Fascinate Your Students with Exciting Lessons on German Culture and Tradition
“Never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German.”
Mark Twain wrote a lot about the trials and tribulations of learning the German language.
And of course, he is completely right. To learn German, your students need to overcome their inneren Schweinehund, sit down and study.
What is an innerer Schweinehund, you ask? Why, an inner pig dog, of course.
This is a good example of why it’s very hard to learn German without a cultural context. A non-German might reasonably ask what an inner pig dog is supposed to mean, but it is one of those colorful words without a direct translation that makes sense.
But if you look into it, the term comes from actual pig dogs used to hunt boars. These dogs were considered hard to control, in need of discipline and prone to biting. The inner pig dog, therefore, is a person’s tendency to slack off or indulge their worst tendencies; they need to discipline themselves to overcome it.
That is not to say German is impossible to master. But there is always more to understand and acquire, even if your students have already studied it for years. The main reason for this lies in the fact that German is more than just a language. Culture and tradition are often seen as a “soft” and optional aspect of teaching the language, but they are anything but.
Fascinate Your Students with Exciting Lessons on German Culture and Tradition
Culture, tradition and language go hand in hand. German is inextricable from its vast corpus of literature, its history, its different regions, population groups, accents and traditions.
This is, of course, true about any language. When I first learned English, I acquired much of it outside the classroom—by reading English books, watching English movies and television, listening to English songs and radio.
It is impossible to understand many idioms without context, and learning culture together with language makes both so much easier.
Unlike me, your students don’t have to learn this outside their classroom sessions. If you set it up right, culture and tradition can become an integral part of your language teaching.
Its 16 states, over 2,000 cities and towns and its history all go to the Roman Empire, and each region has an incredible variety of local cultures and traditions.
From theater to cinema, literature to philosophy and music to visual arts, Germans are proud of their culture—historically and presently. And on a more local and regional level, of their diverse and colorful traditions.
This gives you the opportunity to share with your students many examples of German culture and traditions. The country certainly has its share of wacky traditions, including smashing plates before a wedding, cutting off ties on carnival or watching “Dinner for One” on New Year’s Eve.
Follow me on a journey through the many benefits and advantages of teaching language with culture and tradition, complete with eight ways of implementing this into your classroom. With almost 83 million people, Germany is the most populous country (entirely) in Europe.
Using German Culture as a Tool for Teaching Language
Teaching the German language together with German culture and tradition has a number of advantages for your students, and for you.
First of all, it is a natural way of teaching language. Many phrases and idioms are much clearer when you provide their cultural background, and there is a lot of vocabulary your students will learn almost effortlessly.
Including culture and tradition broadens your students’ understanding and anchors the language to the real world: it lets them experience and explore the country without physically traveling there.
It may also motivate them to learn the language, as it can really show how much variety and interesting activities there are to Germany, and how many things your students can do there once they master their communication skills.
One example of a regional German tradition: in a town called Biedenkopf (as well as some other German towns), the whole town goes out once every seven years to walk along the town’s complete border, taking a total of three days, just to make sure that the borders haven’t changed or been moved by a neighboring community.
Brainstorm German traditions with your students and have individual students research and present specific traditions; then try to find the closest equivalent to German traditions from your students’ home countries and compare and contrast them.
You and your students will quickly see how culture and tradition provide endless conversation topics for your classroom and for the real world, and they unlock many activities and exercises you can use in your teaching.
Now that we’ve covered that, let’s get right to it.
The following section will show you eight ways to teach German language and culture, but of course and as always, the only real limit is your imagination.
8 Amazing Ways to Teach German Through Culture and Tradition
As promised, here are eight awesome ways to utilize German culture and tradition for your language classroom.
To open a session, let your students listen to some classic examples of German culture, maybe even identify the ones that they already know. They might even be surprised to recognize some of them they didn’t know were German.
For example, I am currently living in Sri Lanka, and motorized three-wheelers drive everywhere to sell bread. All of them play a specific melody when they come around the corner: an excerpt from Beethoven’s “Für Elise!”
No matter the age and level of your students, there is something here for everyone. And all eight examples can be easily adjusted for any classroom.
1. Poets and Philosophers: the German Literary Tradition
Germany was once known as the nation of poets and philosophers.
The first book and the first magazine were printed in Germany, and even today, the Frankfurt Book Fair is the most important book event in the world.
There are over 2,000 German publishing houses, and they release more than 90,000 new titles every year, more than almost any other country in the world.
