Making learning languages fun

by Chris Bertram on April 26, 2004

I’ve been going to evening classes to try to get my German up to speed for a few weeks now and I feel I’m making a bit of progress. If I watch the “Deutsche Welle”: news I can more or less work out that Schroeder is unbelievably pissed-off with Blair over the Euro referendum but can’t say so for diplomatic reasons. I’ve also been renting German movies such as “Lola Rennt”: (terrific but not so useful for language) and “Was tun, wenn’s brennt?”: (Funny, though comedies about terrorists making bombs out of fertilizer have a decidedly retro feel these days.) Anyway, after reading “Learning French through Blaxploitation”: over at Ishbaddle, I may have the learning-by-casual-osmosis strategy the wrong way round. Watch DVDs in English and turn the German subtitles on? Anyway, I’m interested in hearing about language-learning strategies that are fun at the same time (and if anyone can throw in German movie recommedations too, that would be a plus).



zaoem 04.26.04 at 6:31 pm

I’d recommend renting or watching krimi’s like Tatort or Der Alte. They are pretty engaging and there is enough dialogue to make it pretty useful for language purposes.


Alan B. 04.26.04 at 6:34 pm

I’m not sure how this would work for German, but in learning Chinese there were lots of VCDs of soap-operaish TV serials available very cheap. They worked well because the plots were easy to follow, they were repetetive, and they often had subtitles (for the non-Mandarin speaking native speakers) Plus my gong fu improved to no end.


John Isbell 04.26.04 at 6:45 pm

Dating someone from that country. Most fun, you learn quickest. Can you speak X when your partner wakes you up in the morning?
1. Fassbinder, “Angst fressen Seele auf”, about a cleaning woman who falls in love with a Turkish guest worker. The son who kicks the TV in is Fassbinder.
2. Wim Wenders, “Himmel ueber Berlin”, which Hollywood ruthlessly blandified as “City of Angels”, IIRC.
3. Herzog, “Fitzcarraldo,” where Klaus Kinski drags a steamer over a mountain on the Amazon.
4. “M”: I forget who filmed it, but Peter Lorre is a child murderer pursued by cops and criminals both.
5. Murnau, “Nosferatu”, with Max Schreck.
I think “Der Kabinett des Doktor Kaligari” is a silent, but German expressionist cinema is great.
Oh, and “Das Boot”, which had some US success. A U-boat film.


John Isbell 04.26.04 at 6:51 pm

Oh, Volker Schloendorff’s “Deutschstunde” and “Die Blechtrommel” (The Tin Drum) are both great films based on famous modern novels. Forgot to say “Nosferatu” is probably the creepiest vampire film ever made. Herzog remade it, and “Shadow of the Vampire” takes place during its filming.


Russell Arben Fox 04.26.04 at 7:03 pm

“Der Himmel ueber Berlin” is widely available in the U.S. under the title “Wings of Desire.” Completely aside from the issue of learning German, it’s an incredible movie, a tremendous meditation on time, rootedness, and sensuality; without a doubt, Wim Wenders’ best film. And yes, Hollywood completely missed the boat in the ridiculous Meg Ryan/Nicholas Cage adaptation.


Mitch Mills 04.26.04 at 7:08 pm

Children’s books and cartoons offer lots of repetition and easy to follow plots. You can explore German ones, but also look for ones you like and have fond memories of, many have been translated into many languages (e.g. I’d bet there are German versions of Where the Wild Things Are, The Little Prince, etc.).

The same goes with comic books. When I was learning (modern) Greek I used Asterix and Tintin pretty effectively. Lots of high frequency vocabulary and colloquial constructions and puns to work out.

At a higher level, try to read in German books you’ve already read (and like) in English. If you can find copies of books or poetry that have been translated from German to English or vice versa and have the original and the translation on facing pages, those are great.

Lastly, pick something you’re interested in and try to find “how-to” books about that subject. Children’s non-fiction and reference books, such as picture dictionaries, can also be very useful in this respect, as can “Idiot’s Guides” and such like. I’m big into cooking so whenever I learn a foreign language I seek out cookbooks and children’s books that feature animals and vegetables and fruits. I usually end up knowing more words about food and food preparation than any other subject area.


digamma 04.26.04 at 7:11 pm

Slightly offtopic on the subject of adult second language education – I went to Montreal for the first time this weekend and found the bilingualism difficult. In France, I struggle my way through conversations in broken French, but I improve, and every success boosts my confidence. In Montreal, the first time I let out a hint of American accent or mishear someone, everyone switches to English, which is disheartening. I was tempted at times to say something like “Je suis de Serbie; je ne parle pas anglais.”

