Motivation is the key to easily learn anything.
You are motivated when you are interested in what you learn. From my experience, grammar and vocabulary are things that students are learning but not necessarily interested in, which is why they tend to forget them as they stop repeating them. If you have found yourself to be one such kind of learner, make your learning process fun by filling it with content that you enjoy.
Television is a platform that offers you a wide range of topics, among which you will certainly find one that sparks your curiosity. In the following article, I am presenting you a list of German TV formats that I would recommend to a student if he / she asked me for it. Using the program MediathekView, you can legally stream all formats or download them including subtitles (if available).
Use German TV shows in accordance with your level of progress.
If you feel like you don’t understand much of what you hear and see, your primary concern should be to translate the subtitles into your native tongue. How you can go about this, I described here.
If you feel like you do understand what’s going on but don’t yet feel comfortable speaking in German, then your primary concern should be to slow down the video (VLC Player has this function) and repeat after the voices with one second of time interval between what you hear and your reproduction of it.
Notice that I said “if you feel like…”. There is a very pronounced difference between knowing and feeling: Being able to understand every single German word differs from “kind-of-grasping” what the whole sentence is about. This sort of grasping has less to do with knowing than with sensing. And since TV is largely entertaining, that is, of sensational nature, turning German TV shows into your personal learning material sets the right conditions for you to develop a feeling for the German language.
Once you open MediathekView and the download of the latest database is completed, you will be able to choose from two drop down menus on the left side: Sender (= channel) and Thema (= topic). (Some people with an English user interface reported that the program automatically switched to English. This did not work for everyone, though.) Thus, you can either filter by channel or by format or both. At the end of this article, you will find a table that summarizes all formats that I am about to present.
Länder – Menschen – Abenteuer (literally: Countries – People – Adventures)
This documentary series shows selected places, people, plants or animals, e.g. the US east coast, herbs in the Alps, and the Azores. You will see a lot of calming panoramic views that are accompanied by instrumental music. The documentaries also feature interviews with locals, and they render a picture of how these locals live in metropoles as well as in remote areas. There is some voice-over by a narrator who speaks relatively slow compared to other TV formats.
Weltreisen (literally: World Travels)
Weltreisen is similar to Länder-Menschen-Abenteuer but shorter and with a more coherent and faster voice-over by a narrator. In addition to scenery and foreign cultures, this format will also cover challenges that people in certain regions are facing, e.g. the condition of the Great Barrier Reef or the introduction of an experimental unconditional basic income in Finland. Thus, this format looks at people and regions from a more political angle.
Entdeckung der Welt – Leben anderswo (literally: Discovery of the world – Life elsewhere)
Leben anderswo portrays countries, remote regions, or cultural peculiarities. It consists of the format 360° Reportage (which is again a documentary series of its own) and individual documentaries. Just like Länder – Menschen – Abenteuer, this format provides rather unbiased documentations of people and their way of life. Topics include Bhutan, Ayurvedic practices in India, and the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka.
makro (literally: macro)
makro may actually be the most informative and in-depth covering German TV format on economics. It investigates economic trends, challenges, and changes in a highly critical way. In almost every issue, the anchor-woman interviews a professor or lecturer from a German university on the topic at hand. Sometimes, you will even hear these experts speak their mind about their latest research, e.g.: “The minister of finance has saved 50 billion euros last year due to low interest rates. Actually, he could give this money back to the people".
As the name suggests, makro primarily focuses on macroeconomic relations. Topics range from the origin and validity of economic measures (such as BIP) to the impact of online commerce, the comeback of the Russian economy, and the growth rate as well as development of the international market of soy beans.
Made in Germany
Unlike makro, Made in Germany deals with broad economic contexts by focusing on several specific cases, e.g. Volkswagen as a representative for the automobile emissions affair, or a German producer of credit card chips as a representative for the trend of noncash payment.
For most of this format’s duration time you will see interviews with consumers, CEOs, and researchers (also inside labs). The anchor-man does not interact with the content as much as in makro. His main task is to introduce the reports and make the transitions among them.
Quarks & Co.
