John Nixon, Head of English and Deputy Director at the University of Stuttgart’s Language Center, has been teaching English for academic and apecial purposes (EAP/ESP) at German postsecondary institutions for 17 years. As an educator and lifelong language learner, his passion for travel and global understanding has become both a vocation and avocation in and out of the classroom.
Sherry Blok (SB): What is the ELT landscape like in Germany?
John Nixon (JN): I teach university students enrolled in elective language classes. Most of my students study engineering or science. However, depending on the semester I also teach classes with students from all faculties. The classes I teach are EAP/ESP classes at a B2/C1 level, according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). This means my students have an advanced-level of English and, by and large, would be able to pursue a semester abroad at an English-speaking university.
SB: Germany is becoming a hot spot for international education. How does ELT come into play?
JN: As at most postsecondary institutions nowadays, the student body is very international at the University of Stuttgart. Over 20 percent of the students enrolled this year at the University of Stuttgart are foreign students. Many of these students have had to learn (or are still learning) German in order to complete their degrees. Improving their English at the same time becomes an almost impossible task, given that language classes are not part of the core curriculum here. Language classes can be used to satisfy students’ elective requirements. Some of our course offerings deal with intercultural communication and competence to prepare all of our students for studying and working in global teams.
SB: How has the influx of refugees affected EFL instruction and programs in Germany?
JN: During the height of the refugee arrivals to Germany in 2015-2016, many refugees approached me about pursuing further education in English because they had relatively good English language skills. While I don’t have any statistics on this, many have since discovered that learning German is indispensable so they have focused their time on attaining fluency in German so that they can study and work in Germany. (Most degree programs in Germany are conducted in German.) In terms of EFL instruction, I don’t think the arrival of refugees has had much effect on language programs in Germany. In many ways, refugees face similar problems to many international students. They are indirectly expected to improve their English for their future career and studies, all the while learning German and trying to cope with their studies in Germany. This is not an easy task.
SB: What are some of the greatest challenges for adult EFL learners in higher education in Germany?
JN: I suppose the greatest challenge for my students is attaining proficiency, especially in an academic context, without going abroad. My students have for the most part had seven years of English in elementary and high school and watch films and series in English regularly. However, while their fluency is impressive, accuracy and especially complexity are two areas where they need to do more work. In my experience, it is very difficult to attain a solid C1 level without having lived in a country where that language is spoken. Ninety minutes of instruction per week on a voluntary basis is simply not enough. Universities need to take the first step and make English language training a core element of their curriculum, at the very least at the master’s level.
SB: How do you promote authentic and meaningful interaction for your students to practice their English language skills within the EFL context?
JN: The hallmarks of the language teaching at our institution are content-based instruction, task-based learning and authentic materials. Most of our classes in English are related to the students’ field of study. For example, we offer English for Aeronautics, English for Mechanical Engineering, and English for Marketing and Advertising, just to name a few. Students are able to improve their English by dealing with topics related to their studies. The materials are drawn from a variety of sources that are principally aimed at native speakers of English, e.g., university textbooks, journal articles, and online lectures and videos. We continually strive to put into practice a flipped classroom approach where students are required not only to participate but also to take responsibility for their learning. By using case studies and project work, students are able to draw upon their other skills and knowledge to solve a particular problem and provide a solution. The modes of assessment reflect this task-based approach. For instance, in our English for Aeronautics course students work in groups to analyze a certain type of aircraft and using the knowledge acquired both inside and outside the classroom are asked to modify this aircraft based on state-of-the art technology. The results of their project work are presented and discussed in front of the entire class.
SB: So in an EFL context, you have to be creative in designing authentic interaction and programming. Can you share some ways your university is making this happen? How do you take the EFL classroom global?
JN: Fortunately, the students who attend our classes are very keen to experiment with new teaching and learning formats and collaborate with international partners, be they students, instructors, or experts in their field. We do not have to coax them to take part in these innovative classes. The following are three examples of how the English department at the University of Stuttgart’s Language Center has taken the classroom global.
1. A Case Study in London
This task-based academic English course was a pilot project developed by the English department at the University of Stuttgart’s Language Center. The goal was to foster students’ independent language learning and critical thinking skills in a project-oriented and authentic environment.
The course consisted of three phases. During phase one students worked with the course instructors to identify a problem currently affecting London and those experts who could provide more insight into the problem at hand as well as possible solutions. Students were also introduced to formal email writing, which they were able to use when contacting experts in their field, and elements of academic writing.
Phase two took place at University College London from July 17 to 20. In the morning students took classes jointly held by teaching staff from the University of Stuttgart and University College London related to academic writing, academic presentations, and professional communication.
In the afternoon students conducted face-to-face interviews with the experts in their respective fields.
During the final phase of this course in Stuttgart students presented their case study research and made proposals to address the issues affecting London today.
2. English and Global Citizenship
In this course, based on the Oxfam model Learn/Think/Act, students first learned about the concept of global citizenship. Via Skype and email, we collaborated in course design and development with the Assistant Director of Programs and ESL instructors in the Intensive English Language Program at the Centre for Continuing Education at Concordia in Montreal. Then our students were asked to conceive of a problem affecting the world today and to devise some type of initiative that could help address this problem at a local level. During this stage, our students bounced ideas off of their counterparts at Concordia in Montreal via Skype. In the end, our students created a video on the need to recycle disposable coffee cups on campus, a small step that can be taken by all students to address a larger issue affecting the planet. This video was shown to their counterparts in Montreal in order to get feedback from their peers.
3. English for Academic Purposes and Gamification: Online Course with the University of Toronto
In 2015 I approached my alma mater about offering some type of distance learning course for our students. While I could have taught this course myself, the fact that the instructor was a “real Canadian” sitting on the other side on the world seemed to hold particular appeal to my students. The asynschronous learning environment was also attractive to many students with packed schedules. Students met four times online with their instructor as a group and then once on their own. In the intervening time, students were required to complete a number of tasks and to interact with their classmates and instructor in Toronto via forums, chatrooms, and video posts.
This past semester the University of Toronto decided to offer a twist on this course by gamifying it. Students had to choose an avatar and complete mission tasks throughout the semester. The feedback from our students was overwhelmingly positive. They seemed to enjoy the game elements as well as the flexible learning possibilities and the exposure to an instructor and learning environment abroad.
SB: What has been the reaction of your students since you’ve taken your classrooms global? Lessons in citizenship?
Our students are keen on taking part in the global classroom. Not only is it a refreshing way to improve their English language skills, but they recognize that being multilingual is required to succeed in today’s world. That being said, I wouldn’t say that our students are solely motivated by the boost these courses give to their résumé. Many of them are truly interested in the world and our language classes with a global component allow them to indulge in this interest further. As was said earlier, many of our students in the bachelor programs especially have packed schedules, so they don’t always have to time to embark on a semester or year abroad. And if they do, they like to build upon the knowledge they gained while abroad. Our internationally oriented language program is very successful and popular for these reasons.