I don’t fault the people for it, of course, and I had a great visit, but I don’t recommend going there to improve one’s French.


digamma 04.26.04 at 7:16 pm

mitch mills –

All of your suggestions would improve one’s grammar and vocabulary, but do you have any suggestions for those who (like me) have a decent grasp of the written language but struggle to comprehend other speakers in real time?


LizardBreath 04.26.04 at 7:21 pm

Manner was entertaining, if my memories of seeing it in the mid-80’s are reliable.


Motoko Kusanagi 04.26.04 at 7:25 pm

In my experience, by far the most effective and fun way to learn a foreign language is to sing along with songs. It’s perfect for improving pronunciation, and the melodies function as a good mnemonic aid.

Buy some CD’s with German songs, and make sure the booklet has lyrics. First read and listen, than start practising. Of course this might be a bit of a nuisance for the people around you, but it’s also possible to do it very quietly. I always walk around with some Debussy or Piaf in my head.

For German I’d recommend Schubert songs (simplicity) performed by Fischer-Dieskau or Elisabeth Scwarzkopf (every consonant audible).

p.s.: John, M is by Fritz Lang. It’s great but an early talkie, so you can hardly hear a word. Murnau’s Nosferatu is silent.


Randy Paul 04.26.04 at 7:34 pm

Schlöndorff’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is very good.

I speak Portuguese fluently, read and write it well, but I really found immersing myself in trips to Brazil helped. When I go to Brazil, I make a point of watching the Sony Channel on cable whenever I can. They have programs with Portuguese subtitles and I picked up a lot fo slang that way. For example, watching Seinfeld I heard someone calling him an idiot and the translation was “Seinfeld, tu babaca.” Now I know that babaca means something similar to idiot.

Dating someone from that country. Most fun, you learn quickest. Can you speak X when your partner wakes you up in the morning?

Absolutely. When Mércia is pissed at me, the English stops cold and I get a steady stream of rapid fire Portuguese invective.


Another Damned Medievalist 04.26.04 at 7:35 pm

“M” is Fritz Lang.

I would agree with everyone else on “Wings of Desire,” but would also go with any other Wim Wenders film. Also Krimis — as books or films. My favorites when I was in Germany were US TV series I knew, like STTNG, dubbed into German. I think you might be onto something with Deutsche Welle — here in the Seattle area, public TV shows two programs, Journal and Deutschland Heute. One is news and the other more of a magazine. Also, you can often find a Stammtisch if you’re anywhere near a university or language school. I called the local Germanics department and got info on one that meets weekly.


Gyan 04.26.04 at 7:40 pm

For French, this video immersion course seems pretty effective.


Jeremy Osner 04.26.04 at 7:45 pm

Hmm, I remember an excellent movie from the 90’s but am totally blanking on identifying information like title, director etc — It was about a young woman who exposes the wartime history of her small town — for instance, who among the still-living town leadership was a member of the Nazi party — and the townspeople castigate her for it. Can anyone remind me of what movie this was? I’m pretty sure it was filmed in German and that it helped me along with learning the language.


digamma 04.26.04 at 7:49 pm

gyan – When I watched French in Action as a sexually frustrated high school student, I was too fixated on Valerie Allain to learn a damn thing.


Ophelia Benson 04.26.04 at 7:53 pm

The Nasty Girl? (That’s the English title, obviously!)


Jeremy 04.26.04 at 7:57 pm

I have to second Motoko Kusanagi’s praise of songs for learning languages. I studied Japanese for years, but never “got it” until I started going to karaoke bars regularly.

I think alan b.’s suggestion about Chinese soap operas (which are subtitled in Chinese so they can be understood by Mandarin/Cantonese/etc. speakers) will work well for learners with digamma’s problem of better reading than listnenig. Rent movies on DVD and turn on both the audio and the closed captioning in the target language. At first, you will find yourself relying on one more than the other, but the pace of the spoken language will insure that you are reading/listening at a good pace rather than spending too much time dwelling on things and eventually you’ll be learning through osmosis.

