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Love Island: The unlikely tool that helped me learn German

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Katie Wilson - [email protected]
Love Island: The unlikely tool that helped me learn German
The British reality show has become an international franchise, with versions airing in Germany, Australia and the US. Photo: DPA

British student Katie Wilson explains how she pushed through the inevitable language barriers of her year abroad in Germany using the most unlikely tool: hit reality show Love Island.


When I arrived in Berlin to commence my year abroad, I’d been studying German for two years at university and my language skills were reaching a plateau. I could read a chapter of Kafka, or conjugate the verbs in a grammar exercise, but I’d find myself stuttering and constantly asking “wie bitte?” whenever I had a real-life conversation with a real-life German. 

My knowledge of vocabulary was strong, however new words I learned at university seemed to just be falling out of my head. Probably because I was learning German like it was a dead language. Highlighting a word, searching it up on an online dictionary, then moving on. Not the best way to memorize vocabulary. 

So, I was optimistic about spending six months in Berlin, immersed in the language with plenty of chances to have German conversations (something that definitely doesn’t happen enough in British universities). 

Language Beyond Academia

The first few days and weeks after moving to Berlin were a tad overwhelming, as expected. Like any foreigner arriving in Germany, I had to navigate a new city, get used to the public transport system, and remember that the 'Biomarkt' was shut on a Sunday. 

However one thing that surprised me was how little I knew of everyday, essential German vocabulary, and how much of my university vocabulary was - quite frankly - useless. 

For example, after spending 10 minutes trying to buy a U-Bahn ticket on a broken machine I asked myself why I’d learned “der Moschuspflanzenthron” (a throne of musk plants) before I’d learned “außer Betrieb” (out of order)? 

I quickly realized that my year abroad was about more than practising how to speak, but about understanding real-life, everyday 21st century Germany beyond an academic setting.

The Love Island villa in Majorca, Spain. Photo: DPA

Love Island: Guilt-free binge watching

Fast-forward to September 9th when German broadcaster RTL II launched the first episode of the third series of Love Island. Though I’d never seen an episode before, Love Island was a phenomenon in my native, the UK, and everyone I knew who’d watched it became addicted after a few episodes. 

So why not give it a go? After all, if it’s in German it counts as being productive, right? 

At first-watch, it gave me a thrill to be watching German TV and understanding it without subtitles. Of course, that’s because all that the Jana Ina Zarrella would say was “mit wem möchtest du vercoupeln?” (who would you like to couple-up with?)

As I watched on, I realized that tuning into reality TV every evening may not be as mind-numbing as many tell you it is.

Reality TV more useful than grammar textbooks? Krass!

For years I’ve been told by German teachers that if I wanted to get a higher mark in speaking exams, I should use words like “geil” and “krass” in order to sound more like a native speaker. 

But I’d always found it impossible to incorporate these words into sentences, as online dictionaries would offer a range of translations for each word depending on context - and it’s hardly like I’d find Kafka using geil!. 

For example, geil is translated as awesome, fertile and horny (among other translations). Whilst three of many translations for krass are blatant, wow and sweet.

But by listening to the islanders speak, it gave me an insight into appropriate contexts to use these colloquial words, meaning I could start to pepper this native-sounding vocabulary into my speech.

READ MORE: 10 ways of speaking German you'll only ever pick up on the street

A different kind of Tagesschau

Compared to high-brow TV such as news programmes, the range of vocabulary used on Love Island is fairly limited. This is no surprise, as how much can you say when you’re living in a villa with no access to the outside world? 

Whilst on the surface this may seem like a hindrance for vocabulary learning, it's in fact very helpful. 

Let’s take an example. During one episode, contestant Danilo "zitterte" (trembled or shook) after he did one too many press-ups. In a later episode, he "zitterte" after his partner Melissa was picked to go on a date with another contestant. 

The likelihood was, after I'd heard a new word spoken on Love Island and searched for it, it would be repeated at some point later in the season. 

So, when the word was repeated, it gave me the opportunity to test my new vocabulary knowledge in a real-life context, cementing the word in my long-term memory. 

This is different to higher brow programmes, which often use a broader range of vocabulary and are therefore less likely to use the same word twice, offering fewer chances to test yourself. 

Even news broadcasts tend to cover new topics everyday, so it’s difficult to listen out for the words you picked up watching earlier editions of the programme. 

The cast of Love Island 2019. Photo: DPA

'My secret weapon to socializing'

During my first meeting with group of German girls I’d met on a Tandem Facebook group, the conversation turned to TV and our favourite programmes to watch in Germany. 

When we discovered that we all watched Love Island, it resulted in an endless conversation of whether Samira was right to give Yasin a second chance, and why Lisa deserved better than Philipp.

Since this first meeting, I’ve seen the girls three times in less than a month, and more gatherings are planned. 

When it came to making friends, it turned out Love Island was my secret weapon to socializing in Berlin.

READ MORE: Dating apps: The unlikely tool that helped me settle in Germany

When I first arrived in Berlin, I had no idea how I would integrate myself into 21st century culture when my majority of knowledge about Germany came directly from the pages of Goethe. 

Using dating apps weren’t an option for me, and the thought of sharing a bathroom with a stranger made me shudder, so a shared apartment was out of the question too. 

Love Island, because of the insights into modern German culture it gave me, and how it regularly forced me to stop whatever I was doing and relax for an hour, was an unexpected treat. 

If you’re not a fan of Love Island, RTL II broadcasts a whole host of reality shows which are filmed across Germany, which could offer students of German a snapshot into the good and the bad of modern life in Germany.

This method of language learning may be unconventional, and reality TV is often something we’re taught to look down our noses at, but it may well be the key for us language-learners to get in touch with 21st century Germany.

You can catch up with the entire series of Love Island on TVNow (no spoilers!)


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