Education Language Immersion

Language Immersion in the Swiss Alps

May 25, 2018

Children can learn new languages easily, especially if given a real purpose to speak in a foreign language. The Inter-Community School Zurich encourages and expands students’ language skills and awareness. We believe that in a changing world being multilingual is a necessity.

The school bus leaves the Inter-Community School Zurich filled with a Grade 3 class excited and a little nervous to start its overnight excursion into the Alps. The open, rolling countryside gradually gives way to narrow valleys with scattered villages and soon the bus is creeping up a mountainside on a narrow, winding road. The van stops at a scenic spot, but the children have not reached their final destination. When they climb into a Luftseilbahn (aerial gondola) to keep ascending the mountain, all have realised the uniqueness of this trip.

The Luftseilbahn drops them and their teacher at Mettmenalp in the heart of Freiberg Kärpf, the oldest protected area in Europe and the largest in Switzerland. It is a region with more cows than cars and more marmots than people. During their short walk to the Berghaus (mountain chalet) where they’ll eat and sleep, they take in the sights: the shimmering blue See (lake), the green meadows, and the rocky peaks soaring above them.

This trip is one of the multitudes of ways students learn a language at the Inter-Community School Zurich (ICS). The language of instruction is English, but German, the language of the host community, holds an important place in the ICS curriculum as well. Starting with the Early Years programme, children ages 3–5 can enter a bilingual strand to learn both English and German within a classroom setting in which both languages are used throughout the day. There are German-language teaching assistants in every classroom in the Early Years Centre. During lessons, children are introduced to German in age-appropriate ways: listening to stories, playing games and singing songs. This expands their knowledge and ability to engage with the language and gives them a real purpose to practice their language skills.

This comprehensive language learning programme is what sets the stage for the Grade 3 students’ expedition into the Alps. Starting in their first weeks at ICS, these students will have enjoyed a series of truly integrated experiences that encourage them to speak German in the classroom, playground, and on field trips. So when the ICS German teachers greet them at the Berghaus with a cheerful Willkommen (welcome), it is not the students’ first authentic immersion into Swiss culture and German language.

The teachers give a tour of the house, explain the house rules, and give an overview of what will happen during their stay. And it’s all in German. Sometimes new students who are freshly exposed to the language need a translation from a classmate, but that’s fine too. There are many ways that people communicate in the real world, especially in a country like Switzerland with its four national languages.

Language Immersion in the Swiss Alps

For the students, during the next 24 hours, all instruction will be in German. And while students might speak amongst themselves in English, they are encouraged to use as much German as possible, especially in the unit-based activities. This also applies to the class teachers who are not the German teachers. Seeing their teachers go through the same challenge and eventually witnessing their success is a huge motivator for the children.

Soon the children are out for a hike along the See. They stop to make a fire and cook Cervelats on sticks, thrilled at how the ends of the Swiss sausages spread open like bird wings. They sing songs, solve problems, create artwork, and participate in team building activities – all in German. The instruction is also tied back to the topics they are learning in the classrooms, meaning it will all stay with them as highly relevant.

The students are then tasked with reading the information boards by the lake. The signs give information about various animals that live in the area: the Fuchs (fox), Luchs (lynx), Steinbock (alpine ibex), and Murmeltier (marmot) are a few of the favourites. The students choose two animals, learn in detail about those animals’ habitats, draw paw prints, and then answer questions about the animals.

Then, back at the Berghaus, the students divide into groups to prepare a presentation about one of the animals that they will present to the entire class. Each group contains a German mother-tongue student to support the others, but everyone is expected to contribute in some way to the project and presentation. The exercise follows the theme of the trip – to challenge everyone and take them out of their comfort zone while ensuring they can succeed by collaborating and working as a team.

The afternoon wraps up with a simple dinner, followed by a night walk that gives a whole new perspective on the area. While it starts with the students all carrying battery-powered torches, it ends with only the light from the teachers’ flame-bearing torches. The rest of the evening is filled with marshmallows roasted on a fire and quiet songs, with all activities geared towards helping the students appreciate their peaceful surroundings.

After a night snuggled into warm sleeping bags and a simple Swiss breakfast of Brot, Butter and Marmelade (bread, butter and jam), more morning activities and lessons await. Far sooner than everyone would prefer, students are back to the Luftseilbahn for a return trip to the waiting ICS school bus and the journey back to Zumikon, while the German teachers begin preparations for the arrival of the next class.

The students take home with them not only memories of fun and friendship in a stunningly beautiful location, but also a bigger lesson about communicating in a foreign language. They find that they do not need to be fluent to get through a day. They learn that with creativity, courage, and collaboration they can understand and make themselves understood. Many will share this newfound knowledge with their parents, who themselves might be feeling a bit overwhelmed trying to communicate in a new language. It is a great reminder that a youthful, playful and open-minded approach to a new situation can be rewarding and enlightening.

As students move up in grades at ICS, they continue to study German. Secondary students also have a choice to study Spanish and French. In addition, children of all ages can study their mother-tongue language. This gives students another opportunity to maintain and develop the languages they speak at home. By Grade 11, students can enrol in the German language courses which qualify them to receive an IB Bilingual Diploma issued by the International Baccalaureate Organisation. This Diploma, which carries great weight in university applications, is granted in addition to the IB Diploma and the ICS High School Graduation Certificate.

If you would like to receive more information or book a personal tour of the Inter-Community School Zurich, please visit our website at www.icsz.ch or email us at .

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