As for German films, Das Boot is fantastic, but whoever recommended Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari needs to reconsider. Great films, but for language study? I don’t think so.


tew 04.26.04 at 7:59 pm

The Third Man (1949), set in post-war Vienna, is a great opportunity to pick up some German. Though the film is mainly in English, there is a great deal of un-translated, non-subtitled German going on. Knowing a little German actually takes away from the film somewhat, as all the German mainly serves to confuse and bewilder our American protagonist.

It turns out film noir works in a partially-destroyed, internationally partitioned city just as well as it works in Los Angeles.


rxb 04.26.04 at 8:22 pm

gossip magazines! lots of photos and easy vocabulary.
German ones are very quaint, too – all about Boris Becker.


Michael Brooke 04.26.04 at 8:32 pm

I haven’t seen it yet, but Good Bye Lenin should be easily available and is very highly thought of. More to the point, it’s a comedy (like Männer, cited above), and they tend to be more colloquial – in other words, more likely to use the spoken German you might encounter in real life.

Of course, if you want really in-depth immersion, try Edgar Reitz’ 16-hour Heimat and its 24-hour sequel – if you can get hold of them, that is.


Mrs Tilton 04.26.04 at 9:07 pm

Children’s books and cartoons offer lots of repetition and easy to follow plots.

Indeed, so try to get your hands on the delightful animated series Die Biene Maja, based on Waldemar Bonsels’s stories. The series was in fact made by a Czech/Japanese consortium, but for the German market.

In the field of comics, I can also highly recommend Das kleine Arschloch by Walter Moers. Moers exemplifies the principle that, though Germans are usually bad at being funny, when they’re good they’re really good.

For film, try Schtonk, a (lightly) fictionalised account of the Hitler Diaries fiasco; not as funny as Moers, but quite amusing nonetheless.


pepi 04.26.04 at 9:10 pm

A fairly recent German movie I liked is “Nackt” ( ). It’s very lighthearted, a bit theatrical, in fact I think it was taken from a play. Nothing too special but it was a nice film. With a couple of extremely handsome actors – and actresses – to boot.

You could also try watching Hedwig and the Angry Inch ( ) with German subtitles. :)

(actyally I don’t remember too well but I think there were parts originally spoken in German too?)

I echo John Isbell’s Wim Wenders recommendation but I guess you must have seen that already.

Aside from going to the country, TV is one of the best ways of improving a language. Can you get anything more entertaining than the news from DW? any German TV channels on satellite?


jxbrown 04.26.04 at 9:22 pm

I like to listen to the news on streaming audio from RFI. I imagine that you could find the same thing in German. Try which some where on their website has a fantastic list of streaming radio sorted by language and country. I find that the jargon free, carefully enunciated news broadcasts are much easier to follow than movies. I also enjoy the anti-Bush slant….

I also read gardening magazines since that’s what I like in English. The vocabulary is easier than the news mags. Children’s books and adolescent books are also a good choice.


Jeremy Osner 04.26.04 at 9:27 pm

“The Nasty Girl” is indeed the movie I was thinking of. Original title is “Das Schreckliche Mädchen” — here is the IMDB entry.


bza 04.26.04 at 9:32 pm

Isn’t Katharina Blum by Boell?

Two recommendations. (1) Some earlier posters recommended comic books, soap operas, and the like, as they have the advantages of restricted, repetitive vocabularies and formulaic plots. Along these lines I’d suggest genre fiction. When I was first learning German I picked up some translations of Agatha Christie and John LeCarre. If this sort of reading is a guily pleasure for you, you can indulge it this way under the guise of virtuous activity. (2) This is a bit harder to do, but it’s extremely productive for moving from a basic grasp of a language to real mastery: Try to secure something on video in German together with a transcript in German. Then watch it and read along, rewatching (and re-hearing) segments you couldn’t aurally parse on first hearing, etc. You can probably order transcripts and copies of news broadcasts and talk shows without much trouble. There are also educational outfits that prepare this sort of materials, but the content is less topical. (There’s one called Schau ins Land or something like that, if I recall correctly.)


Brett 04.26.04 at 10:04 pm

I second the following recommendations: Katharina Blum, Fitzcarraldo, Himmel Ueber Berlin. You might also try: Caroline Link’s Jenseits der Stille, which is a little sappy but very good.

There’s always music as well. Some of the catchiest German tunes to hit the shelves recently come from a revival of German big-band / cabaret tunes. Max Raabe is someone to look out for (my favorite tracks are “In meiner Badewanne bin ich Kapitain” and “Kein Schwein ruft mich an.”)

