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GERMAN LANGUAGE

‘Our audience is so diverse’: What it’s like to teach German from Berlin’s streets

Online videos helping people learn languages have exploded in popularity. And Easy German, is one such success story. Stefano Montali hit the streets in Berlin to find out what it's like to help people around the world learn German.

The Easy German team Chris Thornberry, Carina Schmid, Janusz Hamerski and Manuel Salmann in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin.
The Easy German team Chris Thornberry, Carina Schmid, Janusz Hamerski and Manuel Salmann in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. Photo: Anna Lenart

On a recent, chilly afternoon, I headed to Prenzlaur Berg to visit the first street in Berlin that I knew well, despite never having been on it: Kastanienallee. To many German language learners, this street is familiar, but not for its name or because any significant historical event happened here. It’s familiar because it’s the unofficial set for the candid, on-street interviews created by the Easy German YouTube channel. 

In the videos, a host – usually Carina Schmid (known as Cari) or Janusz Hamerski, the channel’s founders – walks the street and surrounding area, asking questions to passersby in German.

Questions like, “Who is your favourite philosopher?” or “What do you think of Angela Merkel?” elicit a range of responses, which is exactly the point. Because later on, once the videos are edited and posted on YouTube, they’ll include subtitles in English and German, which makes it easier for learners to understand how people really speak “auf die Straße,” aka “on the street”.  

READ ALSO: Where in the world are more people learning German?

German learners around the world

Easy German began in 2005 in Münster, North Rhine-Westphalia, when Janusz ran an after-school media group that worked with students on digital projects. They got word one day that two girls in Vietnam were trying to learn German, so he and the group decided to head out onto the street and make a video that showed the girls some German words. A few months after, Janusz tells me, YouTube came online, so he uploaded the video and it got popular, fast. 

Sixteen years later, the channel has more than one million subscribers, and that’s not including those who learn different languages from the 13 other channels (Easy French, Easy Spanish, etc.) that exist within the Easy Languages family. Overall, the team has around 100 people involved in the project. 

On Kastanienallee, I’m catching up with Cari and a guest host, Emanuel Schuchart from YourDailyGerman. Together, the three of us head down the street to ask people, “What do you think about Elon Musk?” After a few “nein danke”s (no thanks) and “lieder nicht”s (unfortunately nots)  we get one yes, then two, and then we’re rolling. Cari tells me it’s like that sometimes. 

As Emanuel speaks to a German couple, and Cari films, Janusz rides up on his bike and joins me behind the camera. He tells me about their philosophy when interviewing: “We always remember that we’re the invader. We’re coming into people’s personal space. So even when they don’t want to answer, that’s okay. We give them a thumbs up and show them that we’re still on their side.”

Different ways of learning German

There are around 15.4 million German (as a foreign language) learners around the world. Claire Kramsch, a professor of German and Foreign Language Acquisition at the University of California, Berkeley, is a native French speaker who now teaches German to mostly native English speakers.

She says that there are differences in the way German is taught, and learned, depending on a person’s mother tongue: “The most difficult thing about German are the features that are different from French: word order, sentence structure, cases, adjective endings, gender of nouns, compound nouns,” she said.

“For an American, the difficulties are less, because American teachers are less strict about grammatical accuracy and reward more communicative ability and fluency.” 

READ ALSO: 10 words and phrases that will make you sound like a true German

Cari Schmidt and the Easy German team interview people on the streets of Berlin. Photo: Anna Lenart

Many German learners study the language in school, but others (like myself) use YouTube channels such as Learn German with Anja (800k subscribers), Learn German (901k subscribers) lingoni German (717k subscribers), and of course, Easy German. These channels can provide a helpful complement to classroom language learning, or serve as a more holistic primary approach to acquiring German. 

After a few years of working on Easy German in Münster, Janusz and Cari moved to the German capital, in order to devote more time to the growing project. They chose Berlin hoping that they’d find “people with more diverse answers”. And they did. As they became more consistent with publishing videos, their online audience and community grew to span all ages and nationalities. 

