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Deutsch courage: How Germany is using language courses to attract tourists

Language courses allow visitors to soak up Germany's culture while honing a useful skill - and if it all becomes a bit too much, a beer garden is never far away. Joyce Man reports

 

It's a sunny afternoon in Berlin's upmarket Zehlendorf district and Carlos Lastras, from Madrid, Spain, is having the time of his life as he and a gaggle of tourists from Hong Kong, Russia, France and Italy trail a guide on a tour of the German city's architecture. They stop at houses designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.

"I am fascinated by Bauhaus architecture," says Lastras, looking up from the notes he is taking.

Unlike most of the 68.8 million tourists who visited Germany last year, Lastras is speaking the local language - as are his fellow travellers and their guide.

Lastras, 41, works in an IT consultancy and is no ordinary tourist. He is enrolled in a two-week intensive language course at the Goethe-Institut. Germany's answer to China's Confucius Institute and France's Alliance Française, it offers language courses and promotes national culture at about 140 branches worldwide, 13 of which can be found domestically.

These courses - and similar ones offered by the likes of Humboldt University in Berlin, Munich's Ludwig Maximilian University, the University of Hamburg and other schools and independent academies - provide immersion in the country of BMW, Bayern Munich, bratwursts, beer - and extremely enthusiastic recycling - that no audio guide, Segway tour or interactive museum exhibit could hope to compete with.

Courses start with lessons in a classroom setting. If you don't know what the New Museum - on Berlin's Museum Island, its highlight is an ancient bust of Egyptian royal Nefertiti - is before you arrive, rest assured you will after repeatedly informing your classmates, " Ich gehe ins Neues Museum" ("I go to the New Museum") while practising the accusative case. And if you are not aware that Germans are crazy about cycling - or that some of them are called Hans - you will be after telling everyone, " Hans fährt zur Arbeit mit dem Rad" ("Hans travels to work on a bike"), to learn the dative case, and " Hans ist vom Rad gefallen" ("Hans fell from his bicycle"), to practise irregular verbs in the past perfect tense.

For students' down time, the institute arranges talks, museum and theatre visits and walking tours, all conducted in German. Most of the extra activities are free and if they involve tickets or entrance fees, those prices will be reduced.

Essentially, as well as language tuition, the programme offers a ready-made itinerary that combines the must-sees with the occasional wander off the beaten path. Want to learn about the criminal underworld, street art or the Jewish community in Berlin? Fancy discovering the inner-city area of Neukoelln, the gentrified quarter of Prenzlauer Berg or the artsy, multicultural district of Kreuzberg? Want to take a tour of Deutsche Welle, Germany's international broadcaster, or head to Schloss Sanssouci, Frederick the Great's summer palace? Just sign up and you will be taken.

In Munich, course participants visit St Peterskirche, the city's oldest church, erected in 1150, and Nymphenburg Palace, a lusciously gilded Baroque summer residence built for the Bavarian rulers in the 17th century.

The glockenspiel at Neues Rathaus ("new city hall"), in Marienplatz, Munich's central square, never ceases to amaze. Everyday at 11am and noon, its 43 bells and 32 figurines ring and dance to tell the 10th-century story of a local duke's marriage.

In the central city of Weimar, students can soak up the country's literary traditions by visiting the house in which Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - the man after whom the institute is named - lived.

And when it all gets too educational, there is always a beer garden or a Stammtisch, an informal pub gathering, in which to relax. There are few better ways to improve your German than over a litre of beer or two. If nothing else, you'll perfect your " Prost!"

For those who choose to live at a homestay or in a dormitory arranged for by the institute, the immersion continues into the evening. When Lastras isn't out, for example, he chats with his host about the issues Jews face in Germany today and the trials of living in the increasingly expensive capital.

"You get to learn about the reality of Berlin," says the father of two. "I'm living with a family - real Berliners - and we talk about the problems that they have."

"It's a different way to discover Berlin," says Vincent Malnoury, a French civil servant who has come to Germany with his wife. They are both on Goethe courses and he says he appreciates the detail the tour guides go into. "If you're a normal tourist, you don't get to see or understand as much. Plus, you get to meet people from all over the world."

Germany's popularity is on the rise. Visitors to the country increased 8 per cent last year, according to the German National Tourist Board. China was Germany's biggest source of arrivals from Asia, with 1.6 million visitors, 18.2 per cent more than in 2011. However, the board's branch for Hong Kong and south China says it has no figures for the number of people who travel to Germany specifically to take a language course.

As well as experiencing more of Berlin than the average visitor, Lastras and Malnoury will come away having benefited practically; both use German in their jobs.

German may sound harsh and guttural to unfamiliar ears but the language has become increasingly appealing in recent years, thanks to the country's resilience amid the euro crisis and the attraction of its higher education. In particularly hard-hit European countries, it is seen as a ticket to a better job or a way to tap into clientele who still have cash to spend.

"I can only speak for the Goethe-Institut in Berlin," says Franziska Staehle, a language instructor, "but here it is quite clear that many young people from Greece and Spain come to improve their knowledge of German for the German labour market."

Guenter Neuhaus, head of the teaching programme at the Berlin branch, says he has noticed a particularly strong growth in the number of students from China, Russia and Brazil, many of whom want to learn the language to study at universities in the country.

Goethe classes do not come cheap, though. The two-week architecture course Lastras and Malnoury are taking would set you back €785 (HK$8,000), or €1,105 with accommodation. Prices range from €595, for an intensive two-week course during the non-summer months, to €2,390 for one in Berlin lasting eight weeks in peak season. For that price, travellers could buy a whole other holiday - one without a 7am wake-up call and grammar homework.

But clearly, for Germans, there's nothing strange about mixing learning with pleasure. Ever so fond of compound words, they even have terms for such endeavours: Ferienkurs ("holiday course") and Sprachreise ("a language trip").

 

Getting there: Lufthansa (the only airline operating new Boeing 747-8s as passenger aircraft; www.lufthansa.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Frankfurt, a hub for the carrier from where all other German destinations can be easily reached.

 

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