German Language Olympics German as a Team Sport

Participants of the Internationale Deutscholympiade 2014
Participants of the Internationale Deutscholympiade 2014 | Photo (detail): Goethe-Institut © V. Badiu

Speech is golden at the IDO – Internationale Deutscholympiade (The International German Language Olympics). Every year the competition attracts the best young students of the German language from all over the world. The emphasis, however, is not so much on the competition, but on intercultural exchange.

“The important thing is taking part” is the guiding principle of the Olympic games. This motto, to which all the athletes aspire when they get together for the summer or winter Olympics, is also valid for the approx. hundred young people from all over the world who, every two years since 2008, have been striving to win gold, silver and bronze at the IDO - the International German Language Olympics. The competition has three disciplines in which 14- to 19-year-olds pitch their language skills against each other. The emphasis, however, is not so much on winning, but on getting to know different cultures.

From a test to a competition

Today's IDO has developed from the various German Language Olympics competitions that are held in the countries of Central Europe. “The idea of staging the competition at a more international level came from the Internationale Deutschlehrerverband (International German Teachers' Association),” says Andrea Schäfer, who coordinates the IDO for the Goethe-Institut. It first started with a project called “From Riga to Belgrade” – a competition to decide who the best German language students were in this region of Europe. Then, in 2008, it turned into a worldwide competition for young students of the German language. This first IDO took place in Dresden.

The participants are determined beforehand in selection contests held in the various countries. Each country may enter a maximum of two German “language-athletes” for the IDO. The tasks they have to do vary from country to country, but as a rule they have to master the language exams of the Goethe Institute – the ones that test reading and listening comprehension. An oral exam which takes the form of a presentation on a given topic is usually part of the qualifying round. In addition, says Ms. Schäfer, attention is also paid to “the participants having a certain degree of maturity and, above all, to them showing team spirit”.

Linguistic sport in three disciplines

At the IDO special importance is attached to the ability to communicate with each other. “The first German Language Olympics adhered to classic test formats,” Ms. Schaefer remembers. “Then, for 2012, an entirely new concept was developed. The competition was to be more hands-on and team-oriented.” Individual performance is now only of importance in the first of the three disciplines. The participants, for example, have to create a wall newspaper to convey their personal impressions of the respective venue of the IDO, using photographs, poems or other short texts. For the second discipline, the presentation, the Olympians have to put themselves into internationally mixed groups of four. They freely decide on a certain subject and develop it into a play, a PowerPoint presentation or a poster – aids such as dictionaries or computers are allowed. For the final quiz, teamwork is once again required. The young “language-athletes” have to describe an image as precisely as possible to a cartoonist, who then sketches the image according to their descriptions.

Winning as many countries as possible over to the idea

The competition is held on three different CEFRL language levels: A2, B1 and B2. In each category, three winners are selected - the winners of the bronze, silver and gold medals. An international jury awards points for content and form according to a predetermined set of criteria. For example, how do the young learners of German express themselves? Have they fulfilled the task completely? What resources have been used? In addition, the jury also awards points for the team spirit and fairness of the participants.

In previous years the linguistic Olympians also competed at advanced language level C1. As the courses in most schools, however, only go up to level B2, which enables a normal conversation to be held with native speakers, the IDO decided in 2016 to limit the competition to levels A2, B1 and B2. “The main thing at any Olympics is getting as many countries as possible to participate,” Andrea Schäfer explains. “In 2016 15 countries more are represented than in 2014”.

Meeting people at the Carnival of Cultures

A total of 125 young people have travelled to Berlin and, for the duration of two weeks, have turned the newly opened youth hostel at Ostkreuz into their Olympic village – the hostel is being used both as accommodation and as the venue of the IDO. They are accompanied by German teachers who are particularly innovative in their lessons and who, for example, have used film media or visual arts to make language come alive. These educators are taking part in a training course in Berlin designed to give further impetus to their lessons.

Alongside the competition, one of the main aims is for the participants to get to know each other. “That was why we held a “Länderabend” (Nations Evening) from 2008 to 2012, ” says IDO coordinator Schäfer. “Then in 2014 the Carnival of Cultures was initiated.” This is where the young people give a short performance and set up stands exhibiting typical products from their home countries.

Using German to combat stereotypes

17-year-old Lejla from Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, is particularly keen to teach others “that Bosnia is not only a country still suffering from the aftermath of war. We have a lot more to offer, even a Nobel laureate –Ivo Andric.” 18-year-old Silvio from Estonia would like to present “the advanced Internet network system” of his homeland, “Estonia is indeed referred to internationally as an E-state.” And 17-year-old Klevin from Albania said: “My country is known for the harmonious coexistence of its religious groups.”

In Andrea Schäfer’s opinion the success of the IDO format is substantiated by the ever growing number of participants and the international network of former Olympians. “Many of them are studying today in Germany or are working as IDO ambassadors in their home countries.”