It’s really too bad that there aren’t very many German musicals. I found that in learning Hindi, Bollywood films were very helpful. Maybe opera? There are some orchestrations of Goethe poems, by Schubert and others, that are memorable and suitable for singing in the shower, or, if you’re like me, singing in traffic — with the windows rolled up, of course.

One thing that some grad school colleagues did was to learn German card games, such as Skat or Doppelkopf, and then try to play regular rounds. Both native speakers and beer are necessary for this strategy. I recommend Skat, a brilliant three-handed game with lots of variations.

Viel Spass, und viel Erfolg!


Mrs Tilton 04.26.04 at 10:20 pm

Ah yes, Max Raabe; a very funny guy, for all his deadpan delivery. If you have trouble finding his stuff, search under ‘Palast Orchester’ (the outfit he sings for).


yabonn 04.26.04 at 10:38 pm

Great films, but for language study? I don?t think so.

Don’t know. I found it helpful to have an impression whatever it is (if not unpleasant), in the language you want to learn. Dedicating a part of your imaginary to the new language, so to speak.

The french third channel had the glorious idea to broadcast the royal shakespeare company every saturday. The whole stuff, from the early pieces to the tempest, subtitled. This then-eleven year old swallowed it all, hook line and sinker, and sat entranced watching the tv speaking funny for an hour or two each week. Amazed at the amount of spluttering, too.

And, as a somewhat, somehow, result, my grades in english soared. So i’d say go with the impressing/moving things too.


yabonn 04.26.04 at 10:40 pm

Corrolary :

Avoid “inspector Derrick” at all costs.


Mitch Mills 04.26.04 at 10:55 pm


I find watching a movie or TV program in the target language with subtitles helpful. Subtitles in the target language is best, but English subtitles helps too.

While in general I hate the practice of dubbing, watching a movie or TV program you’ve seen before in English dubbed into the target language is also very helpful.

Children’s programs and cartoons in the target language are good: simple, understandable language, although often in annoying “cute child voices”. Soap operas too. Newscasts, especially radio newscasts, are also good: clear enunciation about topics you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with.

If you’re in a country where the target language is spoken, getting off the beaten track and away from touristy areas or areas where a lot of foreigners live helps you find people who don’t know English or don’t know it very well. For example vegetable markets, greasy spoons, etc. Some there will be patient and work with you, others won’t. Of course it’s much harder to find non-English speakers in, for example, Germany than in, say, China.


asg 04.26.04 at 11:32 pm

The absolute best way to improve your German, if you like playing board and card games, is to go to, download the client program, and join up. It’s entirely free and you can play dozens of different German board and card games. Since about 80% of users are German you can converse a lot and really help your vocabulary, and of course all the games are in German so you will have to learn that vocab as well. I am a boardgame hobbyist and would use BSW extensively even if I spoke no German at all, but using BSW and having open at the same time has really helped me keep my skills sharp and of course the games are a lot of fun too.

If anyone is curious about BSW and wants more details or anything, email me.


multitimbral 04.26.04 at 11:51 pm

the subtitle by dvd method will only work if you get european dvds–american dvds never seem to have the german subtitles. i’m sure the european versions of even american films do, though.

my advice is to read what you enjoy in german, and often. kiddie books are for kiddies, but comics might be more palatable.

get a solid proficiency in the language, then read read read. don’t spend too much time looking up each individual word until relatively late in the game. strangely, proficiency happens relatively quickly, but not so fast that it’s noticeable–like puberty.

there are also streaming german tv stations on the net, assuming you have high speed.

i also enjoyed the recent ‘nirgendwo in afrika’……….


John Isbell 04.27.04 at 2:20 am

Katharina Blum is by Boell, Blechtrommel is by Grass, and Deutschstunde is by Lenz. Schloendorff likes famous modern novelists (specifically the Gruppe 67).
Schubert’s Winterreise, sung by Fischer-Dieskau, is amazing if you don’t mind bleak. Marlene Dietrich is quite fun in 3 languages.


