Learning German for Free: the Amazing and Weird Online Courses by Deutsche Welle

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Jan. 12 2012 7:00 AM

An Invisible Woman Taught Me German

Try this amazing and free online language course.

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Portrait of two teenage boys wearing headphones in a library
Now there's a better way to learn German

Jack Hollingsworth/Thinkstock Images.

The audio series I used are just a fraction of the offerings. They have audio features tied to current events, as well as a daily newscast spoken so slowly that it sounds like the hosts are heavily medicated. The more advanced lessons are German only, but courses for beginners are available for speakers of dozens of languages. Many lessons look at working life in Germany, since many students hope to increase their chances of working here.

DW recently produced a German-language telenovela and are pleased enough with the results that they're shooting another season. It stars attractive young people, but fans of Spanish-language soaps won't find it very steamy. It still needs to be safe enough for teachers to want to use it, after all. The various courses have strong followings. The iTunes pages for the podcast versions are filled with glowing user reviews and there’s healthy interaction on DW’s social media. Hard-core fans of the telenovela fill its Facebook pages with questions and love letters addressed to its main character, Jojo, as though she were a real person.


I spoke to Shirin Kasraeian, a project manager on the team behind DW's language offerings. She explained that their strategy is to use narrative, humor, and quirky characters to ensure their programs stay interesting enough to keep people engaged and excited about learning. That sounds obvious, but it's nearly revolutionary considering that many language programs are deadly dull. (One exception: French in Action, a 1987 public television series that still has a following for its cheesy melange of attractive Francophones, awkward romantic interactions, and puppetry.)

Kasraeian says the programs are also different from other language courses in their focus on German as it's actually spoken. They don't shy away from slang or even profanity. A character in one program gets really excited when he learns the word Arschloch (look it up). That's something that would happen in real life, but is unheard of in typical language-learning programs.

At Deutsche Welle's Bonn offices, Kasraeian gave me a preview of a snazzy Flash-animated learning program rolling out later this year. A man wakes up in Germany trapped in a Groundhog Day-style time loop, doomed to repeat the same day until he learns German. The graphics and story are delightfully weird and cheeky, proof that DW isn't abandoning its commitment to the bizarre.

But does all of this stuff work? That’s what I wondered when I walked into the Goethe Institut to take the test that would determine what level of German I had mastered through all these podcasts. I was jet-lagged from a trans-Atlantic journey that spanned 12 hours and many time zones, so my hopes weren’t high. I hadn’t taken a test on anything since college, so anxieties I hadn’t felt in a long time jitterbugged their way through my stomach.

But after some coffee, I took the test and placed into the A22 course, which means, according to European language authorities, that I can “understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance,” among other things. That’s the level the DW courses I took promised to cover, so for me at least, it worked. Learning a language in the company of elves and magical owls sounds like the mad path of a Dungeons and Dragons addict. But that invisible woman turned out to be a gifted teacher, and I would love to see her for Spanish lessons.

Mark Garrison is a reporter for the public radio program Marketplace. Follow him on Twitter @GarrisonMark.