Learning German by listening to the radio
We’ve all done it. We have all learned a language just by listening to it. The thing is, that we usually do it when we are babies or young children, although research says that it can be done at least until you hit puberty. After that, it becomes much harder, and for most people infeasible, to learn a language using the “baby method”.
When you are a baby, the way that you learn a language is by being fully immersed in it and constantly (or very often) hearing it spoken around you. This leads the young and very malleable brain to create associations between different sounds and meanings that are eventually established enough that they can be reproduced. At that point, the first easy words are said, and this is quickly followed by more complex, if still short, sentences that at first might not even be completely grammatically correct- you’re learning how to talk!
Language learning strategies
The fact that the highest standard in a language is deemed to be that of a “native” or “near native”, depending on whether the language in question is the first acquired and strongest (L1 in linguistic jargon) or a second, still very fluent one (so-called L2), points to the fact that the “baby system” is the best way to learn a language.
For adults, however, this is not really an option because of physiological differences on the one hand, and social conventions on the other – adults are usually expected to be able to communicate with other adults because they can, as long as there is a common language; it is often costly or not socially acceptable to refuse to speak English to a German when you still can’t speak any German just because you want to learn. Imagine refusing to do business because you don’t speak your customer’s language!
Nevertheless, trying to replicate the baby method as closely as you can, within reason, is a good strategy for learning a language because it results in you getting a certain intuitive grasp of it that makes you seem more fluent than you actually are. This is can only be achieved by providing your brain with as much input as you can. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense; the more that you are able to understand without thinking about it, just by hearing it, the more capacity that you are left with to process information at higher levels of meaning and content, and the more “brain power” you have left that can be put to work making sentences.
Because of this, listening to people talking and also, to a lesser extent, listening to people singing, is a great way to improve comprehension and even build up some vocabulary. This is particularly important for languages with a slightly different grammatical structure to what we are used to as English speakers, such as German.
But let’s face it, going around trying to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations might not be the best of ideas. There are many reasons for this: for one, it is plain rude and possibly creepy, and could even end up with a punch in the face or a slap. Even in cases that don’t end up quite as badly, it could also prove difficult as people often speak using dialects, slang or inside jokes that a language student might not understand or even be aware of. It might be that the conversation that they are eavesdropping on is not Standard German at all. It could also be the case that the speakers might not be natives so it might be a linguistic travesty. This strategy has many potential shortcomings!
Know what you listen to, listen to the radio
An easy way to get around the problems caused by many of the above issues is to do something very simple: listen to the radio! German is spoken by around 100 million people in countries that are highly developed and it has a rich literary tradition and a proud history. There are also many, MANY radio stations that are German speaking. Within Germany, the tax levied on every household in the land following the Rundfunkfinanzierungsstaatsvertrag (one of those pesky long German words) meaning radio broadcasting financing contract), means that there is a lot of financing available for radio and television stations and this leads to there being very many public radio stations that produce a lot of content. Austria and Switzerland also have their own public and private radio stations and so do many of the numerous German speaking communities scattered around the world.
In the age of the internet, when radio programmes can be streamed live and are often also available on an on-demand basis or as podcasts, it has never been easier to listen to German speaking radio. It is also interesting to note that many “radio” stations now also offer video content through their web pages and apps.
The following are some German speaking radio stations that you can find online that might be helpful, or fun, or both, in your German language learning journey. The selection is organised by the accent or set of accents that you are most likely to hear if you listen to them, but bearing in mind that standard German, Hochdeutsch, is your target language. Listen to these on your commute, when doing housework, on a rainy Sunday afternoon…and watch your German improve! Enjoy!
As the largest country and the centre (sorry Austria and Switzerland) of the German speaking world, we begin our list with radio stations and broadcasters that are based in Germany.
The first in this selection is Deutsche Welle (German Wave), a German public broadcaster that is aimed at projecting Germany to the outside world by broadcasting TV and radio in 30 languages. Deutsche Welle does not actually broadcast in radio format in German, but it does produce podcasts about various things that can be downloaded. These include an authentic treasure trove for beginners of German because one of DWs stated missions is to provide worldwide access to the German language.
Because of this, it offers standalone courses in the form of stories that can be listened to that are a great complement to any language learning programme catering to levels ranging from absolute beginners to intermediate and upper intermediate learners. These are organised by level and have made this list due to the solid grounding that they can contribute to in terms of getting strong listening comprehension skills.
The ARD is also not a radio station in itself, but rather an umbrella organisation or consortium of public national and regional radio (and television) stations. It is a great way for learners to practice and improve their listening comprehension skills, but anyone that tunes in to any of the ARD stations must already have a fairly solid command of at least the basics of the language in order to be able to follow what is being talked about.