John G. Fought 04.27.04 at 2:32 am

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a good and long, long series, made for German TV and available on VHS, at least. For any such project, by the way, you should
watch good segments over and over, reversing and replaying while you imitate. You could also tape
these sessions and listen to yourself to get a sense of how close you’re getting to the rhythm and the pronunciation. You have to do the learning actively. Just watching and listening won’t work well. I’m a retired linguist, as it happnes, best at pronunciation, and lazy about learning all those damned endings. The great American linguist Leonard Bloomfield once commented on the ‘get a girlfriend’ strategy that the resulting vocabulary is too limited.


eszter 04.27.04 at 2:37 am

When I was learning English the first time I lived in the U.S. I watched a ton of TV. That was really helpful, especially for colloquial terms I wouldn’t have picked up in classes. Don’t you have access to German language stations? I used to watch Sat 1 and RTL all the time in high school justifying it as “language study”. I also used to read really silly teen magazines from Germany with the same justification.

I think listening to music can be especially helpful. I remember getting this tape from someone for precisely that purpose. It’s not the kind of music I’d listen to otherwise, but it was especially helpful because the guy sings incredibly clear German.

When I was learning French (and when I was teaching English to friends), I’d sometimes take the pains to write down the lyrics of a song. You sure learn the song well! And now with the Web, you can then check if you got it right. What I would’ve given for this option back then… Tonton David’s songs are not the most straight forward to transcribe…

For a German movie, have you already seen Good-Bye, Lenin!? By the way, I would listen to it in German and have the English subtitles on (when I saw it, it was in German with Hungarian subtitles which I preferred to the reverse), because that way you’re hearing the German. Otherwise, it’s too easy not to read the subtitles and just go with what you’re hearing and understanding anyway. Plus I think it’s harder to read subtitles in a language you don’t speak that well (yet:) so you’re likely to get more of the movie this way.:)


JXBrown 04.27.04 at 4:09 am

Audio books from Buy a copy of the book and read along with the narrator.


Tobias Schwarz 04.27.04 at 4:50 am

For a great new German band performing German lyrics try “Wir sind Helden” –

Aurélie –

“Aurélies Akzent ist ohne Frage sehr charmant
Auch wenn sie schweigt wird sie als wunderbar erkannt
Sie brauch mit Reizen nicht zu geizen
Denn ihr Haar ist Meer und Weizen
Noch mit Glatze fräß ihr jeder aus der Hand

Doch Aurélie kapiert das nie
Jeden Abend fragt sie sich
Wann nur verliebt sich wer in mich

Aurélie so klappt das nie
Du erwartest viel zu viel
Die Deutschen flirten sehr subtil

Ach Aurelie du sagst ich solle dir erklärn
Wie in aller Welt sich die Deutschen dann vermehren
Wenn die Blumen und die Bienen in Berlin nichts tun als grienen
Und sich nen Teufel um die Bestäubungsfrage schern


In addition to Deutsche Welle, there is German tv on satellite and also in some US/Canadian cable networks featuring German made German language tv series and tv-movie productions –

This year’s Berlinale winner, Fatih Akin’s “Gegen die Wand” (intl. title “Head on” – is quite a good movie although I wouldn’t say it’s “Rock and Roll” like Francis McDormand did.


alf 04.27.04 at 4:57 am

A great german movie is Das Experiment. It’s based on the stanford prison experiment and is the best psychological thriller I’ve ever seen. I don’t understand german and I saw the movie in german without subtitles, but I still thought it was great. I don’t know why it’s not more popular worldwide.


boogster 04.27.04 at 5:01 am

Just to add another vote to the Learn-To-Sing Party, I offer the anecdotal evidence that 15 years after spending a year studying Portuguese, I can remember barely a single word that is not in the original version of Girl from Ipanema (O Sol de Ipanema) and yet still can sing it beginning to end in Portuguese.

Not useful, precisely, but the only practice I’ve had . . .


Motoko Kusanagi 04.27.04 at 5:02 am

Of course it also helps to put a Reclam in the pocket of every coat. Try Prinzessin Brambilla, which is fantastic.


Chris Bertram 04.27.04 at 7:19 am

So many great suggestions! Thanks. I’m afraid the “get a German girlfriend” strategy, though possibly effective, will face decisive objections from someone close to me. (On the other hand, if I explain that it was just for educational purposes, maybe she’ll understand….)


mccoll 04.27.04 at 4:09 pm

I enjoyed “Funny Games” (dir. Heneke):


bg 04.30.04 at 1:38 am

I’d like to second “Das Experiment.” Saw it on cable a few nights ago w/ subtitles. It’s excellent.

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