Today, we are going to travel back in time. To your childhood.
Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean we will analyze how being pushed over on the playground at age four is making you feel inadequate in social situations today (you need a professional for that).
Instead, I want you to think about how you first learned to speak. About how, when you were little, you acquired your first language.
I mean, nobody plans on becoming fluent in their mother tongue, right?
It’s not like you sat down and start studying textbooks in your crib.
Or learned to speak by crawling over newspapers.
Plus, depending on your age, the Internet probably wasn’t really around that much yet, so reading blogs or watching YouTube videos was out.
It just sort of happens. You pick up things from your surroundings and the things you do on a daily basis.
You probably learned words from the children’s books your parents read to you.
Or by watching your favorite movies and TV series.
And of course the conversations happening around you.
In that way, most people’s early language learning is very similar.
However, for children growing up in Germany, there is a particular medium which isn’t as common in other countries and which therefore plays a unique role in their early language acquisition.
The thing that I am talking about (and your word of the day) is das Hörspiel.
Das Hörspiel—a German cultural mainstay
The rough translation of Hörspiel is audio drama. It is a story told in audio form for entertainment much like audio books.
Audio dramas hold a special place in German culture. Talk to any German about their favorite Hörspiel and you are bound to get into a longer conversation. Almost everyone in Germany used to listen to them in their youth and many continue to do so into adulthood.
Childhood heroes like Benjamin Blümchen, the talking elephant or the teenage detectives of TKKG (don’t worry, you will learn more about both of them below), hold a special place in the hearts of many. I myself can still quote from some of my favorite cassettes (!) from back then.
Sounds great, but how are Hörspiele different from audio books?
I’m glad you asked.
It’s true, the line between audio dramas and audio books can be a bit blurry and there are certainly some things out there that could qualify as both. However, audio dramas really are a genre for themselves.
One of the main differences between the two mediums is that audio dramas are never just stories or books read out by one person. They are acted out storylines complete with different voice actors, sound effects and music. You should think of them as films without the visual part.
Of course, if you particularly enjoy the visual part, and want to pair it with native-speaker German audio, you might want to try FluentU.
With interactive captions that give instant definitions, pronunciations and additional usage examples, plus fun quizzes and multimedia flashcards, FluentU is a complete learning package.
Check it out with the free trial! You can even use it to make your own Hörspiele by listening to the audio by itself.
Audio drama production in Germany
Not surprisingly, Germany is the country which produces, sells and listens to the most audio dramas. Around 500 labels are competing for the attention of listeners. New releases of the most successful series Die drei ??? (more on that below) regularly reach gold status and overall sells 1.5 million copies every year!
However, that is not the only remarkable thing about this medium.
Audio killed the radio star
Originally, audio dramas were produced for the radio. Yet, when they became more and more popular, companies started producing and selling them as standalone works alongside music recordings.
The voices of the actors in some of the most successful audio dramas are recognized all over Germany. Since generations have grown up with them, people of all age groups are familiar with the sound of their voices but wouldn’t be able to spot them on the street.
Audio dramas are serious business
Though mostly made for children, producing audio dramas is no child’s play. The technical demands are unexpectedly high and among the most expensive to produce (alongside orchestra recordings).
One of the reasons is that the facilities for Hörspiel production have to be quite elaborate. Each comes with rooms in several sizes so as to be able to simulate different environments. They also sport a range of floor surfaces for sound effects and other shenanigans. At the same time, in order to avoid acoustic interference and echoes, no Hörspiel studio can have any parallel walls.
Why you should listen to German audio dramas
Now that you are well educated in the importance of audio dramas for the German market, it’s time to look at the many good reasons for you to give this medium a go.
Easy to understand
Though many adults continue to listen to stories in audio form, the majority is aimed at children and young people. Consequently, their topics and language are easy to understand and therefore perfect for beginner students of German.
Plus, as we have learned earlier, a lot of effort goes into the production of audio dramas. Practiced speakers deliver the lines clearly and at a comfortable tempo. This lets you practice your listening skills with clearly-spoken everyday German.
Audio dramas are one of those things that, when included in your German practice, can be as enjoyable as they are instructive. I mean, there must be a reason why adults keep listening to their favorite series, right? Plus, finding your study material interesting can’t be bad for motivation.
A real piece of German culture
Audio dramas are a perfect gateway to experience some genuine German culture. Not only because of their relative importance within the country, but also for the topics they tackle. Examples include:
- German Spießertum (Philistinism)
- Daily life in Germany
- Growing up as a young adult in the country
- German school in different decades
And much more. Plus, if you know some of the series below, I promise it’ll be a real ice breaker in conversations with natives.
12 Awesome German Audio Drama Series to Get You Hooked
Ok, now that we have you all excited, I don’t want to torture you any longer. Below is a list of many beloved audio drama series in Germany. Many of them are available on YouTube, so you can even listen to them for free.
1. Die drei ???
Ok, so first of all the question marks are part of the name. This is not an example of someone expressing extreme incredulity, but is actually pronounced Die drei Fragezeichen (The Three Question Marks).
