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Ab initio German (Option A)

River Cam

As part of their degree in Modern Languages students may read German without any prior knowledge of the language in combination with a post A-level language. The Beginners' Course (ab initio German) is only for students who are reading for an Honours Degree in Modern Languages. Any other members of the University wishing to learn German from scratch should visit our Other Courses page.


Why learn German?

Let the facts speak for themselves:

  • German is the native tongue of around 100 million people. It is the main language not only of Germany itself, but also of Austria and Switzerland.
  • It is also found as a minority language in a large number of countries in both Western and Eastern Europe.
  • German is increasingly important for business in Eastern Europe.
  • Every tenth book published worldwide is written in German. It is the language into which most translations are made and takes third place, after English and French, in languages which are translated.
  • Although it is true that business and technology in Germany are tending towards the use of English, German is a most useful language to have for a career in European administration, law, or cultural exchange.
  • German is the language of some of the greatest names in European cultural history in both the arts and sciences: to study it brings you nearer to the heart of Europe and European culture.

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What we do

The ab initio course in German and Dutch at MML has been running since October 1990. It brings you to A-level standard in one academic year. This is roughly the equivalent of the level B1 of the European Framework of Reference for Languages. We have seen a number of students achieve distinguished degrees in a language they could hardly speak, if at all, when they came to Cambridge. We believe we have designed a course which is both attractive and very effective. Equal emphasis is put on achieving written and spoken fluency and our methods combine the traditional with the modern. Although this may seem daunting, let us give you an idea...

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How it is done

There are 4 hours of Faculty classes a week led by two Faculty Language Teaching Officers, both native speakers of German, Ms Silke Mentchen (Magdalene College) and Mrs Maren de Vincent-Humphreys (Jesus College). We teach in alternate weeks, so there is a welcome change of teaching style every week.

  • We use both a course-book and teaching aids suitable for self-access learning on our dedicated Virtual Learning Platform.
  • The groups are not too big, so we are able to give individual attention to each student's needs.
  • Additional teaching takes place in College supervisions in small groups (1-2 hours per week). The supervisions are tailored to individual needs and very supportive.
  • We help with organising trips to Germany. The German and Dutch section has long-standing links to a language school in Berlin and also to Schönhausen near Berlin, where our students can go and stay with host-families.
  • Most ab initio groups quickly become very close-knit since students see each other almost every day. Therefore the atmosphere in the class tends to be very open, relaxed and friendly, which is obviously a 'plus' for successful learning. And the students form friendships that last through their years at Cambridge and beyond.

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How successful our students are

  • The course has a very high completion rate.
  • A number of our students have achieved first class grades in their ab initio exams, often beyond A-level standard.
  • Most ex-ab initio students go on to do German in their final University exams, with some ex-ab initio students going on to gain a First Class Degree, the highest grade possible.
  • Our ex-ab initio students have taken up careers using German in many walks of life, both in the UK and abroad.

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What the students say

"Studying German ab initio was certainly intensive, but ultimately extremely rewarding. My first and second years involved almost daily German classes and supervisions, as well as brief language courses in Heidelberg and Berlin, which allowed me to put what I’d learnt into practice. By the time I came back from my third year in Berlin, I had forgotten I had done German ab initio!" (Myrto)

"I am a barrister in London at the minute, but tend to work on cases with international elements. I spent 6 months in Paris last year working on a Swiss arbitration in English, French and German between two very well known companies - one in France, one in Germany. My MML days certainly paid off. Almost 10 years on I wanted to thank you for your excellent teaching and inspiration during the ab initio year. I feel that the skills you drilled in to us regarding the use of language and, for example, ways of finding different formulations for the same idea (in either language) are something that I have to use on a daily basis in court, or more importantly in legal documents. I genuinely do sometimes think back to those lessons when I am drafting. I also have such great memories of the hours spent in the Faculty, as well as events outside of the classroom - Heidelberg, Schönhausen, German Breakfast." (Andrew)

"The hard work was worth it when I went to Germany and realised I could actually speak German!" (Sara)

"Starting German from scratch at university is not as impossible as it may sound - you would be amazed to see how much you can learn in one year! The course is intensive, but you get to spend a lot of time in Germany, which is an excellent way of learning the language in a more fun way and relieve some of the stress! It is definitely something to go for if you feel you've missed out on German at school or if you want something a little more challenging and exciting." (Marzia)

"The teaching was very thorough, but equally importantly we all got on really well as a group and I made some great friends. We all really enjoyed the trip the Department organised for us to Wust at Easter and came back speaking much better German. Although the pace of learning is fast, in small classes it works really well. I would certainly do it all again, especially the trip to Wust, and would recommend the course to anyone at all tempted to do German" (Martin)

"I find it a fantastic opportunity to learn a new language up to a very advanced level in two years, since it is not offered in many universities and it is unlikely we will get the chance to reach such high level in such a short time ever again. Having only been able to judge my level in German against the other 6 members of the group it was extremely satisfying to realise, on going over to Germany for my Year Abroad, that I was able to talk almost fluently and get by also in Business German! This was definitely not an easy option to take but it has been a course from which I have got much personal satisfaction and have thoroughly enjoyed." (Charlotte)

"I did German at school, but then changed to Spanish in the Sixth Form. I did French and Spanish A-level, but decided to do Beginners' German at Cambridge. I really enjoyed starting a language (more or less) from scratch (again), and it gives me an enormous sense of achievement to think that I will be sitting my finals in a language I could not speak when I came here three years ago. It may seem like an impossible task, but it can be done, and it wasn't such hard work that I had to give up my free time to manage it!" (Julia).

