German students absorb culture, learn language in Austria

By Nancy Koeneman

For 20 UI students, the concept of the world as classroom became a reality during the month they spent in Austria studying German.

During Intersession I, the four weeks between spring semester and summer classes, the students learned intermediate-level German by being immersed in the language and culture of Vienna, spending four hours a day in class and three hours a day on homework.

The class was a first-ever for the Austria-Illinois Exchange program in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the department of Germanic languages and literatures, which sends students on yearlong academic programs to Austria.

John Lalande II, professor of German and director of the exchange program, designed the class as an experiment to give undergraduate students who already had tight schedules a chance they might not otherwise have.

"These students were highly motivated. They weren't there just to have a good time. They wanted to absorb absolutely everything. ... It was an intensive course," said Lalande, who has long wanted to encourage students to experience other countries and give them a taste of travel that whets their appetites for further learning about language and study abroad. Since he came to the UI in 1984, it has been one of his goals to find new ways to do that.

"This particular trip was well-scheduled, being held during intersession," said Bonnie Thiel, a graduate student in French. "I have neither the time nor the money to spend a year abroad. This trip gave me the opportunity to at least immerse myself in German language and culture for a little while without disrupting my spring or summer teaching."

Andrew Sawula, who is majoring in music education, saw the class as a rare opportunity. "There wasn't much room left to take (German) in my schedule, so this was a really cool opportunity," Sawula said. "I could go for just a month and still work this summer and take summer-school classes."

When the course was announced last fall, Lalande had hoped for 12 students, but the response was extraordinary - 37 applied for the class. So Lalande revised the class size. Choosing the 20 students was difficult, he said. Those selected were majoring in architecture, biology, chemistry, economics, engineering, English, finance/ accounting, French, history, music education and premed.

Daniel Cole, a history major, saw this as an opportunity to see firsthand some of the things he's been learning about in Western Civilization courses. And he learned much more than he might have learned in a regular classroom, he said. "I felt like I learned a lot over there, being surrounded by it all the time," Cole said.

Jennifer Andrasco, a premed major, agreed. She also gained self- confidence and a different view of world affairs, she said.

"I'm a lot more interested in international [issues] and politics than I was before, now that I've seen it firsthand," she said.

That was one of the benefits of the class Lalande had hoped for. "They were amazed at how much the European Union is such a topic in the papers there," he said. Students learned much more about the political climates in Europe than they might learn from U.S. media sources.

As he taught the class, Lalande also learned how to make it the best learning experience possible for the students. Part of the class requirement was that the students keep journals that they then turned over to Lalande each week. He used their input and insights to tailor course work.

"Writing the diary helped them develop their writing skills and helped us see Vienna and the course from their eyes. It allowed us to make adjustments," he said. "We didn't arrive with a prepackaged program. The ingredient to success was to personalize and provide variety. The more we got to know the students, the better we could craft something meaningful."

But in many ways Vienna itself was the classroom, Lalande said.

The students interviewed people on the streets and in the markets and were assigned to look for certain kinds of grammatical construction in everyday language. They were also assigned to get to know an Austrian student and interview him or her.

"In the classroom it's difficult to listen to German oldies on the radio while strolling along the banks of the Danube, or to listen to conversations on a streetcar while you pass storefronts full of signs on the first floors of beautiful old buildings," Thiel said. "The difference is being with the culture all day, instead of just a couple of hours in a classroom. It is seeing local museums and eating the local food, shopping and watching TV, not just reading a textbook or watching videos."

For Lalande and his students, the intensive, immersion experience meant long days and short nights.

The students tried to cram all the learning and experiences into four weeks. "Some of us slept about four hours a night," Sawula said. "It's tough balancing the academic work - you want to get good grades on the tests, and still get the language practice and still see all the stuff you want to see while you are in Europe."

For Lalande, it was a long commute to the school where most of the students were staying and late nights of planning course work and correcting papers, tests and reading journals. Lalande said the reward was seeing the students so excited to learn and watching as their perspectives on the world grew.

Lalande hopes to contact the students in this pilot class later in the fall to get another look at how they viewed the experience, with a little time - and sleep - under their belts. He'd like to see the intersession class held again and believes from early evaluations that it was a success.

One of the goals of this program was for the students to catch the travel bug. Score another success for Lalande.

Cole is considering studying abroad for a year and looking into how that might work into his program. Although first a little nervous about the prospect of being away from family and friends for so long, Andrasco thinks this trip has given her enough confidence to seriously consider studying in another country for a semester or traveling for two months after she graduates. Sawula is working to make studying abroad an option for him during his graduate work. This was Thiel's second study-abroad experience, and if the time and money make it possible, she'd go again.

The continuation of an intersession study-abroad program depends on the UI's schedule and the availability of instructors. The class is an enormous amount of work, in both teaching and administration, and being away from his family for a month was difficult, Lalande said.

It's too soon to say if and when another such class will be held. But Lalande is hopeful a few more students can set foot on foreign soil and find themselves wanting to learn more.


Comments to: Inside Illinois Editor Doris Dahl, (217) 333-2895,

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