This format is presented by Ranga Yogeshwar, a physicist and science journalist from Luxemburg. He is well-known for hosting the short TV show Wissen vor acht in which he breaks down a complex topic in not more than 145 seconds just before the 8 o’clock news at night. In Quarks & Co., Mr. Yogeshwar does the same in about 45min, making topics like genes, volcanoes, or virtual reality understandable for everyone who is yet unfamiliar with them.
Sometimes, this format even performs new or replicates existing research like, for example, selling bananas on an outdoor market for 19 cents per kilogram in order to measure the impact of supposedly fair prices on buyers’ behavior.
Tele-Akademie (literally: Tele-Academy)
The Tele-Akademie may be the most accurate scientific format on German TV since it features only recorded lectures of German university professors at institutions other than universities. Remarkable lectures include Viktor E. Frankl’s (“Man’s Search For Meaning”) speech on the meaning of life in the technological society, and Gerd Gigerenzer’s (one of Germany’s most pronounced experts in the field of educational science) speech on intuition.
If I had to put this format in a nutshell, I would call it “science alive”. Two reporters – one German, one French (since the broadcasting channel is a Franco-German cooperation) – dig into topics like the formation of soil erosion, swarm intelligence, and dietary fasting. A characteristic of Xenius is that the two reporters visit sites and locations that are directly linked to the topic at hand. Sometimes, they will visit a lab to test the solidity of a human tooth, on other occasions they will walk with a dog through town asking 50 people to estimate its weight in order to measure the utility of swarm intelligence.
Society / Sport / Cooking
Precht is a format named after its host Richard David Precht, a well-known contemporary German philosopher. In every issue, Mr. Precht discusses a topic of social or socio-economic importance with a guest like Jean Claude Juncker (President of the European Commission) or the chairman of the German Institute for Economic Research. What makes this format unique is the fact that the two participants sit facing each other at an illuminated table while the surrounding is completely dark. Topics include the power of numbers in our modern society, our handling of nature, and why some peoples on earth still haven’t changed from war to peace.
Kerners Köche (literally: Kerner’s Cooks)
The host of this show, Johannes B. Kerner, has moderated countless shows on German TV for almost thirty years. In this show, he welcomes four famous cooks from the German-speaking region who hold a contest among each other for the best cooked dish. There will be a new composition of guests every time, featuring cooks like Johann Lafer, Alfons Schuhbeck, and Sarah Wiener, some of who run restaurants with a Michelin star. After the show you can download the recipes for all the prepared dishes as a PDF from zdf.de.
Sportschau (literally: Sports Show)
Although not subtitled, the Sportschau may be the format that most comprehensively covers big sport events – whether national or international – on German public TV. It broadcasts the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea as well as handball, table tennis, ski-jumping, and soccer.
Tatort (literally: Crime scene)
Tatort very likely is the most popular thriller series on German public TV. The protagonists’ roles consist of one or two officers of the criminal investigation department of a German or Swiss city. Every Tatort fan has his or her own favourite team of officers. Among the most popular are the duos from Cologne (Köln) and Munster (Münster). Tatort episodes are usually independent of each other. The crime to be investigated often is embedded in a broader social, political, or economic context.
Gefragt – Gejagt (literally: Asked – Chased)
If you are from the US, UK, or Russia, you may know this show as The Chase or Погоня, respectively. In Gefragt – Gejagt, a team of four players competes against the chaser (der Jäger). The game features three stages: In the beginning, each of the four players has to answer as many question as possible in under 60 seconds, with every correct answer increasing the player’s cash builder depot. Then, each of the players faces the chaser in a quiz duel to defend the money gained in the first stage. Lastly, the cash depots of those players who successfully “escaped” the chaser are added up, and the remaining players enter the finale to compete as a team against the chaser.
Here is a chart of some previously mentioned TV shows, their broadcasting channel, the availability of subtitles, and the length of each episode:
Jan is a language geek and a passionate teacher on iTalki. Furthermore, he created the platform www.LanguageFeeling.com to help language learners develop a feeling for their target language and speak more intuitively.
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