Tackling the Concept of Difficulty from Different Perspectives: The Case of German as a Foreign Language

  • Author / Creator
    Hirschberg, Jasmin
  • The German language has had the reputation of being a notoriously difficult language to learn (Twain, 1880; Sick, 2016, 2004). In addition to popular belief and, partially, research, student voices in the classroom often revolve around how “hard” or “difficult” something is with regard to learning German. In this dissertation, a multi-perspective approach to the concept of difficulty is used to operationalize what constitutes difficulty for English-speaking beginner and intermediate learners of German. The following perspectives will be in the focus: the subjective, the psycholinguistic perspective, the pedagogical, and the acquisitional perspective.
    Four studies were conducted that focused on each one of these perspectives: Study 1 identified which features are perceived as difficult for beginner learners of German and for what reasons. A questionnaire was used that required students to assess the level of difficulty of 19 grammatical structures and indicate reasons for why specific structures were easy or difficult.
    In Study 2, the question was addressed as to whether grammatical structures are equally easy/difficult on four measures of implicit and explicit knowledge. Implicit knowledge was assessed in the form of the oral imitation test as well as the timed grammaticality judgement test; explicit knowledge was measured with the metalinguistic knowledge test and an untimed grammaticality judgement test. Due to the time-consuming nature of the tests and the fact that the data was collected during class time, the learner groups for Studies 1 and 2 were not the same.
    Study 3 aimed to identify features of the metalanguage used in explanations of 13 grammatical structures in six beginner textbooks for German as a foreign language at the beginner level and how they may be connected with difficulty. Metalanguage was assessed by looking at the number of overall vs. distinct metalinguistic terms, the number of assumed vs. explained terms and, finally, with regard to their level of opacity or transparency (Berry, 2010).
    The final study was devoted to identifying an overall sequence for the introduction of grammatical structures across both bilingual and monolingual beginner textbooks for German as a foreign Language. Textbook sequencing is closely connected to the acquisitional perspective to difficulty (Collins et al., 2009) as well as to L2 research on acquisitional sequences in non-instructed environments. In order to account for the relativity of the position of individual features and to, thereby, making point of introductions across textbooks comparable, normalization was introduced; a method that had previously not been used in research for this specific purpose.
    The synthesis of the findings from these four studies leads to a comprehensive and fine-grained understanding of what constitutes difficulty in the context of beginner classes of German as a foreign language for English speakers. Based on these findings, multiple ways to decrease difficulty in the classroom are suggested. Future research should assess the practicability and effectiveness of these measures.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2021
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.