June 27, 2023Print | PDF
Languages and Literatures instructor Anne Popovich was looking for a way to get her German GM111 students more practical language skills. She knew that a key driver of language learning was “comprehensible input,” meaning that the speaker was saying something that the learner would understand.
She was inspired by a colleague in the U.S., whose students connected virtually with seniors feeling isolated during COVID-19 lockdowns, and knew this kind of work would benefit her students.
“These initiatives provide students experience using a language and the ability to interact with native speakers and talk about real things, rather than only learning German in the classroom,” says Popovich. “At the same time, the students are also there for seniors feeling isolated and provide them someone to talk with.”
Popovich connected with Laurier’s Community and Workplace Partnerships office, which in turn connected her with Parkwood Seniors Community. An ongoing “Virtual Village” project between Laurier and Parkwood creates virtual connections between Parkwood residents and Laurier students undertaking community service-learning placements.
During the last six weeks of the term, Popovich matched groups of students with German-speaking seniors at Parkwood. The groups discussed topics ranging from their families and careers to favourite foods and travel destinations.
“What I made clear to the students was that it didn't matter what they talked about, but the idea that they were actually interacting in real time with someone who really speaks the language was the important thing,” says Popovich.
“These initiatives provide students experience using a language and the ability to interact with native speakers and talk about real things, rather than only learning German in the classroom. At the same time, the students are also there for seniors feeling isolated and provide them someone to talk with.”
Chris Zachmann, a second-year Bachelor of Business Administration student, and Husna Ayas, a first-year Psychology student, were paired with 91-year-old Parkwood resident Erica Jantzen. Both students say being paired with Jantzen provided an experience different from their traditional learning exercises.
“You have to be attentive and listen to what someone is saying,” says Ayas. “In the moment, you value the person and aim to improve your use of the language.”
Jantzen spoke to the students about her experiences travelling the world. She spent time in Brazil, Italy the UK and Paraguay, in addition to living in China for several years while working as a conversational English teacher. Throughout the process, she imparted some of her own professional knowledge.
“She always said, ‘You learn a language through necessity. You can't really learn a language through practicing here and there,’” recalls Zachmann. “You need to use it for something or else you're never going to learn it fully.”
For Jantzen and other participating seniors, meeting with students provided an opportunity to speak German more regularly.
“My German has fallen by the wayside very much because there are not very many new speakers coming in,” says Jantzen. “I'm happy to help students.”
Popovich says everyday situations, like a misunderstanding or difference of opinion, are hard to replicate with students practicing German in class. That is why experiences outside of the classroom, like those at Parkwood, are so valuable.
“That's when real intense learning takes place and that's when you start building capacity,” says Popovich. “And that's when your confidence in the language starts growing because you realize after the event, ‘Wow, I did that.’”