An Invisible Woman Taught Me German

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

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.

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.