I went to a 2-hour Artikelkurs at Hartnackschule toward the end of April. As it turned out, the course was not really about articles at all, it was about grammatical gender: it offered an introduction to mnemonic techniques that would help one remember whether a noun was masculine, feminine or neuter. The technique was essentially that of the art of memory as practised in antiquity, one I've heard of but never bothered to try: one assigns an image to the thing to be remembered. So one might assign the image of water to 'das' and then, to remember the gender of a neuter noun, assign a mental image to the noun and associate this with water. One assigns the image of a woman to 'die' and then, to remember a feminine nouns, assigns it a mental image and associates this with a woman. In one's mind, then, one might have a sofa, a book, a knife, floating in a pool. And so on.
At the beginning of the class the teacher did an experiment to see how well students memorised things using the techniques they already had. Students were given a list of 20 words, each of which had been assigned one of three articles invented for the occasion (fif, led, had). They were given three minutes to memorise the articles; asked to chat among themselves for two minutes; then given a test on the articles.
The number of correct replies reported was:
2 6 6 7 8 8 9 9 13 14 14 15 15 16 16 17 18 19
(I got 15.) The teacher asked those who got 15 or better what they did. One girl said she memorised the nouns for 2 articles, because everything else would take the third. (This was esentially what I did: write down two lists and memorise those.) Another (who got 19) said she constructed a story using images from one group of nouns, another story for another.
The teacher spent the rest of the class explaining how the visualisation technique worked. At the end he gave another test, again with 20 nouns and 3 invented articles, asking us to try the visualisation technique. I got 20. The results for the class were
(pairing results with original results):
18 20 20 20 20 18 20 19 19 18 17 20 20 19 20 20 19 19
or (in ascending order)
17 18 18 18 19 19 19 19 19 20 20 20 20 20 20 20 20 20
We can summarise by saying that on the first text only 3 people got a score of 17 or higher, while on the second test no one got a score below 17; on the first test no one got 20 right, while on the second 9 (almost 50%) did. But it's easier to see the dramatic shift in the distribution of scores with a couple of graphs:
(Yes, yes, the information definitely could be better presented, but there is work to be done.)
Now, we can't be sure the improvement was entirely due to use of the visualisation technique. I used a combination of visualisation and the two-lists trick (i.e. bothered to visualise only two sets). Since another member of the class had mentioned this trick, it's quite possible that others in the class were also combining the two. Still, it's pretty impressive. The only problem is, the technique is of limited use in mastering the art of German articles.
At the risk of stating the obvious, it's fairly straightforward to correlate a mental image with the article 'der' and then associate this images for appropriate nouns. It's not at all straightforward to come up with a system of mental images such that 'der' is associated with masculine singular nouns in the nominative, feminine singular nouns in the genitive and dative, and plural nouns in the genitive. It's by no means obvious how to organise one's mental images so that 'den' is associated with masculine singular nouns in the accusative and plural nouns in the dative.
Now, recycling is a very good thing when one is dealing with scarce resources. It's not obvious that articles, whether definite or indefinite, fall in that category. Instead of cunningly reusing 'der' (so that it turns up not in one case but three), why not use it exclusively for the nominative masculine singular? And have a unique form for the genitive feminine singular? And another for the dative feminine singular? Go on, you want to say, be a devil!
The problem is, natural languages are not like programming languages. There's no one issuing a beta release and then fixing all the things that interfere with performance (for instance, by slowing down processing, taking up too much memory to store...). We can't fix the languages, so we have to fix the learners.
The interesting thing about the class was that it showed the (to a foreigner) peculiar German reluctance to help those grappling with the system of articles. It's not peculiar that the man in the street has better things to do with his time, of course, but schools are unanimous in shying away from the dreary task. This school was unusual only in ducking the issue in a course specifically advertised as addressing it.