German Linguistics: Teaching the Norm

Johanna Watzinger-Tharp spoke at the 2015 German Linguistics Annual Conference on merging the standard and colloquial aspects of German to better prepare students for language use.

PROVO, Utah (May 9, 2015)— Have you ever sat in a language class learning the wonderful ins and outs and speak that language to a new-found friend on the airplane only to have them look at you oddly as if you were speaking a language foreign even to them? At this year’s German Linguistics Annual Conference hosted BYU’s Department of German and Russian, speakers shared why there may be a gap between language in the classroom and language in the real world. The conference is an annual event for the Society for German Linguistics – an organization that brings together a wide community of scholars and educators of Germanic linguistics and philology.

At the plenary session of the conference, Johanna Watzinger-Tharp presented on “Validating Multiple Varieties in the L2 Classroom.” Watzinger-Tharp is currently an associate professor at the University of Utah with a dual appointment in the Department of Languages and Literature and the Department of Linguistics. Watzinger-Tharp’s most recent research has focused on dual-language immersion programs in Utah’s schools and on L2 (second language) methodology and teacher education.

Watzinger-Tharp spoke on the problems with teaching students the standard – formal – form of German when “no [native Germans] speak it” in normal, everyday conversations. Instead, native speakers use a more informal, colloquial version of the language – a problem with teaching any language. Watzinger-Tharp explained how the range of colloquial speech is situated between the standard that is taught in educational classrooms and regional dialects such as Alsatian or Swabian (similar to Boston or Southern dialects of America). Colloquial speech often falls under a certain area of language studies that looks at the way the language is used. Similar to how English instruction courses teach students that “ain’t ain’t a word” and saying “y’all” is not respectable, the German language has its own standard rules and colloquial features that are not accepted in formal speech.

Watzinger-Tharp also spoke of the struggle with textbooks used in German (and other) language courses and how most grammar presented is the one single norm – what we call “standard.” However, these norms exclude colloquial features. Watzinger-Tharp noted an article by from respected linguist Albert Valdman that said that the key is for educators to approach teaching grammar with more variation than what is given in the textbooks.

The biggest challenge in the L2 classroom for instructors is that they are held “to this artificially elevated standard that you have to use this pedagogical textbook grammar or standard that isn’t really representative of how we learn.” Focusing on what a German teacher needs to know and be able to notice in order to develop students’ sociolinguistic abilities, Watzinger-Tharp said that variation must be a resource in the L2 classrooms and not a stumbling block. Educators cannot confine instruction solely to the standard, formal forms of language. Instead, Watzinger-Tharp held that instructors need to have a goal of understanding variation and recognizing and validating multiple varieties of the language. If done, instructors no longer restrict students’ abilities to adapt to situations in which those forms may not be used. For example, in American English, someone most likely would not say “YOLO” to the president or the pope, but amongst friends, colloquial features, such as slang, are much more widely accepted.

Watzinger-Tharp explained that educators should start their approach to language teaching at a point not solely restricted to a standard rarely used outside of an L2 classroom. Instead, instructors should be willing and able to approach language teaching in a way that prepares students for any formal or informal situation. This gives students a larger range of German to pull from in speech. Watzinger-Tharp said that it is this foundation that can help instructors know where to start their instruction. She concluded that “understanding the attitudes and perspectives on different uses and users of German can [provided] a springboard for discussion or for shaping teachers’ understanding.”

—Amelia Wallace (B.A. English ’15)