Language Learning at LSI - A Success Story

Globalization - a megatrend of recent decades - has led to an unprecedented level of integration of economic and communication processes in which the relative proximity or distance of countries, societies, states and cultures plays only a minor role. Globalization has also meant that potentially all areas of the world can become part of one's own horizon of perception. The transparency of world events conveyed by the media - albeit in a focused manner - thus becomes accessible in both a direct and figurative sense. There are hardly any places in the world that we cannot explore in real or virtual terms. This makes it all the more difficult to imagine that 50 years ago large areas of the earth - if at all - provided only minimal insight and access, such as the then USSR and the People's Republic of China. Longer stays were almost impossible, learning Russian or Chinese in the country was an absolute exception. For the first time in 1973, a German student was able to study in the Soviet Union to learn Russian there. At the same time, however, interest in Russian at universities and in the economy increased in the Federal Republic, not least as a result of improved political conditions (Moscow Treaties 1970) and a gradually developing economic cooperation. In 1973, the government of North Rhine-Westphalia responded to the resulting demand for language skills and thus also for new places to learn Russian and Chinese by making the groundbreaking decision to establish a 'teaching institute for the Russian language' (Russicum) in Bochum. With this institute, the first institutional building block was laid for the later Landesspracheninstitut NRW.

Structure and profile

At the opening of the institute, Johannes Rau, then Minister of Science and Research and later President of the Federal Republic of Germany, formulated the reasons for the initiative: "A study visit to the Soviet Union for anyone who wants to learn the Russian language is not yet possible today. So for the time being this institute will make a small but important contribution to the understanding between the German and Russian people". The decisive conceptual and political initiative for the creation of the Russicum goes back to the language teacher researcher and textbook author Prof. Dr. Friedhelm Denninghaus (RUB), the foundation of the analogous State Institute for the Chinese Language (Sinicum) in 1980 to the important sinologist Prof. Dr. Helmut Martin (RUB), who also served as the first director. In the first decades, the Russicum was headed by Helmut Keusen and Barbara Šubik. As early as 1981, the Sinicum was supplemented by the Japonicum and in 1985 the Arabicum was finally established. From then on, all three institutes operated under the name "State Institute for the Chinese, Japanese and Arabic Language", which was directly subordinate to the State of North Rhine-Westphalia parallel to the Russicum. In 1993 the two institutes merged under the name "Landesspracheninstitut NRW", which was transferred to the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in 2007 as a central operating unit.

The language profile also changed: in the mid-2000s, Korean was added to the language offerings of the LSI as a further language, but without receiving its own institute status. The same applies to Persian, which is offered in the variants Farsi and Dari to a small extent, but on a regular basis. Hindi was also taught temporarily at LSI.

Target groups

In the 1970s - 80s, when places for intensive language learning were still rare, a great demand quickly developed in Bochum: in the Russicum alone, more than 1,000 people per year were learning Russian in one-month courses at that time; waiting lists of several months for a place in a language course characterised the institute's everyday life.

In the beginning, the clientele of all the institutes consisted mainly of students from universities in the Federal Republic of Germany and German-speaking countries abroad, but also many members of the civil service, especially diplomats, as well as journalists and business representatives who were preparing for foreign assignments at LSI. Over the years, the target groups that found their way to LSI have varied: from soldiers of the German Federal Armed Forces, who prepared for missions in Afghanistan, bankers and managers of large commercial enterprises, representatives of international aid organizations to the astronauts of the ESA, who learn Russian and Chinese at LSI for their time in space. In the past, most of the course participants were primarily motivated to stay at LSI by their jobs or studies, but today there are also many people with a rather unspecific interest in the language, culture or history of the LSI target countries.

Learning goals and didactic developments

In deliberate contrast to Slavic Studies, Sinology or Oriental Studies at that time, which were characterized by a traditional, philological-historical or descriptive understanding of foreign languages, the learning objectives of the LSI were directed from the very beginning towards the teaching of practical language skills, i.e. In the foreground was foreign language action in situations and on topics, which led LSI - long before the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages - to pursue a foreign language CAN DO and to orientate its teaching towards it in terms of content and function. The philological education of the time could not even begin to guarantee comparable competencies, which focused on reading and analyzing historical texts in a foreign language and practicing translation skills. This in turn explained the influx of many students who studied foreign language philology but only acquired active skills such as speaking and listening comprehension at LSI. Reading and translation courses, however, were primarily intended for advanced students at LSI.

The special concentration on oral communication had socio-political and economic reasons, but it was also an expression of the shift in language teaching from the model drill method to communicative teaching, which no longer focused on the formal training of linguistic structural paradigms known since the 1960s, but on the acquisition of active speaking and listening skills that could be used directly in real, situational or topic-related communication.

The Russicum and also the other institutes thus pursued a highly modern teaching concept that met growing communication needs such as language didactic theory and was enriched from the very beginning with audio-visual and later multimedia components.

In all institutes, the necessary knowledge of the respective writing systems was imparted in the initial courses (today also through preparatory online courses). The only exception to this is Chinese, which uses the Pinyin script in its lessons. In the future, Chinese characters will be acquired through online courses offered parallelly.

