Germany is mostly known for sausages, beer, cars and war, according to a snapshot poll of UK students aged 14 and 16. For my pilot study I interviewed two focus groups of year 9 and year 11 students, asking them about German learning and their beliefs about the Germans and Germany. A mixture of team tasks, individual tasks and guided group discussion prompted some very interesting responses. One activity I designed was based on the TV show ‘Family Fortunes’: “If we asked 100 random British people what comes into their heads when they hear the word ‘German’, what do you think they would say?” This was to avoid the ‘researcher effect’, where participants might modify their answers according to what they assume the interviewer would or wouldn’t like to hear. For me, the most fascinating part of the session occurred when I gave the students some time to talk amongst themselves. Does Hitler deserve his own category, or does he come under ‘general Nazis’? Should they not write ‘no sense of humour’ rather than just ‘sense of humour’? Not necessary, they agreed, as the ‘no’ goes without saying. Germans are known as hard-working, someone suggested. Yes, but remember, this is what the average British person thinks, not us! OK, but even 100 random British people might say that, they concluded in the end, though perhaps quite a bit lower down the list than where they themselves would put it.
As the bell went and I gathered up my paperwork and recording devices, on a high from the experience and desperate to transcribe the promising data, one student came back into the classroom to speak to me. “Miss, did you really ask 100 people what they think of the Germans? Because I’d REALLY like to know what they said!”