Die drei ??? is the most successful audio drama series in Germany and has sold a whopping 45 million cassettes, records, CDs and downloads since its inception in 1968. This series alone makes up 40% of the entire audio drama market in Germany and has even spawned a live-theater version where the original voice actors bring new episodes to life on stage.
The series follows three young detectives from California by the names of Justus Jonas, Peter Shaw and Bob Andrews. “Three Question Marks” is the name of their investigation agency. Over time they have solved many mysteries, crimes and riddles. Many older episodes are available as free downloads or can be found on YouTube.
2. Benjamin Blümchen
In case you were thrown by the mention of a talking elephant before, it is this series’ fault. Benjamin Blümchen chronicles the adventures of its eponymous hero and his (human) friend Otto. Whether traveling to Africa, recovering a treasure from the sea or becoming a soccer goalie, this elephant has done it all.
Many of his adventures can be found for free on Spotify (alternatively copy the name into your Spotify search bar). This one is aimed at a younger demographic, so it’s easy to understand.
3. Bibi Blocksberg
The little witch Bibi Blocksberg lives in the same city as the aforementioned elephant. That shouldn’t be a suprise since both series appear on the same label. Sometimes their story lines even cross over!
However, when not mingling with her counterpart from the zoo, Bibi is busy having magical adventures together with her family and friends all over the place. You can experience them either on YouTube or on Spotify. Again, this series is more aimed at beginners who will benefit from its easy language.
The title of this audio drama series is an acronym of the starting letters of its four protagonists’ first names (Tarzan/Tim, Karl, Klößchen, Gabi). Much like Die drei ??? this series revolves around a group of junior detectives. The team of youngsters, with Tarzan/Tim as their leader (his name changes in later episodes) solve crimes and help victims of wrongdoing. Very catchy theme tune, be warned!
5. Fünf Freunde
This series is based on the successful children’s book series Famous Five by the late Enid Blyton. It revolves around five friends (duh!): Georgina, Julian, Richard, Anne and the dog Timmy.
Curiously, TKKG also has a dog of the same name. Coincidence? I don’t think so. It appears that the German series was modeled after the original Fünf Freunde, who are also in the habit of solving all sorts of mysteries and crimes.
The series was first turned into an audio experience in 1975 and new episodes continue to be published to this day. You find Fünf Freunde as a free online stream.
6. Das Sams
Das Sams is an invention of children’s book author Paul Maar and was first published in book form in 1973. It is the name of a wondrous and loud creature with a pig-like nose, red hair and frog feet. Its most stunning characteristic, however, are the blue spots on its face that have the power to grant wishes.
Both the book and audio series are favorites among German children and have been turned into live-action movies in recent years. You can find the first edition as a free stream here and on Spotify.
7. Urmel aus dem Eis
Talking about strange creatures, Urmel is another one of them. The friendly and child-like dinosaur is well-known by many people of all generations through a classic puppet theater TV series named Augsburger Puppenkiste. Some years back, the story of Urmel aus dem Eis was also turned into an animated film. A Hörspiel version is also available and can be found on Spotify for free.
8. Pettersson und Findus
The farmer Pettersson and his cat Findus are also part of the collection of German children’s books for beginners. The oddball pair has many adventures that are entertaining for young and old. Some of them have been turned into audio dramas and can be found on Spotify as well.
9. Asterix und Obelix
If you haven’t grown up in Europe, you might not be familiar with these two Frenchmen. The adventures of Asterix the Gaul and his buddy Obelix who resist the Roman occupation of their country are favorites among cartoon-loving children.
What started out as books soon branched out into movies, fan articles and even an amusement park (look it up!). Therefore it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that the stories of the magic potion-chugging friends found their way into the audio drama section.
10. Ronja Räubertochter
The story of Ronja, daughter of the leader of a band of robbers (Räubertochter literally means “robber’s daughter”) is a classic by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren. The audio version—quite frankly—scared the crap out of me as a little kid because of the harpies who make an appearance in the story. Scary stuff! If you feel up for it (I still don’t), the full version can be found on YouTube.
11. Das fliegende Klassenzimmer
And another classic of German children’s literature. Das fliegende Klassenzimmer (“The flying classroom) is a novel from 1933 written by Erich Kästner. Its story revolves around a bunch of German middle schoolers and their quarrels with members of another school. It has been turned into several movies over the last decades and also found its way onto tapes and CDs.
The last series on the list is for more mature audiences. The eponymous police inspector Kurt Wallander, penned by Henning Mankell, solves murder cases around his hometown of Ystad in southern Sweden.
The book series was a hit worldwide, with German audiences included. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that some of the stories have been turned into audio dramas for the German market, two of which are available for free online:
German audio dramas in a nutshell
It seems like audio dramas are as German as Bratkartoffeln (pan-fried potatoes) and Weißbier (wheat beer, especially in Southern Germany). They are beloved by young and old and continue to be a relevant medium in their biggest worldwide market.
That is certainly good news for you German students, who can tap into this treasure trove of content. Since there are Hörspiele for every audience, learners of every level can benefit from the listening practice they provide.
High production value and entertainment factor mixed with easy-to-understand content form a recipe for learning success. At the same time, since many grow up with this stuff, listeners not only broaden their vocabulary but also their understanding of German culture.
And One More Thing...
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