Education and Language

German with Sock – When puppets talk

Esther und Socke | © Nachtmann & Silies GbR / WDR 2015

How can children learn German with hand-made sock puppets and tablets? The creators of “Deutsch mit Socke” (German with Sock) show how easy it is.

A red puppet called “Socke” (Sock) meets Esther, a person. Esther speaks to Sock in German – a language in which the little puppet is not very fluent. Whatever could go wrong with that? A lot, hopefully – and that’s what “Deutsch mit Socke” is all about. The new TV series has been produced by Puppet Empire, a group of puppeteers and film-makers from Cologne, for WDR/KiKa. Sock parrots everything Esther says and doesn’t worry too much about German grammar. Communication is effective nevertheless. It’s a great introduction to a world of German language.

Video: German with Sock: What’s your name? (Episode 1) © Nachtmann & Silies GbR / WDR 2015

But how can children with hand-made sock puppets learn German in their own classroom? Thirty primary school teachers, education experts and nursery nurses from Poland find out how it works under the guidance of the film-makers – a programme provided by the Goethe-Institut in Warsaw. First they watch the films, and “Deutsch mit Socke” appeals to the participants – because they laugh a little bit louder every time, or because the relationship between person and puppet is just so lovely.

It’s craft time!

That’s enough watching, it’s craft time! After just an hour, everyone in the session at the German school has made a sock puppet: first choose a sock, then take some cardboard and cut out an “O”; fold the “O” down the middle, stick double-sided tape to the front, turn the sock inside out and stick the “O” on the heel. Turn it the right way out again and hey presto – the puppet has a mouth.

Now it’s time to give creativity a free rein: eyes, hair, lips, clothes – all these materials can be bought cheaply, or even obtained for free. The session participants and then later the children are meant to be able to do everything themselves.

The result is a creature that increasingly develops its own character. The sock is the way the sock wants to be, not always the way the participants want to have it. Some of them are disappointed. “It was supposed to look pretty!”, but soon comments from others can be heard: “It’s fantastic! Look how it’s smiling. It’s really funny!” Even the supposed ugly ducklings are beautiful.

In front of the camera

The hand puppets are finished. What now? First they have to test them out a little. The course leader grabs a camera, switches it to video mode and says: “Let’s sing!” Because only the puppets are being filmed – not the puppeteers – this means a green light for silly voices, cool turns of phrase and a relaxed mood. The result is lots of little scenes within a short time: two sock puppets arguing over a pen (“It belongs to me!” “No! It belongs to me!”). What is key here is that the scene must have a beginning and an end. Ideas for the scenes come from everyday conflict situations: parents who want to get their child to do their homework or tidy their room; a quarrel between siblings; the idea of a new girl in the class – a bit of friction is an absolute must!

Not too hard at all

The participants quickly learn what they need to watch out for: moving the mouth when the puppet speaks; keeping the active arm outstretched so that the puppet can stand upright; defining or physically setting up a clear bottom edge for the picture; always ensuring the puppet looks at the camera; listening carefully to the other puppeteers so that you can react to them; leaving yourself enough time and staying relaxed.

You can use the video mode of your own camera, a smartphone or a tablet – these days there are many possibilities. And if you stick to the basic rules – keeping the camera still and close to the puppets – not much can go wrong. You can use video-editing programmes, some of which can be downloaded free of charge, to give you easy-to-use tools for cutting the beginning and end of a clip, inserting a fade, or adding music and titles.

In practice the film-makers from Cologne are finding the same thing happens all the time: whether they are in refugee hostels in Germany or private schools in Turkey, children bond strongly with the puppets they have made and are quite happy to let them talk. And when the puppets talk, the children talk too.

David Fermer, who is British by birth, works in Cologne as a writer. In collaboration with Stefan Silies, Till Nachtmann and Samy Challah he produces puppet films for “Sendung mit dem Elefanten”, “Planet Schule” and more. The first series of their new show “Deutsch mit Socke” has already been broadcast on WDR.

Translation: Jo Beckett
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Redaktion Magazin Sprache
November 2015

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