Updated: Mar 30
A Different Way to Learn a Language
Are you looking to improve your German, but tired of grammar and textbooks? Rhetorica may be just what you need. Developed in Basel by former actor/director Robert Young, Rhetorica skips the textbook and takes a completely different approach. Using personalized lesson plans and real-life scenarios, this method gets you speaking on your first day. Before you know it, you’re chatting to your neighbours and making appointments in fluent German like a pro!
I have spent many hours learning German (about 620 by last estimate). Most of these hours were spent pouring over textbooks, memorizing vocab and trying to decipher complicated grammar. Very few by comparison were actually spent speaking. After I passed my last exam, I was ready to give it all up, were it not for the frustration I had about my inability to speak. I began searching for conversation classes and by chance came across the Rhetorica Method at the Volkshochschule in Basel. After taking the class, I realized this method was unlike any I encountered before and the most amazing thing of all, it was actually fun!
The Rhetorica Method
The Rhetorica Method was developed by Robert Young, a bilingual (German and English) American who formerly worked in Germany as an actor and director. After helping many of his acting colleagues improve their German skills, Robert developed a hands-on, innovative technique to teach languages. For several years he taught as an in-house educator at Novartis, but now as a private enterprise, he and his employees teach private and group lessons in both German and English all over Basel.
Robert is very passionate about what he does, and he teaches languages with the ultimate aim of having his students not only learn a language but move towards integration as well. As he explains, “You don’t get language lessons, you get integration lessons and part of that integration is language – it’s a big part.” Robert describes this as the "practical and cultural side of learning language," which takes away focus from the textbooks and instead teaches you how to interact in real life.
How It Works
A typical Rhetorica conversation class consists of 3-6 people who are learning at a similar level (A1, A2, B1, etc.). The teacher leads the group in conversation and tailors the content of the class to the interests of the group. There is a great deal of repetition during the session (which helps to reinforce the lessons) and the teacher sets what Robert describes as "fun traps" for people to first recognize their mistakes and then repeat the correct version several times, so it begins to sink in.
There are no textbooks and participants are encouraged to focus more on listening and repeating instead of writing. This helps with what Robert describes as the "native language bias". When people first read a foreign language instead of hearing it, they often mispronounce it because they are using the pronunciation rules of their mother tongue. By listening first and then repeating the words, you have a better chance of pronouncing them correctly when reading. This also helps to improve your accent. As Robert explains, “Children speak their language for years before they sit down to write it… so the traditional way of learning a foreign language, sitting someone down in front of a book and saying, ‘now read’ is a recipe for disaster.”
The second interesting part of this method is how the mistakes are recorded. During the guided conversation the teacher records everyone’s mistakes as well as new vocabulary in custom-designed software, developed by Rhetorica. All this information is then compiled into what is called a "Lesson Log" that is sent to every student in the group. This Lesson Log acts as a second lesson and students can review their mistakes and any new vocabulary at home at their leisure.
The software is what Robert refers to as a "relational database" and is quite impressive. It does not just record the mistakes the group makes, but also indicates why it was a mistake, with an explanation of the grammar rule to reinforce the lesson.
For example, in the image above the mistake is identified as:
"Als ich jung war, ich wollte Architekt machen."
The correction is then shown as:
"Als ich jung war, wollte ich Architekt werden."
This is then followed by an explanation of how to use the verb werden with the grammatical rules and examples accessible by clicking the different tabs.
Newcomers to Basel now have a German language requirement for permit renewal, so you may be wondering how this method can help you pass a Goethe, TELC or FIDE exam. Robert confirms that his students, though using a non-traditional method, still perform very well in these exams. He finds that students who have mastered spoken German generally have no problem passing a test. He and his teachers also take extra time to help students prepare with practice exams and writing exercises. As he explains, “If you can speak the language, you can pass those exams in your sleep!”
How to get started
There are a couple different ways to get started with the Rhetorica Method. One is to form a group of 3-6 people (of a similar language level) and schedule a free demonstration lesson. Once you decide to continue, rates range from CHF125-145/hour depending on how many lessons you book. As you are paying for the teacher’s time, this rate can then be split between the number of people in your group.
The other option is to join individually through their lessons at the Volkshochschule. The schedule for these lessons can be found here.
Speaking with Robert and hearing his passion for language learning is very inspiring. He is insistent that language learning can and should be fun and fulfilling. As he says, “Producing a foreign language in your mind and then actually interacting with people is such a rewarding thing.” Having taken some classes with the Rhetorica Method, I completely agree and have been pleased with my progress thus far. So if you are looking for a more intuitive way to learn German, consider Rhetorica as the next step in your path to mastering the Schöne deutsche Sprache.