For example, while having dinner one night, Janusz and Cari were approached by two 20 year-olds who had seen their videos on TikTok. Simultaneously, a well-dressed older couple approached to say hello; they turned out to be the Australian ambassador and his wife. The ambassador had learned German…you guessed it, on the Easy German YouTube channel. Even as I walk the street with them, a woman working at a nearby shop recognises them, and comes out to say hello. I must admit, her German is way better than mine. 

But the videos aren’t only watched and appreciated by people inside Germany. A few years ago, Janusz and Cari went on a world tour and met fans in places like Denmark, Mexico, Singapore, Poland, Taiwan, the US, and Vietnam. Someone even called out “Cari! Janusz!” on the train in Tokyo.

“These trips were really meaningful to us mostly because we learned that this audience that we have is so diverse and has different backgrounds and, and also expectations,” Cari says. 

Cari Schmidt interviewing people in Berlin
Cari Schmidt interviewing people in Berlin. Photo: Anna Lenart

‘We are the characters in language books’

Their YouTube channel has allowed them to transcend borders, just like the language that they teach. “When you’re in school and learning languages, you always have like these characters in books that would guide you through the learning journey. And I feel like now we are such characters in a way,” Cari says. 

With that popularity, she sometimes feels a heightened sense of responsibility: “I think that our videos don’t represent the full picture of Germany. In a way, we might even contribute to creating an illusion because we talk to people in the streets who look kind of happy or interesting.”

That said, for more than a million followers worldwide, the Easy German channel is a place for community and learning. The comment sections on their videos are some of the most positive I’ve seen on YouTube (well, except for that one video about Donald Trump). 

Cari says, “​​There are a few people who really enjoy the process of language learning, but for many people it’s [a] joy and [a] struggle. Being a friend in this period of people’s life is just nice. I would want to have a friend when I go to another country, too.” 

As we wrap up the shoot, I ask Janusz a last question: why do the videos almost always centre around this street, Kastanienalle.  “It’s the big sidewalks,” Janusz explains, “they’re great for stopping people and having a chat.”

And, of course, that’s when the magic happens. 

How tricky is to grasp German?

According to Cari and Janusz, these are the most common difficulties German learners say they face:

  • Understanding the German articles. The change in gender can be confusing, even after years of living amongst the language. 
  • Getting to know the popular German idioms. Germans use a lot of sayings in their conversations, which may not make much sense if you haven’t heard one before. Confusing word order doesn’t help, either. 
  • Working up the courage to speak. Like in any language, getting yourself to try out German can be tough at first.The sooner you get out there, the quicker your acquisition will be. 

Are you learning German, or do you speak the language? What are your tips for other learners? Please let us knows at [email protected] or leave a comment.

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

10 words to help you enjoy the German summer

Summer has arrived in Germany, so we’ve put together a list of ten words to help you navigate the hottest season.

10 words to help you enjoy the German summer

1. (die) Sommersprossen

A close-up of a woman with prominent freckles.

A close-up of a woman with prominent freckles. Photo: pa/obs/myBody / Shutterstock | Irina Bg

The German word for ‘freckles’, translates literally as “summer sprouts”, as these little spots start to appear on many people’s faces as soon as the sun begins to shine in spring and summer.

2. eincremen

A woman applies sun lotion on a summer's day.

A woman applies sun lotion on a summer’s day. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

To help protect against sunburn, it’s important to use a lot of sunscreen during warm summer days in Germany. Thanks to the magic of German separable verbs, there is a specific word for applying creme to the skin – eincremen – which can also be used to talk about applying sun lotion.

Examples:

Den gesamten Körper vor dem Aufenthalt in der Sonne eincremen

Apply creme to the entire body before sun exposure.

Einmal eincremen reicht nicht, um die Haut einen ganzen Tag lang vor Sonne zu schützen.

It’s not enough to apply sun cream just once to protect the skin from the sun for a whole day.

3. (die) Hundstage

A dog lies exhausted on the stones of a terrace in summer temperatures.

A dog lies exhausted on the stones of a terrace in summer temperatures. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Martin Gerten

‘Dog days’ are colloquially referred to in Europe as the hottest period in summer from July 23rd to August 23rd.

