Cast your mind back to when you were growing up—what was Saturday or Sunday morning like?
Did you used to spend hours in front of Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network?
But before you rush off to tune your TV to KiKa and Toon TV or find a website for streaming, we need to start off right at the beginning. If you haven’t watched German cartoons before it’s a good idea to take it easy to begin with and set out with English subtitles until you’re at the top of your listening game.
Why Watch German Cartoons?
It may sound like I’m trying to send you back to Kindergarten by suggesting you watch kids’ TV, but there is a method behind all this madness.
Actually, sending you back to Kindergarten might not be a bad idea, especially if you’re fairly new to learning German. Most cartoons are aimed at a young audience, so the language used in them can be really simple and spoken at a reasonable pace. Thanks to the clarity of the language you’ll be able to hear each and every word being said.
This makes cartoons a great place for beginners to fine tune their listening skills. What’s more, the simple grammar constructs will be easy enough to follow, ensuring you can strengthen your knowledge of the language basics before moving onto advanced aspects.
Advanced learners shouldn’t be put off by thinking cartoons are too easy—there’s actually a great choice of cartoons out there that are aimed at a more mature audience too!
How to Learn German with Cartoons
Keep a vocabulary list! I know we say this whether you’re streaming a German show on Netflix, reading the latest YA novel, or even listening to the current hits, but it really is a valuable exercise. Note down any words and phrases that you don’t understand and keep returning to it. Do everything you can to memorize these words—use flashcards, for instance—so that they end up stuck in your head for good.
Turn your cartoon watching into a social affair! Get your friends around to watch some shows and then afterwards start a discussion, auf Deutsch. Talk about the story—to make sure everyone understood—and also which aspects of it you enjoyed, and which not so much. Try and talk about as much as possible to really ramp up your speaking practice! If you can’t all agree on a cartoon date, you could always watch separately and email each other afterwards.
You could even create a game with the help of a cartoon, one which would enhance your listening skills. Make a list of certain words that you know will come up—think of common ones such as haben (to have), er (he), and über (over). Keep an ear out for these words throughout the program, whoever is first to notice one wins a point! The winner is whoever has the most points at the end of the show.
Finally, you can learn German with cartoons (and other great videos) with FluentU, an online immersion platform. FluentU takes great videos and turns them into language learning experiences so that you can learn real German as people really speak it.
FluentU videos come with interactive captions in German or English, that you can turn on and off as needed. This means you can start enjoying the same content that native speakers actually watch, right now.
Here’s just a quick look at the content FluentU has on offer:
Watching a fun video, but having trouble understanding it? FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive transcripts.
You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used. If you see an interesting word you don’t know, you can add it to a vocab list.
And FluentU isn’t just for watching videos. It’s a complete platform for learning. It’s designed to effectively teach you all the vocabulary from any video. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning, and it recommends you examples and videos based on the words you’ve already learned. This is a level of personalization that hasn’t been done before.
Too many awesome cartoons to choose from? No worries, I’ve picked my 5 favorites to help you get started…
5 German Cartoons with English Subtitles to Animate Your Language Learning
“Die Sendung mit der Maus” (The Program with the Mouse)
“Die Sendung mit der Maus” is one of the cutest cartoons you’ll ever find! And it’s also one of Germany’s most beloved. So much so, in fact, that it’s the country’s most successful TV show ever. It’s been aired every Sunday since 1971—that’s quite some feat for a charming cartoon!
The show takes a magazine format and aims to educate very young children about everyday things in a very straightforward and matter-of-fact way. Educational shorts are then used to take children through often humorous looks at the weekly topic. Previous topics have included how cell phones work and how the Internet works.
But what about the titular Maus (mouse)? He pops up in most clips and acts as a presenter. He also has many different friends who appear in the cartoon section of each program, including “Käpt’n Blaubär” (Captain Bluebear) and “Schnappi das kleine Krokodil” (Schnappi the small crocodile).
Vicco von Bülow was a man of many talents. Not only was he a comedian, film director, actor and writer, but he was also a very talented cartoonist. Bülow worked under the pseudonym Loriot and this was also the name he gave to his series of cartoons and sketches. “Loriot” aired in 1976 and the episodes usually show the cartoonist as the protagonist.
“Loriot” is another excellent choice for beginners as the dialogue is often fairly slow-paced and focused around everyday life—no specialized vocabulary is required to understand! If you’re a German beginner and would rather watch something a bit more refined than “Die Sendung mit der Maus,” this 70s cartoon series offers a sophisticated style of humor without being overly dry.
“Zwölf Monate” (Twelve Months)
I should confess, “Zwölf Monate“ (Twelve Months) isn’t really a German cartoon. It’s actually a Soviet movie from 1956, originally called “Dvenadtsat mesyatsev.”
The movie was directed by “the patriarch of Russian animation,” Ivan Ivanov-Vano. As with most Russian cartoons and animated films from that period, “Zwölf Monate” was dubbed over for the East German audience. Now, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, there are versions of the German version with added English subtitles!
I recommend for “Zwölf Monate” for intermediate German learners. The language isn’t particularly difficult but, due to the age of many of the versions, the audio itself can sound a tiny bit muffled. There are also a couple of archaic terms used throughout, but if you should still be able to enjoy the movie even if you don’t understand these the first time around.
“Nichtlustig” (Not Funny)
“Nichtlustig” is aimed at an older audience and, with that in mind, it’s better for those who have an intermediate to advanced level of German. The cartoon is the brainchild of Joscha Sauer and is comprised of various animated sketches. There’s an underlining dark humor throughout, so be warned that there are some slightly graphic and sexual tones scattered in each episode. It’s not a show to watch with small kids!
However this cutting-edge cartoon is great for language learners. As with the above cartoons aimed at children, the dialogue is very clear and easy to understand. As some of the subjects covered are fairly adult, the vocabulary used could be slightly complicated for beginners.
Another cartoon for an older audience, “Felidae” is a neo-noir thriller all about a crime fighting cat. This cartoon is perfect for competent German speakers, as this feature-length animated film is aimed solely at adults, so you can expect a sophisticated level of German to be used throughout. The dialogue is spoken at a regular pace. If you can understand this cartoon without any difficulty then you know you’re well on your way to perfecting your German listening!
So, you see, we don’t have to go all the way back to Kindergarten after all—not all cartoons are intended for kids!
Whether you do want to get in touch with the child inside you or want a more mature choice of entertainment, the German cartoon world will have something for you!
After studying German and Philosophy at The University of Nottingham, Laura Harker relocated to Berlin in 2012. She now works as a freelance writer and is also assistant editor at Slow Travel Berlin.
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