From Gutenberg’s printing press to the aforementioned Frankfurt Book Fair, Germany’s literary tradition is long and prestigious—and literature still plays an important role in public life.
Many classic texts of German literature can be found online as well as shorter texts with a parallel English translation.
You can listen to or read poetry slam texts with your students and analyze them together. The focus should be on wordplay and ambiguity, and it can be a great way for your students to learn idioms and remember their meaning.
From Resources to Activities
Or you can make a fun exercise out of it. For example, how about having your students navigate the maze of the Frankfurt Book Fair? Five days, more than 7,000 exhibitors from over 100 countries and almost 300,000 visitors. The book fair is enormous and has much to offer.
Give your students the assignment to find out where a specific author will be and describe it in German to the class. They will have to search online to find out the author’s publisher, then find said publisher’s stall using the book fair’s floor plan and finally map out a way to get there through the many halls.
2. Holidays and Festivals in the German Language Classroom
Germany has a lot of different public holidays, quiet days, church holidays and unofficial holidays, many of which are only celebrated in some of its sixteen states. Show your students the calendar of holidays and have them figure out which event is celebrated where.
After that, it’s time to go into more detail. Let your students try to divide the holidays into “specific” German holidays and “generic” ones with a German twist. Students can even do a short quiz about these days or present a day to the class.
Compare different ways of celebrating familiar holidays (e.g. Christmas or Easter) in Germany as opposed to the student’s home countries. This can either be done together with the whole classroom or in group work, especially if you have students from different backgrounds.
Explore a Specific Holiday and Give Your Students Deep Insights
Explore a specific German holiday in-depth, maybe as a research assignment or as a test that can be solved in groups.
If the focus is on Christmas, have your students make their own “Adventskalender” in German, then open some doors each following session and discuss the contents they chose.
Apart from providing them important knowledge about day-to-day life in Germany, your students will expand their vocabulary about seasons, months, days and calendars.
You can also focus on grammar by going through the different tenses and stressing their relationships with each other.
3. Alaaf or Helau: German Carnival Culture
Even if your students have never been to Germany and don’t personally know any Germans, they might have heard of the German carnival.
Whether they have or haven’t, however, you got a treat for them because carnival is one of the most peculiar, colorful and strange traditions that German culture has to offer.
Begin by showing your students some carnival greetings and carnival words, then a video of a carnival parade. Not all six hours of it, just some footage of the parade itself. Let your students attempt to spot the main elements and describe what is happening.
Have them create a list either on the blackboard in front of everyone or in competing groups trying to get as many elements as possible. There is candy being thrown, big floats that comment on recent politics, different carnival societies, carnival songs, costumes, etc.
The Hilarious and Wonderful World of German Carnival
Now, it’s time to do more work. Have your students do a word search on carnival-related vocabulary or solve a carnival crossword puzzle. Once finished, hand out research assignments for students to do—one example is research on the history of carnival or the traditions of a specific German city.
Another great activity can be to let your students design their own costumes and describe them. Depending on the students’ age and level, you could possibly use cut-out elements and pictures to make this easier. Either way, the description should remain the most important part.
Focus on color words, adjectives or comparatives and superlatives, and set a time limit. Let the whole classroom vote for the best costume and award points for the number of adjectives/color words etc. that have been used.
To round off a session, listen to carnival songs and have your students struggle to transcribe and translate them— into both Standard German and into English (or their first language).
4. Culture and Cuisine: From the Dinner Table to the Classroom
Liebe geht durch den Magen, as the Germans say.
Love goes through the stomach (the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach).
And the love for language is no different. Talking about German cuisine can water your students’ mouths, give them some vivid imagery and make them want to go to Germany even more.
Let them brainstorm German food, from beer to pretzels and Sauerkraut to Schnitzel, then ask students the following questions:
- What are some famous German foods, and what do they consist of?
- How are they made?
- Which region do they come from?
- Is there a German restaurant in your hometown? If so, what do they have on their menu?
If possible, ask your students these questions in German, and have them answer back in German.
Another great idea is getting students to create a list of cooking vocabulary, including dishes, ingredients and cooking techniques. Then, they can put their new words to the test by asking them to translate recipes from their home country into German, or look at German recipes and translate those back into English.
You can hand out some research assignments on German bread and beers, of which there is an enormous variety. Divide your students into groups to find as many kinds as possible, then describe the ones unique to their group to the rest of the class.
To top it off, do a virtual “visit” to the Oktoberfest with your students. Have them read a text about Oktoberfest or watch a video, then let them try to write a diary entry or blog post as if they had actually gone there.
