Kulturbrücke Groningen-Oldenburg is a VIS project for intercultural exchange and professionalization of language learners and future teachers of German through virtual cooperation in the German-Dutch border region. The VIS project is part of the European Languages and Cultures course.
For any foreign language learner, maximum contact with the target language is essential. On the other hand, it is important for language teachers to develop a metalinguistic awareness for the target language and discover the pitfalls that the language holds for its learners. These issues were addressed in this project through virtual collaboration between students of German at the University of Groningen and teachers-in-training at the Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg. By connecting students on the two sides of the border and having them work together on culture-related assignments, the Dutch students get a chance to improve their language skills while the trainee teachers gain practical insights into working with language learners. Furthermore, we want to facilitate the growth of communicative competencies and digital skills among the participants and promote intercultural exchange, which is especially important in the border region. By supporting the VIS project, we are achieving these goals and developing an educationally valuable tandem project that should grow into a long-term university collaboration and a regular part of German language proficiency courses.
It’s a real challenge, because you have to have a long conversation about a pretty difficult topic all the way through German, and for someone whose native language is not German, that can be quite difficult. But for that reason it is a very good exercise and I found it very useful, also because it gave me more self-confidence.
In this project, we paired students from German language proficiency courses within the BA program European Languages and Cultures at the University of Groningen (RUG) with trainee German teachers at the Universität Oldenburg (UOL), Germany, in cross-border tandems. In the tandems, students work on assignments tailored to the learning goals of both programs. Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) plays an important role in both participating colleges and also in this project, for the RUG students from the perspective of language learners, for the UOL students from the didactic perspective.
Groups of RUG-UOL students work together on online assignments that connect to content and learning goals of both programs. The topics of the assignments are aligned with the program of the German lectures at RUG while the timing of the meetings is adapted to the program of the UOL lectures so that students can apply their new knowledge on didactic aspects covered in the lectures to this project. After each meeting, students write a reflection on their impressions and learning outcomes. During the last meeting, the tandem partners reflect on the collaboration in this project and record a vlog where they give advice for a successful virtual exchange between language learners and future language teachers based on their experiences.
The language learners from Groningen were able to improve their language skills through intensive cooperation with German-speaking trainee teachers. Furthermore, the cooperation with peers created an informal context in which the language learners were less inhibited to use the target language experimentally which supported them in their self-awareness as speakers of the German language. For the future teachers of German from Oldenburg, the virtual collaboration provided an opportunity to apply their theoretical didactic knowledge, conduct subject didactic analyses of their didactic practices (e.g., providing corrective feedback) and experience firsthand which parts of the German language prove particularly difficult for learners. Furthermore, the students gained (first) international experiences on both sides of the border in a safe environment. This had a beneficial effect on the development of their intercultural communicative competencies and digital skills. The collaboration put the subject matter in a different perspective which promoted deeper reflection and better retention among the students. Moreover, this project strengthens the 40-year cooperation between the RUG and the UOL, contributes to the strategic goal of strengthening the Northern Netherlands and is a model for other language skills courses within ETC at the RUG and throughout the Netherlands. Thus, the regular virtual collaboration of German students and aspiring teachers within the VIS project offers several added values. As a result, the digital collaboration of students from Oldenburg and Groningen has now become a regular part of academic education at the RUG and the UOL.
We also discussed differences between the Dutch and German languages, such as gender-neutral writing, which almost never occurs in Dutch. That’s why I liked the tandem project so much, because I found the topics interesting and because I really enjoyed getting to know someone from Oldenburg.
Experiences of students and teachers
The first evaluation of the tandem project showed that the participants had found the VIS project to be enriching, fun, helpful and refreshing, but also time-consuming. Because of this, in the next round the time compensation for participating in the project was adjusted. Participating teachers indicated that for successful collaboration online, it was important to match the content of the assignments to the curricula of all participating courses and to provide a clear explanation of the goals at the beginning of the project in order to eliminate incorrect expectations of participants in advance.
Marije Michel, professor of Language Learning at European Languages and Cultures and responsible for language skills education in the eight target languages of the BA program and a German teacher herself, is very pleased with these first experiences. “The exchange with students on the other side of the border, which is very close in Groningen, is a very important experience for our German students, both linguistically and interculturally. As a teacher, it is great to see how students’ self-confidence grows when they find that they are able to engage in conversation as learners with a native German-speaking student on a subject close to their studies. In addition to German, projects for Spanish and French have already been approved and we are working on applications for Italian and Russian. Eventually, we hope to set up virtual exchanges for all eight languages in our program. Language learning is largely about social interaction and authentic communication in the target language with someone from the target language community. Therefore, that’s an experience you wish for every student.”