A good idea to get the most out of it when beginning is to listen to the news after glancing at the headlines of an English language newspaper. Seeing the most important international news of the day will effectively serve as sign posts within your mind that will pull your attention, and your understanding, back to what is being said if you are struggling and your mind starts to wander. If you want to push yourself a bit more once you are an advanced learner, the ARD network is also a great source of Schlager, the arguably corny, but catchy and very useful from a language learner’s perspective, German pop and classic songs. Try one of the Schlagerwelt stations!
Completing the list of listening comprehension practice resources (radio stations) from Germany, Deutschlandradio is a German national public radio station with four different channels that is co-owned by ARD and ZDF (Germany’s other public television channel).
Deutschlandradio is made up of Deutschlandfunk, mostly devoted to the news and information in general, Deutschland Kultur, which offers content about culture including radio plays and documentaries, Dokumente und Debatten, which broadcasts parliamentary debates and special events, and Deutschlandfunk Nova, formerly known as DRadio Wissen, which targets a relatively younger audience with a wide range of content presented in an accessible way that makes it ideal for language learners.
Whereas Deutschlandfunk is another good option that is good to build general vocabulary by listening to the news for intermediate to advanced learners and Deutschland Kultur has some interesting programmes, Dokumente und Debatten can get a bit too dense for the average non native speaker.
Deutschlandfunk Nova, however, is an excellent resource for expanding both general and topic specific vocabulary. It is mostly a talk-only station and produces interesting programmes and podcasts about many different topics, providing advanced students of German with the exposure to vocabulary that they would usually not get in everyday conversations. Because it targets a relatively younger audience, it manages to avoid becoming a drag and feels like listening in on conversations that are taking place between knowledgeable friends, or lively University tutorials or seminars about a wide range of subjects. A favourite for more advanced learners.
From Austria and Switzerland
Austria and the German speaking part of Switzerland also have plenty of radio stations, but unless you live or intend to live in these two countries, or you are a very advanced learner looking for a challenge, you might find listening to some of these a little too difficult, even if they are not broadcasting in any local dialect, but merely have a strong accent.
Radio in Austria has an unusual history in that until 1995, public radio, the ORF (Österreichischer Rundfunk) had a monopoly on radio broadcasting in Austria, and it was not until 2001 that commercial radio stations were allowed to broadcast at the national level. The ORF remains the most important radio station in Austria and compared with other countries the offer is still rather small. Most broadcasting is done in standard German with an Austrian accent that might throw off many people that are not used to it, depending on how strong it is.
Besides the accent being a bit challenging, Austrian radio stations are oten not as good as German ones for learning German because they tend to play a lot of music and have a relatively limited offer of spoken content. Nevertheless, no list of German speaking radio stations could be complete without mentioning Austrian ones!
The problem with Swiss radio, from the perspective of a German language learner, is that they don’t always broadcast in the same language, German that is. They sometimes broadcast in HochDeutsch with a very strong local accent and they sometimes have programmes in Schweizerdeutsch. This makes it kind of hit and miss, and if you happen to tune in, it might take you a couple of minutes to be able to determine IF the language they are speaking is standard German or not (the accent can be that strong, yes).
If you do decide to give it a try, Radio 4 (SRF 4) is probably your best option. It is the most talk centered station in the Swiss German speaking public radio landscape, and one where Hochdeutsch is often spoken, with only a mild Swiss touch.
If you are feeling more adventurous, try SRF 1 or SRF 3. These two often feature presenters with a much stronger Swiss accent. If they are speaking Hochdeutsch, it can happen that their accent is sometimes so strong that even very advanced learners are going to find it challenging to follow. Don’t despair though. Many Germans from Germany, particularly from the north, would feel exactly the same! To give you some perspective, it can be kind of like someone from the United States trying to understand a strong Glasgow accent.
Finally, if you want to be surprised by the accent greeting you across the airwaves (or down the dsl cable) in German, you can try SBS radio German
SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) radio is an Australian radio station that was thought up for people living in Australia with different linguistic backgrounds that are not English-speaking. Their German language section offers an antipodean perspective of the world in German and could be thought of as a kind of potluck affair in terms of the accents that you are likely to hear spoken. This is because the presenters and topics are drawn from the whole of the German speaking world. In terms of the topics, there are often feature reports that revolve around other German communities outside of Germany in places where German is very much a minority language but where communities that speak it exist, such as Namibia, Argentina, the United States – or Australia, of course.
From the perspective of a language learner, SBS is a great way to “keep you on your feet”, since you might be listening to someone with a strong Swiss accent one minute and someone that is originally from Hamburg the next.
The above are some handpicked radio stations and resources to help you to improve your listening comprehension and develop your vocabulary in German. Bear in mind that except for Deutsche Welle’s course, these are real life radio stations and not designed with learners in mind. If you want a gentler introduction, you could do much worse than to work your way up to them after starting out in our media section. Listening comprehension does kind of follow the old adage of publicity though, and just like “any publicity is good publicity”, so is “any practice good practice”. Keep at it!