At the beginning of their teaching activities, but often afterwards as well, all institutes were faced with the challenge of developing their own new content, presentation and exercise forms for the intensive classes, which usually differed significantly from the systemisations or presentation methods traditionally used in the target languages, e.g. in the area of grammar. Although a distinct foreign language didactics had existed for the Russian language since the 1960s, this was not the case for Chinese, Japanese or Arabic as a foreign language. In this situation, all institutes were forced to develop genuinely new didactic methods in such a way that they corresponded to the organizational specifics of intensive teaching in the sense of a problem-free coexistence of highly compressed skills and knowledge transfer and tightly scheduled practice and consolidation phases. LSI also pioneered the continuous development of its own basic and advanced books, which now cover several generations and numerous new editions.

Over time, special methodological and didactic procedures have developed for the teaching of each individual LSI language, so that it is not possible to speak of a uniform LSI method. For example, the LSI-Japonicum uses elements of the TPR method (total physical response) and suggestopedic approaches that are not used in all LSI courses. All institutes, however, make extensive use of a wide range of language application scenarios, such as role-plays, partner work, dialogues or situation simulations, whereby here too the active CAN DO in real contexts of language use remains the primary goal. The teaching and practicing of grammatical structures is subordinated to the situational-communicative parts of the lessons, although grammar is also explicitly taught in language lessons, where it is advisable for reasons of teaching economy or cognition.

The first decades were thus characterized by intensive development and conceptual work on a scientific basis until all course formats and levels were fully realised. Today the progression of the LSI courses ranges from A1 - B2/C1, in the field of technical languages also up to C2. Basic and advanced levels each comprise two language courses (two weeks each with a total of 60 or 72 teaching units). This is followed by a flexible upper level with thematic courses (on politics, society, media, business, etc.) of varying degrees of difficulty. The changed framework conditions of 2020 also led to the establishment of a new distance learning course format, in which the usual two-week learning scope (60 or 72 units) is extended to 10 weeks, so that this new format can be attended on a part-time, ubiquitous, but still part-intensive basis with 2 x 3 units per week.

The LSI model was characterized by the fact that it was consistently based on a dominant teacher role and that self-determined learning played an important but subordinate role except in the follow-up phases. This was due less to methodological-didactic considerations than to the organizational requirements of the intensive format, in which time-intensive, self-determined learning phases in the tight timeframe of a stay at LSI had to appear less efficient. In addition to its learning course, which is determined by textbooks and learning materials, the institute also offers assistance in the development of individual learning strategies; autonomous foreign language learning, which requires considerably more extensive learning time, only gained in importance with the introduction of online-based learning and the extensive 10-week format. In particular, the condensed face-to-face learning, which is highly concentrated in terms of time and material, with a distinct teacher role, which very well also assumes assistant functions in various teaching scenarios, developed into the brand core of the LSI, by which the effectiveness of a stay at the institute is still measured. This brand core naturally also includes the continued primary focus on speaking and listening comprehension. LSI also teaches reading skills in its advanced and advanced level courses and in special online-based courses.

Current trends

Trends in recent years show significant changes in the demand for foreign language learning as well as in learning expectations, learning periods and individual motivation, which directly affect LSI: Although the focus is still on face-to-face learning, there is a clear shift towards personalised learning (one-to-one training), learning with new, universally available learning resources and technologies (online and distance learning) and a more conscious use of learning times that are made available for language acquisition by the learner

The background to this development is a change in attitudes towards the foreign language, its status, value and usability. At the same time, the importance of English as a worldwide lingua franca is increasing, which raises the question of the sense of acquiring another foreign language, e.g. for professional reasons. Although the mastery of Russian or Japanese continues to be an extraordinary plus for professional success in the country, it is no longer an indispensable prerequisite for a business meeting. Therefore, more and more people are seeking competence in the LSI languages who - as has been the case since the Institute's beginnings - need it for study reasons or who want to acquire a deeper, culturally embedded knowledge of the language and the country for their private or professional life. The acquisition of foreign languages, especially the LSI languages, is thus becoming an increasingly exclusive project under the sign of individualisation and personalisation. In addition, learning via apps, learning videos or commercial learning platforms on the internet has developed into a dynamic growth market and thus into an unmistakable competition, whereas face-to-face learning offerings are experiencing a rather declining demand.

Since 2014, the Landespracheninstitut has been responding to these new circumstances with the development of new virtual learning models, which essentially expand the existing presence offerings. Under the name of LSI.online, LSI is developing a learning platform for its languages, which on the one hand functionally meets the requirements of personalised and self-determined learning, on the other hand making the learning content taught in classroom available to the learners in the long term, and also providing the technical basis for the new, virtual course formats. In addition, LSI.online offers numerous courses for autonomous online language acquisition.

After almost 50 years and over 46,000 course participants, LSI with its many young language teachers is still the most important competence center for intensive foreign language learning in Germany. It combines high quality intensive teaching with the latest technologies, which in combination form the core of its distinctive learning culture.