Sunday, 17 July 2011

To the one who debunked the myth

I am dedicating this post to Michael Wolf, who served as Deputy Head of International Corporates at BRE Bank until late 2009.

If this posting is to prove something, it surely bears evidence that I’m a master of procrastination. Actually in everyday life I don’t tend to hang back on doing things I’m supposed to do, but this time broaching the topic of teaching foreign languages at SGH was put back and back. I hatched the idea of writing this post on 30 April 2009, so almost two years and three months ago. The only drawback of such delay is that I can’t remember as good as I would like to the event of that day. The overall picture of the issue remains unchanged, or, if it did change, things could have gone only worse.

And 30 April 2009 was the day when a conference on impact of economic crisis on German economy was held. The organiser of the event was one of student organisations focusing on economies of German-speaking countries (Studenckie Koło Naukowe Gospodarek Krajów Niemieckojęzycznych, not to grapple with the translation), so the debate was held in German. In the first part of the discussion participants had a 50-minutes long conversation on the main issue of the debate. Later students, till then being only audience to the discussion, were encouraged by moderators to ask questions. A few students pluck up courage and somehow strung together some questions in German. After one student particularly struggled to put his question into words, Mr Wolf decided to put us out of misery and offered in impeccable Polish that if we wished, we could ask questions in Polish, the he’d interpret them into German, reply in German, and once again in Polish. Thus he dealt a blow to everyone (students, teacher, organisers). The debate was meant to show students of Warsaw School of Economics can speak German and students… buggered up. In the meantime a German chap who just spent a few years in Poland brought a shame on them by showing off his fluency in Polish. But this is not the case, the case is that SGH for years has been famous for high level of teaching foreign languages. But has it deserved it.

In times of socialism, Warsaw School of Planning and Statistics (former name of SGH) was one of sparse places and the only one other than linguistics faculties, where students could learn foreign languages on a decent level. I don’t know how to define what a “decent level” is, but in a country where very few people knew foreign languages, good communication skills could be hailed as “proficiency”. Probably the bar wasn’t raised really high, and up till now no one bothered to improve the level of teaching.

The biggest myth about SGH was that it was a place where you could learn German. It was not just the opportunity to learn for free, but the whole thing was about being systemically forced to pull all-nighters to learn that language. After finishing a three-year course in German there I came to two conclusions:
1) much depends on a level of German newly admitted students stand for – many of them have a poor command of the language, so they have to work hard to catch up with the level of teaching,
2) with time, as linguistic skills of admitted students were declining, the school compromised and brought down the level of teaching. Lower entrance level meant later students would leave on a lower level.

According to curriculum, graduates of Bachelor’s studies should have a command of their first language (usually English, in my case as well) on C1 level and of their second language (usually German, in my case as well) also on C1 level. Entrance levels were set at B2 for 1st language and B1 for 2nd language. In fact my English was indeed somewhere around there, but thanks to my own work, not what I learnt at school, my German was at B2 level. The year I finished BA studies only some two or three groups were marked ‘C1’, the rest left with ‘B2’, ‘B1’, or only ‘A2’. Some students recruited in 2006 could not speak German at all. This was a consequence of flawed admission policy which allowed students who hadn’t taken Matura in German to get in.

While German is said to get the sleep off students’ eyes, English is said to be a piece of cake. For me, after the first year, the level was not ‘challenging’. During first two years I had classes with a woman who at first wanted to keep a high level, but then she loosened up. Second year was particularly not the time I could learn English intensively at school. In fifth semester I had a great teacher and I can sincerely declare I owe her a lot. I learnt a lot and in January 2009 I took my Bachelor’s exam in English. I passed it with the highest grade without lifting my little linger, which means the level was far too low! Then I had one term break in learning, when I took a CPE course in a private school. The base-case level of teaching met my expectations, but actual level was adjusted to the group, what eventually let me down… Then I decided I would never sign up for English classes at a language school. On Master’s studies I was assigned to a group run by a freaky and surely unhappy feminist. The level of her English was horrible and she gloated over other people’s command of English, which was really decent, yet far cry from proficiency. I could stand it for only one semester and put in an application for transfer to another group, run the teacher I had had classes with during the fifth semester and thank God had it approved. In the meantime I (claim to have) made a stride in English and classes with her were satisfying, but not challenging. Master’s exam was again a piece of cake, even with its allegedly worst, ‘Polish to English ad hoc translation’ part.

