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”.
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.
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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.”
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.
‘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.