Take a look at this short video produced by some of our current students of German.

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Structure of the course

All beginners will spend one year preparing for the Part IA examination in German, whether they are total beginners, have some basic familiarity with the language or have done GCSE German. The first year course will concentrate heavily on acquiring the basic elements of the language, with an introduction to a variety of authentic texts; in the second year beginners are able to take part in more advanced language classes.

Introduction to German Culture: Paper GEA3

Teaching provision for paper GEA3 consists of seven lectures in Michaelmas Term (October-December), and a further four lectures in Lent Term (January-March). Alongside these lectures, there will be four supervisions in Lent (on four of the paper’s topics), and two revision supervisions in the third term. Supervisions for paper GEA3 are organised centrally by the paper coordinator on behalf of your college. For details of this paper, see GEA3: Introduction to German 3: German culture.

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The course we use is DaF Kompakt neu (Klett 2016), by Ilse Sander et al and consists of a course book, a practice book and a grammar. There are 3 books which you need to buy:

  • DaF kompakt neu A1-B1 Kursbuch mit MP3-CD (ISBN 978-3-12-676310-3)
  • DaF kompakt neu A1-B1 Übungsbuch mit MP3-CD (ISBN 978-3-12-676311-0)
  • DaF kompakt A1-B1 Grammatik (ISBN 978-3-12-676193-2)

You should work through the first 4 chapters before you come to Cambridge to start your degree course. You will be sent a glossary to help you with this by the course teachers. In your first 2 weeks we will go through these 4 chapters together. For information on the course book see here.

Other resources:

  • The best modern reference grammar, which you will need throughout your university course, is Hammer's German Grammar and Usage (M. Durrell, Arnold 2011)
  • You will need a good German-English/English-German dictionary containing around 200,000 items of vocabulary (ie not a concise dictionary) eg Collins German-English/English-German Dictionary or the Oxford-Duden German Dictionary (including the spelling reform).
  • One of your challenges will be acquiring sufficient vocabulary. The course will introduce you to quite a wide range of vocabulary and there are vocabulary trainer apps to go with DaF kompakt which you can buy. You can also help yourself in other ways - eg by systematic learning of word-groups. We recommend Using German Vocabulary (S. Fagan, CUP 2004) for this and you will in any case need it later on in your course. If you find it more helpful to see vocabulary in context, you might try looking at some dual-language texts: several are published by Penguin and the German publishers dtv (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag).
  • It is important to get used to the sound and the basic structures of German as early as possible. The CDs that go with DaF kompakt will help with that, but there are also many online resources for learning German which include introductory materials, for example, from the BBC, Deutsche Welle, the Goethe Institut); or online courses such as 'Deutsch lernen'

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Course Costs

Costs will be incurred for the initial purchase of the course books and material recommended above and perhaps certain core text books for scheduled papers throughout the course (see individual paper descriptions). It is recommended that ab initio students go to Germany during their first year. In recent years ab initio students have stayed with host families in Schönhausen/Elbe, near Berlin, and have attended a language course in Berlin. Whilst this is not a compulsory part of the course, it is viewed as an essential part of the year's work.

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Spending time in Germany

  • If you are able to arrange it, attending a summer course in Germany would be very helpful: the Goethe Institut organises a wide variety of courses.
  • The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) provides grants for summer courses in certain circumstances.
  • Staying in a German-speaking country without attending a course would also be immensely valuable. Information about summer jobs abroad can be obtained from the British Council website.
  • The German and Dutch section helps its ab initio students to go to Germany during their first year. This includes a stay with German host-families in Schönhausen/Elbe near Berlin, and a language course in Berlin.

German and Dutch itself does not hold information on employment or residence abroad, but you may be able to obtain further advice from the Director of Studies at your prospective College or the Year Abroad Office in the Faculty. Please do not hesitate to contact either the Director of Studies or the German and Dutch section with any further queries you may have, however small.

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Exam arrangements for Tripos 2023

All beginners will spend one year preparing for the Part IA examination in German, whether they are total beginners, have some basic oral familiarity with the language or have done GCSE German. The first year course will concentrate heavily on acquiring the basic elements of the language, in terms both of grammar and of vocabulary. There is also an introduction to German culture (paper GEA3). In the second year the ex-ab initio students attend more advanced language classes in Use of German and Translation from German.

The course is taught four mornings a week throughout the academic year, by two teachers in alternate weeks. In addition, supervisions for the oral and other components of the course are arranged by the Section.

The papers in the examination for Option A are as follows:

  • GEA1: Introduction to German 1: Comprehension of German
  • GEA2: Introduction to German 2: Translation and Oral Examination A
  • GEA3: Introduction to German 3: German Culture
  • GEAO: Oral Examination in German

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Course adviser

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