Learning German didn’t run that smoothly. During the first semester students were assigned to the groups according to their surnames. This means in each group there were people who barely spoke German and people fluent in it. After a fortnight authorities of SGH’s language teaching centre changed their mind and divided groups on the basis of level of students’ advancement in the language. Randomly, I came to a group taught by one of most lenient teachers at the whole school. Over six semesters, out of which during one my group was run by a stand-in (our teacher went for a sickie), I learnt some German, but mostly because I wanted to, not because systemic factors compelled me to.

In the case of German how much you learn depends on your teacher. This is a general principle, because I know people whose teachers were much more demanding and their German wasn’t better than mine. In the case of English students generally rest on laurels…

If I can advise anything (I’m talking to a brick wall, with no hopes for being heard), SGH’s authorities should:
1) not compromise even if students’ command of languages at entrance tests proves lower and lower – if students are poor they need to work harder to catch up or not go to SGH at all,
2) not cut down on number of course hours – I know teaching does cost money, but reducing learning hours by 40% over the whole course of studies will not impinge positively on grauduates’ profiles,
3) increase level of teaching English – a high school leaver should be on at least ‘upper-intermediate’ level and should be capable of reaching the provable fluency in general and business English.

English is an essential tool for almost every graduate of my school who wants to make a real career. And gone are the times when communicative English was fairly enough. At least once a week I have to read drivel written by the Poles who claim their English is at least ‘advanced’. Sometimes I make out that an author of such drivel had in mind, because I’m a Pole, sometimes I can’t because it’s too convoluted. The matter is now not about just getting by, but primarily on quality, so getting ahead.

I use English virtually every day at work, but lost touch with German at all. There were some odd situations when I had to exchange a few sentences in that language or read something, but these happened seldom. I’ve never felt a real incentive to learn German, as even in German corporations an official language is English and well-educated Germans speak English far, far better than well-educated Poles, so why bother? But recently my boss examined by German skills. I don’t know to what end, but it could be worth to think over the idea of brushing up on German…


Michael Dembinski said...

My German runs to Drang nach Osten, Kulturkampf, Panzerkampfwagen, Sturzkampfflugzeug,Endlösung, Hande hoch!, Achtung, Schpitfeuer! Kriegslok... er - that's it.

adthelad said...

Come on Michał, don't sell yourself short - you forgot Schwimmwagen, Volkswagen, Kubelwagen, Blitzkrieg, Sturmgeschütz, Messerschmitt, Focke-Wulf, Heinkel, Obersturmbannführer, Führer, Lebensraum, Kristallnacht, Judenfrei, Auschwitz Birkenau, Herr Leutnant, Oberst, Feldmarschall-Leutnant, Heil, Achtung Englander, Deutschland Uber Alles, Polnische Wirtschaft, Junkers, U-Boot, Luger, schmeisser mp40, SS (Schutzstaffel), Waffen-SS, Junkerschule, Wehrmacht, Arbeit Macht Frei, Anschluss Österreichs, Buchenwald, Juden Raus, Juden unerwuenscht, Kommando, Kommandant, Mein Kampf, Nuremberg, Deutsches Afrikakorps, Untermensch, Alle Maschinen stop!, Volksdeutsche, Ersatz, Luftwaffe, Gruppenführer, Hitlersäge (MG42), Hitler-Jugend, Henschel, Osten, Reich, Verstanden, Elefant, and Tiger mention just a few :)