The term ‘dog days’ dates back to the 14th century and was originally associated with the first appearance of the star Sirius of the “Great Dog” constellation. However, due to the changing position of the Earth’s axis, the time period has shifted by about four weeks.

Nevertheless, you’ll still hear people all over Germany referring to the “Hundstage.”

4. eisgekühlt

A glass of mineral water with ice and lemon.

A glass of mineral water with ice and lemon. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

There’s nothing better than cooling off with a refreshing, ice-cold drink on a hot summer day, so make sure to use this word at the beach bar to specify that you want your drinks at a near-zero temperature!

Examples:

Das Kokoswasser schmeckt am besten eisgekühlt.

The coconut water tastes best ice-cold.

5. (die) Waldbrandstufe

A sign on a forest path indicates forest fire level five.

A sign on a forest path indicates forest fire level five. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-centralpicture | Soeren Stache

The Waldbrandstufe – meaning forest fire level – is a warning system that has been used in all German states since 2014 to indicate the level of forest fire risk, based on the local heat and dryness levels.

Level 1 stands for very low fire risk in forests and level 5 for very high risk. When the Stufe (level) is above 3 or 4, certain measures – such as banning barbecues – will come into force locally.

You will often see the Waldbrandstufe sign in woodland areas, near beaches, or on weather reports over the summer.

Example:

Lagerfeuer werden aufgrund der hohen Waldbrandstufe nicht geduldet.
 
Due to the danger of forest fires campfires will not be tolerated.

6. (der) Strandkorb

Beach chairs stand in sunny weather on the beach in the Baltic resort of Binz on the island of Rügen.

Beach chairs on the beach in the Baltic resort of Binz on the island of Rügen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

The “Strandkorb”, literally meaning beach basket, is a special type of beach chair that you will find on almost every German beach. The traditional beach chair was invented in 1882 by German basket maker Wilhelm Bartelmann in Rostock.

Example:

Hier kannst du in der Ostsee baden oder dich in einem Strandkorb entspannen.

Here you can swim in the Baltic Sea or relax in a beach chair.

7. (die) Radtour

A man and a woman cycle through Lüneburg Heath.

A man and a woman cycle through Lüneburg Heath. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/HeideRegion Uelzen e.V. | Jürgen Clauß, HeideRegion Uelz

Germans love biking, so it’s no surprise that a specific word exists for the summer phenomenon of going on a Radtour – bike tour.

READ ALSO: 10 things to consider for a bike trip in Germany

Example: 

Der gesamte Rundweg ist eine leichte Radtour.
 
The entire circular route is an easy bike ride.

8. Sonne tanken

A man on an air mattress sunbathing on a lake while a model boat passes him by.

A man on an air mattress sunbathing on a lake while a model boat passes him by. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Warnack

If you love summer, then you probably like to lie in the sun and soak up the rays. In German, you would call this “Sonne tanken” – literally to fuel up on sun.

Example:

Ich will einfach nur Sonne tanken!

I just want to soak up the sun!

9. (die) Sommergewitter

Lightning striking in the Hanover region in June 2021.

Lightning striking in the Hanover region in June 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

Another very specific word, this term is used to describe the phenomenon of summer thunderstorms.

Example:

Die ersten Sommergewitter rollen quer durch Deutschland.

The first summer thunderstorms are rolling across Germany.

10. (die) Eisdiele

A scoop of strawberry ice cream is placed on top of another scoop in a waffle cone at the "Eiskultur" ice cream parlor in Schöneweide.

A scoop of strawberry ice cream is placed on top of another scoop in a waffle cone at the “Eiskultur” ice cream parlor in Schöneweide. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jens Kalaene

Finally, no summer would be complete without a generous helping of ice cream. In German, the most common name for an ice-creme parlour is “Eisdiele”. 

The word seems to have joined the German language when the very first ice-creme parlour was opened in Hamburg in 1799.

READ ALSO: Spaghetti ice cream to Wobbly Peter: Why we love Germany’s sweet summer snacks

Example:

Es gibt eine sehr gute Eisdiele an der Promenade.

There is a really good ice-creme parlour on the promenade.

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