome their fear of the German language, their inhibitions and self-consciousness, to embark on an ambitious journey into the unknown. Abhinav Kumar, a doctoral student at the University of Zurich, describes the atmosphere on the course: “We are the Turbos.” That surely indicates a strong sense of identity, a tight-knit community – a group that people are proud to be part of.

From zero to B1 level

The Turbos are 21 international doctoral students and postdocs at the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich who have signed up for “DaF Turbo”, a new course at the institutions’ joint Language Center. From zero to B1 level in just nine months – this is their lofty goal. And the course really does run at turbo speed. With standard (individual) language courses you would need three times as long to achieve the same target language level.

Ueli Bachmann, Head of German as a Foreign Language, co-designed the pilot project: “The programme is aimed at doctoral students who have just started at the University of Zurich or ETH Zurich and have no knowledge of German. It is ideal for those who want to learn to communicate in the new language in the workplace, the office, the lab and also in their social lives, as quickly as they possibly can.”

Bachmann and his team saw from the beginning that achieving such ambitious learning goals in such a challenging timeframe would only be possible with a very intensive course. So they developed a course model that was tailored to the target group and closely aligned to the needs of doctoral candidates: What vocabulary and language skills will they need to help them make academic small talk in the workplace and communicate with colleagues? What typical situations will they be confronted with at the university? How can they network with professionals within their fields, their universities and the Zurich research community? And: As non-native speakers, what can they do to actively integrate into a German-speaking environment, both personally and professionally?

Integration of international researchers

Whatever the context, social integration often requires a certain amount of encouragement and support – and the integration of international researchers is no different. The University of Zurich and ETH Zurich have each developed their own initiatives to include international academics in their communities, through guidance and support services, mentoring programmes, social get-togethers and networking events. The new DaF Turbo course is also part of a strategically important programme to support young talent and help international academics to integrate at the Zurich universities.

The first DaF Turbo group successfully completed their course at the end of May, following 232 lessons and more than 120 hours of self-study. None of the participants dropped out during the year, all of them achieved the course objectives, and many want to continue learning. At the request of some particularly motivated students, the Language Center will now be running a follow-up course over the summer – also at turbo speed, of course.

The success of the new teaching approach that was developed for this course has also impressed the two instructors, Melanie Kutz and Petra Blöchlinger. There is a strong focus on situational learning, practical application of vocabulary and grammar rules, presentations, interaction, games and teamwork, all of which facilitate the positive dynamics that can develop within a group. They were amazed how motivating a common goal could be, “for everyone involved, even for us”.

The desire to learn German as quickly and effectively as possible has helped to create a bond between the 21 students over the last nine months. The stronger students have helped the weaker ones – and the whole class has benefited from this symbiosis.

One key question remains, regarding the integration objectives of the course: Did the course help the students to better understand their newly adopted home, to communicate with the locals and make new friends? Denis Samuylov from Russia, who works at the Department of Materials at ETH Zurich, nods in agreement. He recently tested the lesson on “giving compliments” in a bar. He grins and says, “It worked.”