Young people learn differently Reference to Germany is crucial

Young people learn German differently
Young people learn German differently | Photo (detail:) © Goethe-Institut/Daniel Seiffert

If young people have German friends, learn a lot about Germany at school and their lessons often involve German music and films, then their motivation to learn German increases. Wanting to study or make a career in Germany is a contributory factor. This is shown by a new Goethe-Institut study.

Foreign language lessons without socio-cultural content are unthinkable these days. Anyone who learns a foreign language today finds out plenty about the people and the country or countries in which this language is spoken. You see, language as a communication tool cannot be taught and learnt without reference to the society in which the speakers of this language live (cf. Heyd, 1991, 47). Socio-cultural content not only arouses the students’ interest and encourages inter-cultural competence, it is also used in lessons to increase the motivation of learners (cf. Bettermann, 2010, 1455; Huneke & Steinig, 2002, 67).

Study on young people’s learning motivation

In a new study conducted by the Goethe-Institut on the learning motivation of young people for German as a subject, the role of socio-cultural material in German lessons and its effects on the popularity of German was also investigated (cf. Salomo, in preparation). The study shows that over half of German teachers find it difficult to teach young people. One particular challenge experienced by the teachers is their young students’ lack of motivation.

Socio-cultural content increases motivation

Almost all teachers questioned consider it important to teach socio-cultural material alongside German language. But at the end of the day that does not necessarily mean that socio-cultural content is used in lessons on a frequent basis. In the opinion of the students questioned, a third of them are learning only a small amount or nothing at all about Germany. Three-quarters of young people would like to learn more about Germany in class.
The study also shows what a good idea it is to take the students’ desire seriously: as the proportion of socio-cultural content in lessons increases, the young people’s enthusiasm for German as a subject rises correspondingly (see illustration).


Wechselbeziehung zwischen Landeskunde und Unterricht Abbildung: Wechselbeziehung zwischen Landeskunde und Unterricht | © Dorothé Salomo Both media types also play a central role in leisure activities for young people: 92% enjoy listening to music and 86% like watching films. As a result, using them in lessons meets with majority approval. Furthermore music and films always serve as vehicles for socio-cultural content – and that could be another key reason for their popularity.
By comparison, use of the internet in class does not lead to increased enthusiasm for German lessons, although 89% of young people like surfing the internet in their spare time. Simply using the internet does not necessarily have a positive effect though. It is important that the internet is integrated into the lessons in a meaningful way, so that it provides “added value in terms of media-based education” (cf. Mayrberger). The internet is also frequently used in German lessons without a reference to Germany (e.g. as a vocabulary trainer) or for general research purposes. German music and films on the other hand already create a socio-cultural reference by nature of what they are.

German friends have a positive effect

German friends or acquaintances encourage young people to enjoy German lessons. Young people who stated in the study that they had German friends or acquaintances liked German lessons better.

School exchange between American and German teenagers. School exchange between American and German teenagers. | © Goethe-Institut/Daniel Seiffert People are very interested in others their own age while they are young, and this goes hand-in-hand with the need to communicate with friends. There is no doubt that this is one of the reasons why young people who have German friends are more interested in German lessons. But that is most certainly not the only reason – especially since English is often used as a lingua franca between young people. It is far more likely the case that young people are more motivated to learn a foreign language if they can use it in authentic situations. Also, personal contact with speakers belonging to a culture often leads to the breakdown of negative prejudices. And that becomes apparent when it comes to learning motivation as well.

Plans for a future in Germany increase motivation

Adults usually learn in order to attain certain goals – usually professional ones – with the aim of implementing that learning directly. Children and young people on the other hand acquire knowledge and skills to use them at a later point in their lives (cf. Schaie & Willis, 2000). For this reason, young students do not always realise the current significance of German skills. Adolescence is also characterised by an intensive search for orientation and meaning in life (cf. Hurrelmann, 2010). During this search, young people often question the sense (nonsense?) behind learning German.
However if young people connect specific goals with their German learning – even if these are later in life – then their interest in German lessons is demonstrably greater. The study shows: motivation for German becomes greater in line with a schoolchild’s increasing desire to go to university or work in Germany.

What can teachers bear in mind for lessons?

Teachers can increase the enjoyment of their young students in learning German by:

  • frequently using socio-cultural content in lessons – this includes German music and films in particular,
  • encouraging contact with German-speaking school students, for instance through email contact with school classes in Germany, school exchanges etc. and
  • informing the students which opportunities are connected with learning the German language, for instance studying or working in a German-speaking country.

“What to do with…unmotivated young people?” (


Dorothé Salomo spent more than a year travelling around the world on behalf of the Goethe-Institut, visiting a variety of secondary schools to investigate young people’s learning motivation for the German subject. During the course of this study she questioned over 4000 secondary school pupils, as well as 500 German teachers, using a questionnaire. Participants were from the following countries: Egypt, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, China, France, India, Indonesia, Italy, Cameroon, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Spain, the Czech Republic, Turkey and the USA.



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