The Best Way to Learn German: A Music, Film and Reading Study Plan
There are so many different tools we can use on our journeys to German fluency.
Gone are the days when learning a new language meant simply memorizing endless lists of vocabulary and grammar rules.
The constantly increasing availability of all kinds of new content from all over the world brings an array of new possibilities.
We can immerse ourselves in language and culture in a very active and dynamic way.
We can focus our studies on areas that interest us and thereby lower the risk of becoming bored or of seeing our learning as a chore.
What’s more, we can go beyond material that’s intended for learning and use content that’s enjoyed by native German speakers.
In this post, we’ll be talking about how to maximize music, film and literature for your German studies.
We’ll share a few examples that will hopefully inspire you to make your learning as interesting as it can be!
Of course, there are many other types of resources you can (and should) use, but these three specifically are perfect since they’re so readily available and will deepen your understanding not only of the German language, but of German-language culture as well.
Creating a Study Plan Around Authentic Materials
Of course, learning a language like German with authentic materials like songs is much more than just listening to the music. You need to go deeper.
It will be helpful for you to make a study plan before you start. This way, you can easily keep track of your progress and plan out what type of content you want to focus on at what times.
Keep in mind that if you’re a pure beginner, you’re not just going to be able to jump into watching movies and listening to music full-force and absorb the language magically. You should have reliable resources you can use to research and understand the language you find in native content, even if they’re in the form of flashcards apps and online dictionaries.
You’ll want to have access to reliable pronunciation tools like Forvo and audio dictionaries, which will help you verify pronunciations and definitions of words you find in real-world sources.
You’ll also want to study up on basic German grammar.
But you should make authentic sources part of your study plan from Day One.
One easy way to do this is by using FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Because FluentU provides videos for all levels, from newbie to native, it’s a great way to start integrating native content into your learning plan bit by bit. You can give it a try with the free trial, and see how it makes learning with native-speaker media more manageable and enjoyable.
Breaking resources like movies and music into manageable parts is very important, because you want to get the most out of them without feeling overwhelmed. Below is an example of a study plan to give you an idea of what yours could look like. You can adapt it to fit your strengths and weaknesses as well as your interests and goals.
Monday: Watch a movie (part I) and write down vocabulary that’s new to you.
This exercise may be more time-consuming than it initially seems, so you’ll probably want to split the movie you choose into parts and continue watching during your next session.
Don’t get discouraged if there are a lot of words you don’t know; you don’t have to stop to write down every single one. Also, this exercise should ideally be done after having watched the movie straight through (with subtitles if you need them) in your free time. This helps create an overall context which you can then delve into and pick out individual words from.
For example, if you can study for half an hour every day, re-watch a short segment of the film (five minutes, for example, but this can vary depending on the amount of dialogue) while pausing and replaying when necessary, and try to pick out words and phrases that you (a) don’t know the meaning of yet but (b) can write down accurately enough to look up in a dictionary. Then look the words up and write down their definitions.
When you pause the movie, also take the time to try to repeat the last full sentence or phrase spoken, even if you don’t understand all of it. This is a quick and easy way to practice your pronunciation; it can help you to memorize new vocabulary and become more familiar with grammatical structures.
Your goal shouldn’t be to simply grab as many words as possible, but to come up with a reasonable number to add to a growing list of vocabulary to study over the next week. So your goal for this session can be as few as five words or phrases or even fewer. Once you see how your vocabulary study for the entire week tends to pan out, you’ll be better able to set your goals around the time you have.
Tuesday: Listen to a song with the German lyrics. Add new vocabulary to your vocabulary list.
Same idea here with acquiring new vocabulary, and as with subtitles, you can read along as you listen. Words can sometimes actually be easier to understand when sung, and this exercise might help you pick up new words from context without having to look them up. After hearing a song a few times, you’ll probably be able to sing along, and before you know it, you’ll have learned (and memorized) a bunch of new words.
Try writing down a few words that are less obvious from context or that you’re not sure about, and add them to your list from the previous day.
Since most songs are only a few minutes long and you have lyrics to work with, this exercise may take less time than the above movie part of the study plan. You’ll want to use any extra time to go over your vocabulary list and see what you remember from the previous day.
Don’t forget to add the song you chose to your playlist!
Wednesday: Watch a movie (part II).
