Two researchers in Germany are trying to determine the best way to teach the German language to nonnative speakers, and at the same time make life a little easier for the wave of Syrian refugees arriving in their city.
Thousands of those refugees have landed in Leipzig, a city of about half a million, in what used to be East Germany. Some of the newcomers have had a difficult time; there have been news reports of racist animosity and violence against them.
Dr. Tómas Goucha and Alfred Anwander, neuroscientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, wanted to do something positive for the refugees.
"They have no people to talk to. They lost their roots," says Goucha, "and now they're in a completely new country with different habits, whose language they don't speak."
Goucha hoped to come up with a project that built on the refugees' skills.
"Not just helping, but trying to create some kind of situation where both sides have a contribution," Goucha says.
One day, he dropped in on his buddy Anwander.
"Thomas was in my office," says Anwander, "and we started to talk about this situation, and we came up with this idea."
Their idea was to design a top-notch, intensive, free language course for a group of refugees — and to partner with these newcomers in a language experiment.
There's a debate about the best way to teach German to nonnative speakers, Goucha says. Often, teachers start with a heavy dose of vocabulary and leave German syntax and sentence structure until later. But some language scholars now think introducing sentence structure earlier in the process may be helpful, especially for adults learning German. Anwander and Goucha hope to help figure out who's right by directly comparing the two methods.
It took a lot of work to get the project going — designing the two different courses, finding teachers who were native speakers of Arabic and recruiting 90 interested, young adult refugees who had no knowledge of German — but eventually they got the six-month courses underway and have begun the testing.
Student volunteers come to the MRI lab at the institute for three brain scans — once before they start the course, one halfway through and once again, after it ends.
"Even some of the participants got excited," Anwander says, "because they realized that they could contribute to science by just learning their German."
The day I visited, Muhammad Ammar Dachak was there for his second MRI.
Still wearing his street clothes, but in stocking feet, Dachak lay down on a narrow bed and technicians slid him into the tunnel in the center of the MRI machine.
German's sentence structure is different than that of Arabic or English, Goucha explains.
Consider this sentence about Mary buying a book.
"In English it would be 'She says that Mary buys the book,' " says Goucha. "In German you would say 'She says that Mary the book buys.' "
In order for scientists to see what's happening in Dachak's brain as he learns these sentence rules, they had him listen to sample sentences over headphones while in the scanner and press a particular button, depending on whether the sentence was right or wrong.
It's still early days for the language experiment. But Anwander hopes the scans will reveal something important about structural changes in the brain as each student learns German.
And maybe, he says, someday, the brain scans will help tell which kind of language course will work best for a given person.
That's for the future. For now, Anwander says he and Goucha feel good knowing the language courses they're offering will help at least some refugees make their way more easily in their new home country.
Another study participant, Samer Al Kassab, says the project has already been a success as far as he's concerned. He's 24 and was a music student studying guitar in Syria until the upheaval there caused him to flee. Kassab says he needs to become proficient in German before he can continue his studies.
"We have a good chance to study here," he says in English, a language he learned in school back in Syria. "They really care about not just the learning, but also to have fun when you learn."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
What's the best way to learn a new language? That's a question two researchers in Germany are hoping to answer. And in the process, they're trying to make life a little bit easier for the wave of Syrian refugees who've arrived there. NPR's Joe Palca visited the city of Leipzig in Germany and has the story of the researchers' big idea for improving the way German is taught.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: On the day I visited, it was freezing cold outside the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. But inside, it was warm and comfortable. Samer al-Kassab has just arrived, and he still has his jacket zipped up. Al-Kassab is 24. He says he was a music student studying guitar back in Syria, but the upheaval there caused him to flee. Now that he's in Germany, he's got to learn the language if he hopes to get back to his studies or get a job. And he heard there was a free language course at the institute.
SAMER AL-KASSAB: I heard about it from my friend. He was study here.
PALCA: Al-Kassab has been taking language classes here for three months.
AL-KASSAB: So we have good chance to study here because it's - they really care about the - not just the learning, also to have fun when you learn.
PALCA: The two scientists running the language program here are Tomas Goucha and Alfred Anwander. Goucha says as he watched al-Kassab and thousands like him showing up in his city, he was moved by their circumstances and he wanted to do something for them.
TOMAS GOUCHA: They have no friends. They have no people to talk to. They're - they lost their roots. And now they're in a completely new country with different habits whose language they don't speak.
PALCA: But Goucha didn't just want to do something for them. He wanted to do something with them.
GOUCHA: Trying to create some kind of a situation where both sides have a contribution.
PALCA: One day, he dropped in on his buddy Alfred Anwander.
ALFRED ANWANDER: Tomas was in my office and we started to talk about this situation. And we came up with this idea.
PALCA: The idea? Design a top-notch, intensive, free language course for a group of refugees, but also get them to help with a language experiment. Goucha says there's a debate about the best way to teach German. The traditional way is to start with a heavy dose of vocabulary and leave German syntax and sentence structure until later. But some now think introducing sentence structure earlier on may be helpful, especially for adults learning German. Anwander and Goucha wanted to see who was right. It took a lot of work to get the project going - designing the language courses, finding teachers and recruiting refugees interested in participating. But eventually, they got a six-month course underway.
ANWANDER: Some of the participants got excited. So, like, they realized, OK, they can contribute to science by just learning their German.
PALCA: Now the course and the experiment are up and running. Halfway through the intensive six-month class, participants come here to the MRI lab at the institute for a brain scan. Now, there's been a lot of research on what happens in the brain when someone learns a second language, but Anwander and Goucha wanted to see if the scans would shed light on their question about when to introduce sentence structure in a language course.
On the day I visited, Muhammad Ammar Dachak was there for his second MRI. The first was when he started the program. Still wearing his street clothes but in stocking feet, Dachak laid down on a narrow bed and technicians slid him into a tunnel in the center of the MRI. From the control room outside, a very precise technician gave him instructions.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking German).
PALCA: Now, German has a different kind of sentence structure from Arabic - or English, for that matter. Consider this sentence about Mary buying a book.
GOUCHA: In English, it would be she says that Mary buys the book. In German, you would say she says that Mary the book buys.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking German).
PALCA: To see what happens in the brain as the refugees learn these sentence rules, Dachak will hear a sentence over headphones while inside the scanner.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking German).
PALCA: Translated literally, that sentence is I think that we a big problem have. That's the right order when you say the words in German. And Dachak has to press a button depending on whether the sentence is right or wrong.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking German).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking German).
PALCA: It's still early days for the language experiments, but Alfred Anwander hopes doing scans at the beginning, middle and end of the language classes will reveal something important.
ANWANDER: What we wanted to see here in our study - do we also see structural changes in the brain related to the progress of a second language?
PALCA: And maybe someday, the brain scans will help tell which kind of language course will work best for a given person. That's for the future. For now, Anwander says he and Goucha feel good just knowing the language courses they're offering will help at least some of the refugees make their way in their new country. Joe Palca, NPR News, Leipzig.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEER TICK SONG, "TWENTY MILES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.