One of the best language lessons of my life came from a randy invisible woman named X, a talking owl with her own creepy theme song, and young sleuths with relationship issues. I recommend this strange experience to anyone trying to learn German on the cheap. It worked because it wasn’t what I expected. Most self-teaching language courses instruct by making you listen to boring people do boring things, dragging you along while voice actors make endless trips to the market, hotel reservations, and visits to the doctor. You might learn something, but it requires enormous dedication to slog through the tedium to get any real benefit.
Needing to learn German, I thought I would find something for 20 bucks that would be dull but help me with the basics. Instead I stumbled onto the language courses from German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, extensive and absolutely free offerings that are quite possibly the most unusual language courses around. They’re well worth checking out if you want to learn German. And if you don’t, they’re still an interesting window into new ideas for teaching language, and even give a little insight into the economic change rocking Europe.
Last summer, I had to improve my German because I was going to spend two months reporting in Germany on a Burns fellowship. When I speak of “my German,” I’m being awfully generous. I took a few classes in college, which, let’s be honest, was some time ago. I’ve been in Germany many times, but it’s not an easy place for a native English speaker to learn the language. A large portion of the population speaks flawless English. They’re typically amused and friendly with those who attempt their language, but unsurprisingly, they’d rather talk in their gently accented English than a foreigner’s broken German.
Once in Germany, the fellowship would provide me with Goethe Institut instruction, the gold standard. But I was only getting two weeks of coursework, so I wanted to learn something ahead of time. Part of my fellowship included time as a guest journalist on Deutsche Welle’s news team, which is how I learned about the free language courses on its website.
Deutsch—Warum Nicht? (German—Why Not?) is the most extensive program for beginners. Roughly 26 hours long, the series hits all the expected grammar and vocabulary points. But it does it through a kooky cast of characters, led by X, the aforementioned invisible woman. She has a cartoonish, high-pitched voice and a creepy crush on Andreas, the main character in the series. She’s constantly nagging him to be her boyfriend. It’s probably best that Andreas never takes the bait, but X hovers through the series to keep things weird.
Radio D is a shorter, less extensive course, but doesn’t skimp on the strange characters and oddball storytelling. It’s basically a Teutonic Scooby-Doo, with overt sexual tension among the young mystery-solvers. They investigate weird occurrences like crop circles, Beethoven’s ghost, and a Hamburg shark. (As in Scooby-Doo, you’ll see the ending from 1.6 km away.) When they get stumped, they query their talking computer Compu, who has impossibly advanced speech recognition, yet for some reason still whirrs and clicks like a 1970s adding machine. Sometimes a spooky talking owl named Eulalia lends a hand, flapping in on a cloud of horror movie sound effects.
In both series, characters careen through delightfully ridiculous plots, visiting cities all across Germany. It’s all hopelessly kitschy, and that’s why it works. I kept listening to hear what bizarreness would unfold next and maybe to see if any of the characters would hook up. (No dice.) At no point was it anything like any language course I’ve ever heard. Well, maybe at interludes, where cheerful and mostly British-accented narrators help with grammar.
A boldly different kind of language program is needed, because it’s hard to get people interested in German these days. Except in high-level theology or hard science, other languages are perceived as more useful to various constituencies. Chinese is the hot language for big business. Spanish is growing in America. Diplomats study Arabic. French and Italian are sexy.
That’s a tricky challenge for Deutsche Welle, since one aspect of the broadcaster’s government-funded mission is promoting the German language. It helps now that Germany has a red-hot economy compared to its neighbors, some of whom are diligently conjugating German verbs with hopes of finding work. The roll at my German class read like a checklist of troubled EU economies, packed with Greek, Italian, and Spanish surnames.
But DW needs to go further to expand the field of German speakers, and offering extensive, free language-courses resources is one part of that. Producing courses that are often nontraditional and sometimes just plain odd is a tactic to make it more interesting to study German.