Meet the Cork teacher with a passion for languages and travelling the world by bicycle

A West Cork woman who has set up an online grinds school tells COLETTE SHERIDAN about her life’s adventures - many on her bicycle - and her love of languages
Meet the Cork teacher with a passion for languages and travelling the world by bicycle

Cyclist and language teacher Joanne Collins.

MULTI-LINGUAL Joanne Collins is getting 2022 off to an exciting start, with her online grind school for students of German.

Joanne, 42, from Clonakilty, feels that the German language should have a higher profile here as Germany has “a growing economy”.

She explained: “More German speakers are going to be needed here and I’m sure people my age wouldn’t mind moving to Germany for work.

“There’s talk about bringing in bonus points for languages in the Leaving Cert. We’re well below the European average for learning languages. And in Ireland, very few students continue languages at third level.”

Joanne speaks German and Italian and has been relearning Irish “as it didn’t work out for me in school”. She also has some Spanish and Portuguese as well as French. She has done night courses in Polish as she taught English as a foreign language to Poles for years.

“I wanted to show respect and to understand some of the Polish grammar structure,” explains Joanne, who has also dabbled in Japanese and Arabic.

Joanne Collins has set up a new grinds school online. For more see Joanne’s Facebook and Instagram ‘German Grinds Cork’.
Joanne Collins has set up a new grinds school online. For more see Joanne’s Facebook and Instagram ‘German Grinds Cork’.

Currently in her second year of a night diploma in relationship mentoring, Joanne believes in life-long learning. She has two BA degrees; in German, music and Italian, as well as a degree in music, and a post graduate diploma in education from UCC. Over the years, she has taught German in secondary schools.

Joanne has her own approach to teaching and is aiming her German grinds not just at students but also at people who’ve learned some German in the past and want to go back to it.

“And I’ll teach it to people who’ve never done it before,” she adds. “I like people to have fun when learning German. I kind of use my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign language) experience in teaching German. 

"If a student isn’t having fun, then they should stop trying to learn the language. I don’t want people to be angry and have feelings of anxiety. If it’s not enjoyable, they should walk away from it.”

Part of Joanne’s approach is getting students to write diaries in German. It’s an approach she has used herself, both during her travels in Germany and around Ireland on her home-made bike. She has had success teaching German from scratch.

“I taught a student German for his Leaving Cert. He was in fifth year when he approached me. He was doing French but hated it. His mother decided he should learn German so I said to her that if her son wanted to do it, I’d love the challenge. But it would be a challenge and he’d have to put in some work. I taught him German in less than a year.

“He got an O2, which is about 90% at ordinary level in the Leaving Cert. He learned it in about 50 hours and he can speak German now.”

Joanne says it’s hard to get a permanent position in a secondary school teaching German.

“Many teachers who have studied German and have teaching qualifications might only have lived in Germany for a couple of months. But I lived there for about five years and I have four close German friends that I talk to all the time. 

"I’ve done five years teaching up the country in Kilkenny, Kildare and Dublin and I loved all those experiences. But with rent increasing, it’s very hard to find accommodation. It’s very hard to rent in Cork.”

When she starts teaching, Joanne makes a point of seeing what students actually know already.

“You can get their attention quicker if you do that first. I just approach teaching German like a carpenter building a piece of furniture. What tools do you need to learn a language? It’s about making students aware at the very beginning what they think they’ll need and then building on verbs, nouns and adjectives and then creating sentences.”

Joanne is an avid cycler.
Joanne is an avid cycler.

Joanne points out that the Leaving Cert “is supposed to help students to develop a spirit of inquiry and find out how things work so that they can manage when they leave school. But I still believe that what often happens is rote learning, even though it’s not expected to be that way. Rather than the students learning off a role play, I get them to create it all themselves and show them how easy it is, rather than learning off verbatim something that in no time they’ll forget.”

When Joanne finished her Leaving Cert at 18, she saw an ad in The Echo for an Irish pub near Hamburg looking for a bar person. She rang the number and was told that if she could get there in three days, she’d have the job. Joanne duly turned up and got the job.

“I didn’t want to go to college straight away. I wanted to learn to speak German. Five years later, I came back to Cork and did my dream degree in German and music.”

While in Germany, Joanne, through teaching English there, discovered the difficulties people can experience in learning a language.

“It made me very aware of grammar and the importance of ‘I went’ and ‘I go’ and how simple it is if it’s just spelled out.

Joanne’s best friend, a German guy called Carsten Volkmer - a part-time bicycle mechanic and also a gardener - built her a bike in 2018 made out of old parts as well as some new bits. It was a gift to thank her for a cycling holiday in Ireland.

“I flew over to Germany on a one-way ticket with my panniers in my rucksack. The plan was to cycle from Hamburg to Cork (with a few trains and a ferry thrown in.) Dervla Murphy (the travel writer who has cycled all over the world) inspires me. Every time I go on a cycling journey, I bring less and less with me. I cycled from the border between Germany and the Netherlands. I got a hitching car from Amsterdam to Paris and a train to Caen. Then I cycled across Normandy and Brittany, all the way to Roscoff, onto the ferry to Ringaskiddy. Then I cycled into Cork.”

Joanne, who still uses the bike her friend made for her, describes herself as “a cultural cyclist”.

“I love to meet people and learn a story about the places I travel to from local people.”

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