If you find yourself in the position of needing to learn a language quickly, an intensive language course may seem like a great idea. With promises to have you speaking fairly fluently in a matter of weeks by cramming in as much of the language as possible, the prospect can sound tempting.
Intensive courses generally consist of classes that are at least 3 hours long, at least 4 times a week, which go on for four weeks. The groups range between 6-15 people in a class and are usually level specific. The class normally has one teacher for the entire course.
But while the courses are marketed as affordable, how much of your time and energy do you end up spending? With the commute, inflexible timetables and long days, are the courses worthwhile? Can learning so much in such a short space of time be overwhelming? And most importantly, do people come out speaking German once they’re done?
We spoke to some German learners about their experiences of intensive courses. Here’s what they told us.
Jocelyn Barre was a complete beginner when she moved to Germany in 2015. Currently working as a teacher in a Kita (nursery), over the past four years Jocelyn has attended many intensive courses provided by private schools. “The majority of these courses involved studying one level over one month, 3 hours a day. The classes were usually in the middle of the day, from 12-3pm. I also took one course which was in the late afternoon evening, three hours after work. I chose these schools because they were good value for money at around €200 a month, were recommended to me by friends, were convenient - either within close reach of where I was living or working at the time - and had free places at the time I was looking.”
Of the things she enjoyed about the language courses, Jocelyn said: “I found it easier to learn in a group than when I’d tried alone, and could notice my progress when speaking and practicing every day. In my most recent course I enjoyed the more non-conventional activities we did, like a tour around Berlin where we all had to introduce a landmark, games, reading German song lyrics, and translating. Also, I really liked my teacher, she was very patient and easy to understand.”
However, there were downsides when it came to the structure of the classes and the varying abilities of the other students. “(The) general structure of the courses always revolved around a book, which often had really confusing or boring exercises in it. The most recent course I took didn’t test people’s German level before they entered, so there were people in it who couldn’t keep up with the class - this slowed down the group and was also a huge problem when it came to practicing speaking. This was also a big problem when I did B1 classes and above, when you’re learning more complicated grammatical structures, and people in the class still don’t understand the basics. Also, students often missed several lessons, meaning they were behind, slowing down the group, yet these students were always allowed to continue to the next level.”
Asked if her German has improved since taking the courses, Jocelyn said it’s “hard to say. I wouldn’t say I reached the level I wanted. I am hoping to progress to that level by speaking the language regularly.”
Jocelyn’s experience of intensive courses differs greatly from Barış Deniz, a student and translator who has lived in Germany for one year. Barış is bilingual, speaking English and Turkish fluently, and is learning German as his third language.
He took an intensive A2.2 class at Technische Universität Berlin, then took an intensive course to prepare for the placement test that was required to begin the B1.1 course at the Freie Universität. “The course was for 5 days a week, 2 weeks in total. As far as I recall, it was 3 hours a day.”
Barış had no complaints about the course, explaining that his self-motivation combined with the intensity of the course worked well in combination. “I find language learning very mentally stimulating so I enjoyed every aspect of the course thoroughly.”
Barış feels he benefited greatly from the course, and plans to continue with the B1.2 or B2 level at the Freie Universität. “I am someone who learns best in a classroom environment with a teacher so I find language courses to be the most effective.”
Natalie Hunter has lived in Germany for 4 years, moving between Leipzig and Berlin. She works as a copywriter. She has taken two intensive courses, one at the VHS (Volkshochschule, or community college) in Berlin and the other at Sprachschule Paroli in Leipzig. “I took one at the VHS because it was cheap, and one at Sprachschule Paroli, Leipzig because they had very small classes and were more focussed on speaking, rather than on grammar.”
Of the courses, Natalie liked the cheap price of VHS but said the “class sizes were too big, lots of students only coming semi-regularly, big differences in language abilities within the class, inconvenient location, lots of looking at the book, lots of working in small groups, which was not helpful when people are at different speaking levels.” On the other hand, the Sprachschule Paroli had “small class size, enthusiastic teachers, focus on speaking over looking at books, outside-the-classroom classes, school trips!” That said, she found the course “expensive.”
After completing the course at the VHS, Natalie said her German had “barely improved.” However, after her course at the Sprachschule Paroli she found her German “improved and i was confident in speaking and trying to speak, (however since completing the course) I didn’t keep it up after finishing the course, so my German is bad again.”
Asked whether she would take the course again, she said yes but only “if she had the time and money.”
Catherine Norris had a similar experience to Natalie. She has lived in Germany for 2 years and is studying at the Freie Universitat.
When she came to Germany she knew no German at all. To remedy this and in order to take classes at her university, for which she had to be at A2.1 level, she took an intensive course over the summer. Although the course did the job of getting her to the level she needed, she still has some problems with it. “I was able to pass the test for the classes at my university, but when it came to speaking I struggled as badly as I did before I took the classes. This was partly because the classes had a heavy focus on grammar, which was useful in helping me get a better grasp of the German language, but it detracted too much from speaking practice. Also, being in such a big class with other students who also couldn’t speak German, any group work inevitably led us to speak to each other in English, even though the course said we would only be speaking in German. Once I left the class I felt more confident in reading and writing, but when it came to having a conversation I’d made very little progress.”
Like most of the people we spoke to, Roberto de Filippo came to Germany without much knowledge of German. Originally from Italy, his work in Germany required him to speak English and he lived with an Italian flatmate, so despite living in Germany’s capital, he found himself only speaking his native language and English. However, knowing so little German was inconvenient, for example when trying to find a place to live, gathering paperwork together was hindered by his inability to communicate. After learning some German with duolingo and textbooks, Roberto enrolled in a B1 intensive evening course.
“The course felt helpful initially because I went from reading and listening to German to being forced to speak it. The first week felt like a breakthrough because suddenly I found myself constructing sentences myself rather than just understanding them.” However, after a few weeks, Roberto began to find his timetable overwhelming. “Juggling work and four hours of German every evening was way too much. As the lessons went on, I felt I couldn’t keep up, I’d forget what grammar rules or vocabulary we’d learnt a couple of days before, and the long days became more difficult.”
So… do intensive classes work?
I suppose the answer is yes and no. It depends on your motivation and goals. Intensive courses don’t always mimic immersion courses but often mirror a classroom setting, meaning that students have to interact with other non-native students, easily allowing them to transfer back to English. Also, the size of the classes and the intensity of the sessions can be overwhelming, and to go from daily classes to nothing means that keeping up with the level can be challenging.
Overall, it seems that while the courses are cheap and intense, they are better suited to students or part-time workers who have more time on their hands to do them. Furthermore, even for the courses that were found worthwhile, once completed, it was difficult to maintain the level that had been achieved during the course, meaning that to be effective, exposure to the language must continue after the course has ended.
If your goal is to learn to speak the language, then the simplest way to go about this is to be forced to speak it. Interacting with people on your level, or conversing with understanding and patient native speakers, can have a huge impact on your learning experience and thus on your progress.