This is just a continuation from the previous day. Watch the next segment of your movie, or reply the same segment if you feel there’s more you want to get out of it.
Thursday: Read part of a German-language book or magazine. Add new vocabulary to your list.
How much you read will depend on your level, the amount of time you have and how challenging your reading is. You can read either one chapter or just a page, but make sure you basically understand the gist of what you’re reading.
When you find a sentence you don’t understand, stop and translate it into English with the help of a dictionary. Then, add any new words to your vocabulary list and take note of any grammatical structures you haven’t mastered yet.
This is arguably the most tedious of the three exercises, so make sure you choose something that’s appropriate for your level and, most importantly, something about a subject that really interests you!
Friday: Watch a movie (part III).
Saturday & Sunday: Go over this week’s new vocabulary list.
By now, you probably know a lot of the words already, but you can still actively study the rest for best results.
If you feel like there’s something you should repeat, you can do that now. You can now focus on grammar you noticed or simply watch the movie again, listen to the song and just generally go over things you learned this week.
OK, now that you have an idea of how you can incorporate books, music and film into your learning schedule, we’ll tell you a bit more about each one of them in connection with language studies, and give you some examples of each you can start out with.
How to Choose and Benefit from Different Types of Authentic German Content
Let’s start with music. Being so easily available, it’s perfect for our purpose of mixing up your study routine a bit. Music is so omnipresent in most of our lives that we often don’t even realize the effect it has on us. Listen to a German song on your way to work or during a workout, and before you know it, you’ll have it completely memorized without even trying!
And if you put in just a little more effort and take the time to translate it (or read a readily-available translation online), you’ll notice how much just a single song can teach you. You’ll even catch yourself using all that new vocabulary you learned in conversation, and sooner than you may think.
One of the advantages of listening to music as a way to learn German is that it will generally teach you the current language. You’ll learn the words people are using at the moment the song came out. On the other hand, grammatical correctness, as well as clear dictation, is sometimes sacrificed a bit for the music, so you should watch out for that, but there are still many genres or singers you can listen to without that being an issue.
So since this blog post is geared towards German learners out there, here are a few examples of popular and contemporary German singers to help you get started on that new playlist:
- Nena. Of course Nena has to be on this list. As one of the most successful singers in the history of German music, she sang one of the few German songs that gained immense popularity abroad as well. Her 1983 song “99 Luftballons” inspired an English version that made her internationally famous. Today, she’s enjoying a comeback, touring across Germany and promoting her music again.
- Helene Fischer. Helene Fischer managed to make Schlager popular across all age groups. A music genre that used to be big mostly amongst the older generations is now wildly so amongst the youngest music listeners as well, thanks to her. She’s currently one of the most popular singers in Germany, so listening to her music, you’ll be right on the pulse of German music today.
- Söhne Mannheims. The Söhne Mannheims are a German band from, you guessed it, Mannheim. They sing German pop and soul music. Because of their clear (and mostly slow) pronunciation, they’re ideal for beginners looking to integrate some German music into their studies.
Obviously there are many, many other singers or bands to choose from. Some of them you might even know already. A quick online search will give you endless options, from Rammstein to Rosenstolz, Tokio Hotel to Die Ärzte or Modern Talking. You’ll find something that you’ll enjoy for sure!
Germany has a long history of film and television, and is on the international stage when it comes to technical innovations, the creation of new genres, etc. The first movie theater for a paying audience like we know today was even opened in Berlin. From black-and-white films to popular movies, music videos, documentaries and animations, you’ll definitely find something that suits your taste amongst German film productions.
There are some German movies that have become well-known internationally as well. A few examples are: “Das Parfum,” “Lola rennt,” “Der Untergang,” “Sophie Scholl,” “Das Boot,” “Nirgendwo in Afrika”… and the list goes on.
Like music, movies are also a good way to learn the current language and culture of the time. Since a lot of German directors are inclined to a more realistic feel, they’re definitely a great way to deepen your understanding of German culture and lifestyle, as long as you’re watching a currently-set movie, of course.
A great way to follow German film is by keeping up with your favorite German actors. Some of them you might even already know and like from English-language movies, not realizing that they’re German and may work in their native language as well. A few you may already be familiar with are:
- Franka Potente. Probably most well-known for her part in “The Bourne Identity,” Franka Potente gained international popularity early on in her career. After participating in a number of Hollywood productions, she returned to Germany to continue her career working mainly on local projects.