5. Teaching the German Language with Folk and Fairy Tales
From the Brothers Grimm to Wilhelm Busch, German has a rich tradition of folk and fairy tales. Many of them have been exported around the world and are well-known, others might be more obscure and supremely strange.
Read fairy tales or listen to a narrated audio version together with the whole class, then have your students summarize the tale they just read or heard. Here are common fairy tale texts complete with teaching materials you can use to teach fairy tales in German.
Have your students write short profiles or biographies of fairy tale characters; then have the rest of the class try to figure out which character they have been describing and which story they come from. Identifying fairy tale characters can also be done on its own as a quiz, either individually or in competing groups.
6. Exploring Germany on Foot: Hiking Culture and Tradition
Hiking is huge in Germany, and the country is crisscrossed by hiking trails.
As an introduction, show your students a video about hiking and have them solve the associated worksheet together as a group. Every correct answer gives a point for the group, and the first group to finish gets an additional point.
Then, have your students come up with hiking equipment (half a point for every piece of equipment), and discuss the German names of the equipment and what they’re used for (speaking in German, of course).
The topic of hiking can be easily used to learn German numbers, units and times.
Hiking Along the Rhine: A Classroom Activity
For example, Have your students take a look at the Rheinsteig, a 320 km hiking trail along the Rhine river that spans three states.
Divide the class into groups and task them with planning out a tour along one of the legs of the Rheinsteig. They need a starting location, an end location, departure and arrival times, total length of the tour (in km and in hours), locations and time for breaks etc.; so they will need to learn a lot of vocabulary.
Have the groups present their tours to the classroom and award points for the number of stations as well as for the correctness of the overall presentation.
You can probably think of many more possible competitions like this, allowing you to create an exciting way for students to learn both counting and times in German, improve their vocabulary and get to know about an important part of German culture and tradition.
Possible topics include:
- RheinBurgenWeg, another hiking trail that includes a lot of different castles; their history can be an assignment in itself.
- Wandernägel, little emblems sold in souvenir shops in towns along hiking trails to adorn hiking sticks.
- Germany’s most beautiful hiking trails in its different states and natural regions.
7. Dirndl and Lederhosen: German Regional Costumes
The Oktoberfest has made sure everyone knows Dirndl and Lederhosen as the archetypal German costumes. For many people, they are probably what they think Germans look like, but outside of Bavaria, you will be hard pressed to find a German wearing those items on the street.
Beyond Lederhosen, there is a multitude of regional costumes in Germany that your students have likely never heard about. For example, the state of Hessen alone has at least 24 distinct traditional costumes, and that is just 1 of 16 German states!
Regional Costumes and German Language Teaching
Have your students research different regional costumes and try to explain them to the classroom without using a picture.
You can also do this as a group or partner game: one student tries to describe the costume, another attempts to draw it on the blackboard or a blank sheet of paper.
You can even use costumes to have your students learn the layout of Germany and widen their vocabulary at the same time. Simply have them describe the region their costume is found in, starting with the state and going down to the county or city level. Take it a step further and let them practice cardinal directions and/or antecedents as well. All you need to do is have one student describe the location while another tries to place it on a blank map using said description.
8. Germany’s Natural Beauty
Show your students a few paintings by Caspar David Friedrich.
Ask them what they see, what Friedrich was painting. He is one of the most important German painters, and he focused on landscapes and the contemplation of nature. The role of his artwork for the German imagination cannot be overstated. It exemplifies the close and complex relationship between German culture and Germany’s nature.
But what does nature look like in Germany? Go through Earth’s natural regions and ecosystems and have your students try to determine which might occur in Germany (and where).
This is a great opportunity to add to your students’ vocabulary and teach them words for nature, environmentalism and nature conservationism, all of which are big topics in Germany.
Environment and Environmentalism in German(y)
Listen to interviews about the environment with your students, then have them try to summarize the main topics and information.
You can conduct this activity in groups and award points for each important aspect of the interview they include in their summary; the group with the most points wins something at the end of the session.
Another way to talk about nature would be to talk about environmentalists. Have your students look at the homepages of German environmentalist groups and try to extract their major positions or recent activities, then translate them into English. Popular groups include:
Teaching the German language without teaching German culture and tradition is possible, but why would you? Mix it up and engage your students with some of the fascinating aspects of German culture they have never heard of before.
It will make them want to attend your sessions, increase their motivation and prepare them for their future as competent speakers of German!