Learning German In The Name Of Science And Cross-Cultural Collaboration

Having volunteers who are learning German answer questions about grammar and semantics of the language while inside an MRI machine might show particular patterns in brain changes, researchers say. They hope their study could offer clues to how the brain best learns a second language. selimaksan/Getty Images hide caption

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selimaksan/Getty Images

Two researchers in Germany are trying to determine the best way to teach the German language to non-native speakers, and at the same time make life a little easier for the wave of Syrian refugees arriving in their city.

Thousands of those refugees have landed in Leipzig, a city of about a half a million, in what used to be East Germany. Some of the newcomers have had a difficult time; there have been news reports of racist animosity and violence against them.

Dr. Tómas Goucha and Alfred Anwander, neuroscientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, wanted to do something positive for the refugees.

“They have no people to talk to. They lost their roots,” says Goucha, “and now they’re in a completely new country with different habits, whose language they don’t speak.”

Goucha hoped to come up with a project that built on the refugees’ skills.

“Not just helping, but trying to create some kind of situation where both sides have a contribution,” Goucha says.

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One day, he dropped in on his buddy Anwander.

“Thomas was in my office,” says Anwander, “and we started to talk about this situation, and we came up with this idea.”

Their idea was to design a top-notch, intensive, free language course for a group of refugees — and to partner with these newcomers in a language experiment.

There’s been little investigation until now into how the brain changes as we learn a second language, and how those changes might differ from language to language, depending on differences in grammar, or similarities in the meanings of words. Students in the Leipzig courses are native-Arabic speakers learning German. Amac Garbe/Amac Garbe/Max Planck Institute hide caption

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Amac Garbe/Amac Garbe/Max Planck Institute

There’s a debate about the best way to teach German to nonnative speakers, Goucha says. Often, teachers start with a heavy dose of vocabulary, and leave German syntax and sentence structure until later. But some language scholars now think introducing sentence structure earlier in the process may be helpful, especially for adults learning German. Anwander and Goucha hope to help figure out who’s right, by directly comparing the two methods.

It took a lot of work to get the project going — designing the two different courses, finding teachers who were native-speakers of Arabic and recruiting 90 interested, young adult refugees who had no knowledge of German — but eventually they got the six-month courses underway, and have begun the testing.

Student volunteers come to the MRI lab at the Institute for three brain scans — once before they start the course, half-way through, and once again, after it ends.

“Even some of the participants got excited,” Anwander says, “because they realized that they could contribute to science by just learning their German.”

The day I visited, Muhammad Ammar Dachak was there for his second MRI.

Still wearing his street clothes, but in stocking feet, Dachak lay down on a narrow bed, and technicians slid him into the tunnel in the center of the MRI machine.

German’s sentence structure is different from that of Arabic or English, Goucha explains.

Consider this sentence about Mary buying a book.

“In English it would be ‘She says that Mary buys the book,’ ” says Goucha. “In German you would say ‘She says that Mary the book buys.’ “

So that the scientists could see what’s happening in Dachak’s brain as he learns these sentence rules, they had him listen to sample sentences over headphones while inside in the scanner, and press a particular button, depending on whether the sentence is right or wrong.

It’s still early days for the language experiment. But Anwander hopes the scans will reveal something important about structural changes in the brain as each student learns German.

And maybe, he says, someday, the brain scans will help tell which kind of language course will work best for a given person.

That’s for the future. For now Anwander says he and Goucha feel good knowing the language courses they’re offering will help at least some refugees make their way more easily in their new home country.

Another study participant, Samer Al Kassab, says the project has already been a success as far as he’s concerned. He’s 24, and was a music student studying guitar in Syria, until the upheaval there caused him to flee. Al Kassab says he needs to get proficient in German before he can continue his studies.

“We have a good chance to study here,” he says in English, a language he learned in school back in Syria. “They really care about not just the learning, but also to have fun when you learn.”

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