Some of her most successful films worth checking out are “Lola rennt,” “Der Krieger und die Kaiserin,” “Nach Fünf im Urwald” and “Anatomie.” All of them were received very well by the public. So even though, language-wise, they might be best suited for intermediate to advanced learners, everyone with an interest in German film should know about them.
- Diane Kruger. Arguably the most internationally-famous German actress at the moment, Diane Kruger has worked mainly on French- and English-language movies (including “Troy” and “Inglourious Basterds”). After working as a dancer and then a model, she went on to become an actress and relocated to Paris.
She has never actually had a role in a German production so far, but she has expressed interest in doing so, so we might see her in her first German-speaking part sometime soon!
- Thomas Kretschmann. Thomas Kretschmann became an actor after finishing a career as a swimmer. He has mainly (although not exclusively) taken part in US productions (“King Kong,” “The Pianist,” “Blade 2”) and often portrays similar characters in Germany-themed historical movies.
If you want to watch some German-language movies he had parts in, try “Schneeland,” “Die wilden Hühner und die Liebe” or the very well received “Warum Männer nicht zuhören und Frauen schlecht einparken.”
Of course, there’s the never-ending debate over whether you should watch a movie with subtitles in German, in English or with no subtitles at all to best learn the language while watching. This all depends on how you’re approaching your learning at the time. In the case of doing the exercises above, using either type of subtitles can help you figure out meanings to words, but you can always follow up by testing your comprehension without them.
There’s nothing wrong with watching a movie in your native language first and then in German, so you’ll know the story and won’t get frustrated by not understanding the plot. German subtitles may be preferable if you’re more of a visual learner, and more advanced learners can benefit from watching a movie no subtitles at all in order to learn new language as they would in a normal, everyday situation.
Some learners may find reading more difficult than listening and some may find it easier, but just like the two other options above, there’s no reason you can’t take it and tailor it specifically to your needs and your level of German.
Obviously, there’s a plethora of literature to choose from if you want to add layers to your German knowledge. Maybe even more so than with music and film, you can specify the content to work with subjects you really enjoy. You can find literary masterpieces of poetry, books about social sciences or philosophy and even first-hand historical accounts such as diaries.
The upside to studying through written material is that you can really take your time. Unlike with a movie or a song, here you don’t have to pause to take notes, translate and repeat until you understand completely and move on.
Especially in the beginning, reading might feel like the usual studying you do in a class, but as soon as you find a story you really enjoy, or when you find that your favorite magazine has a German version as well, you won’t be able to stop reading!
Speaking of which, you can really benefit from broadening your definition of “reading” and going beyond books. Magazines are a great resource for those who don’t feel comfortable reading whole books yet.
Here are a few sources to get you started with authentic German reading:
- Literatur Wissen lets you filter your search by author, genre or even era of literature.
- The web version of MosaLingua provides you with a library of authentic content carefully selected for learners, so you can learn and practice new German words and phrases in context. You can use their translation tool to get instant definitions and even create flashcards from content as you browse.
- Some examples of online magazines for you to check out are the German version of Cosmopolitan, the political and cultural magazine Deutschland and the movie magazine Cinema, just to name a few. Because of the shorter and varied texts magazines have, they’re an option suited especially well to beginners.
- As always, the Goethe Institut is a great resource as well. On their website, you’ll find plenty of articles with reading recommendations.
With all three of the above-mentioned types of resources, it’s important to remember that the beginning is usually the most difficult part.
Sure, after watching a few movies in German and not understanding anything, you might think that you’ll never get it down and want to give up. Or you might start reading the first pages of a book just to want to throw it against the wall and go back to reading your old magazine.
In these cases, try to aim for a less-drastic, middle-ground option. For example, if a novel is too difficult, try an easy story instead. Vary and simplify your sources when you need to, charge ahead when you’re ready, and without even noticing at first, you’ll begin to increase your vocabulary and comprehension.
The key is to really find something that interests you, no matter if it’s watching a German TV series or listening to a great singer.
The methods in this post can be a great way to keep yourself motivated. They can also be a significant step in your German learning and a way to build a strong base for advanced learning.
Following a study plan like the above can really help prepare you for that next step, whether it be a trip to a German-speaking country, starting to take formal lessons or finding a language partner.
Studying what you already love about the language helps build confidence and broadens your skills tremendously.