Opportunities for learning German on YouTube
A friend in front of the camera

GFL channels on YouTube: another place to learn
GFL channels on YouTube: another place to learn | Photo (detail): © chombosan - Fotolia.com

Pronunciation exercises with animal noises? Grammar in the bedroom? Teenage slang in real-life situations? What may be hard to imagine in a conventional German lesson is not at all out of the ordinary on non-institutional GFL YouTube channels. Their producers – who include native speakers and German teachers – regularly update their channels, adding learning videos that their audiences enjoy watching and commenting on. Such videos are non-institutional in the sense that they are produced and published privately, without any editorial requirements or commercial interests.

Since YouTube was established, more than 100 channels of this kind have appeared. Over 20 providers are actively involved in teaching German in German and English and have several thousand subscribers from all over the world.

Characteristics of learning videos

As well as being free of charge, one characteristic of these learning opportunities is their relaxed learning atmosphere. Most of the learning videos are “homemade”, not only in the sense that they are privately produced but also because they use the producer’s living room, bedroom and even kitchen as the classroom: instead of a blackboard and desks, they feature just a sofa and a bare wall. For the viewer, it is like having a good friend teach them German at home. This casual approach is also evident in the learning content. In many cases topics are addressed that are of interest to the learners but tend to be difficult to raise in official teaching and learning situations, such as teenage slang and swear words. Fun explanations and examples are also provided when it comes to prescribed topics such as pronunciation: rather than giving a phonological description of the German umlaut Ä, producer Ania adds a video with bleating sheep that make the corresponding sound. In her video, Jenny gargles with water to demonstrate how to practise articulating the German R.

Furthermore, the GFL channels on YouTube are always up-to-date: contemporary issues can be addressed quickly and easily, without any bureaucratic or publishing policy hurdles. For example, shortly after the Pokémon Go game came out in 2016, a learning video for game-related vocabulary was published.

In addition, users of such channels rarely remain passive because they use the comment function to interact with the producer. The latter enjoy getting the feedback, and frequently give their viewers homework. Since the learners write their homework directly in the comments, it is checked for the most part – if not by the owners of the channels, then by other users. The interaction can even be synchronous when the learning videos are broadcast via the live function and are commented on simultaneously by the viewers.

Another thing that is characteristic of the learning videos are meta-language statements that can prompt the viewers to engage in subsequent discussions about aspects of German. In their videos, the producers make claims or express opinions about certain learning topics or indeed about the German language as a whole: in one of her videos, Katja argues that German is not actually a difficult language. Ania, on the other hand, believes that German grammar and the country’s weather have something in common: complaining about them won’t help. In response, viewers discuss this, reflecting from a didactical perspective on what makes learning German hard or why certain topics are especially difficult for a particular group of learners. In many cases, stereotypes about language and language use are explored. Some videos and their corresponding comments for example discuss why German is seen as being aggressive in character, and whether there is only one right way to pronounce the German letter R. What is also remarkable is how actively native speakers get involved, voluntarily taking part in the discussions in the comments field and motivating other German learners.

Non-institutional learning videos are thus characterized by a relaxed approach, topicality, interaction between producers and learners, and not least by the opportunity they provide for meta-language reflection. These characteristics are certainly good reasons for their popularity.

Diversity of learning videos

Despite sharing a number of basic characteristics, the learning videos show considerable diversity: depending on provider, there are various learning levels, teaching methods and content types, suitable for different types of learner. Jenny’s learning videos are example-based: after providing precise explanations, she always gives countless example sentences, relating for instance to the verb haben. By contrast, the Deutsch für Euch channel often engages in complex grammatical discussions, such as about the modal verb structure of the sentence “Der Apfel muss gegessen werden wollen können” (i.e. The apple must be able to want to be eaten). 

The learning content ranges from explanations of vocabulary and grammar, listening exercises and literary text readings to language test preparation and topics relating to Germany and its culture. The way this content is presented also differs considerably: some producers sit in front of a microphone and explain while others prefer to stage a performance. Sometimes channels team up to make collaborative learning videos, such as a video on the subject of slang in which Dominik (Get Germanized), who represents north German language usage, and Katja (Deutsch für Euch), who represents south German language usage, present a guessing game to explain different slang variants and their meaning to their viewers.

Within the framework of my doctoral project at Universität Hamburg, I am studying the following non-institutional GFL channels to ascertain how their producers position themselves as legitimate language teachers, how the German language and learning topics are presented, and how viewers respond to this form of presentation. These seven channels feature up-to-date topics, publish regular videos and attract fairly large regular audiences. The presenters switch between German and English in the videos.

It is worth taking a look through the collection of learning videos. I am sure you will find a video that you can incorporate into your lessons or that can be used for homework:

Producer: Katja
Level: from A1
Distinctive feature: Language structure-oriented German learning with witty remarks
URL: https://www.youtube.com/user/DeutschFuerEuch
Producer: Marija
Level: from B2
Distinctive feature: Learning topics for advanced learners, videos for language test preparation
URL: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCCAI6jmeW5hWz2-jaLPqLUQ
Producer team: Janusz, Cari, Ben, Manuel, Klaus und Isi
Level: from A1
Distinctive feature: Various categories such as “Learning German on the street”, “For beginners”, “Frequently asked questions” and “Grammar”
URL: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbxb2fqe9oNgglAoYqsYOtQ
Producer: Dominik
Level: from A1
Distinctive feature: Youth-oriented and performance-based German learning in combination with teaching of “German” culture
URL: https://www.youtube.com/user/MeisterLehnsherr
Producent Anja
Level: from A1
Distinctive feature: Lively German learning with precise and easily understandable explanations
URL: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZwegPHTG4gvnR0WLzaq5OQ
Producer: Antrim
Level: from A1
Distinctive feature: Grammar-based German learning using lots of mnemonics from the viewpoint of an American
URL: https://www.youtube.com/user/MrLAntrim
Producer: Jenny
Level: from A1
Distinctive feature: Straightforward language explanations with countless examples of use
URL: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClBrbJXNh2sFxOuvH4o5H9g

Potential for application and implementation

Learning opportunities offered by such independent providers can be used as informal learning material outside the classroom. They allow learners to catch up on a certain topic of their own accord, or to deepen their knowledge. Nonetheless, whether these learning videos alone are sufficient for learners to attain a certain language proficiency level is questionable, and something that has yet to be scientifically researched. This is due to the lack of control and individual feedback.

Teachers will be wondering whether and how these learning opportunities can be incorporated into their classroom lessons. The learning videos are suitable as an entertaining alternative to supplement the usual learning content: learners will hear different voices, see new faces and perhaps also find the video funny. Take for instance the learning video on prepositions from EasyGerman: the examples, which are demonstrated by real people in real places, and in some cases are intentionally exaggerated, can enrich the classroom lesson in the sense that they allow content to be repeated and the atmosphere to be lightened up.

Prepositions are visualized in the Easy German video. Prepositions are visualized in the Easy German video. | Photo (detail): © Easy German/Easy Languages Furthermore, the learning videos may be useful when preparing lessons because they feature lots of different memory techniques and mnemonics that can also be communicated in the lesson. As far as online lessons are concerned, they are suitable as alternative or supplementary learning material.

Care should also be taken with non-institutional learning videos, however. Because the producers make the videos for the most part in their free time, it may happen that some channels are not updated much or even at all after a while. This lack of quality control results not only in occasional typing errors, but in certain strange cases also in questionable content. In one video the German letter “ß” is counted as an umlaut, for example. That said, such mistakes are rare.

Since the non-institutional GFL channels on YouTube are very popular, established educational institutions should not view such learning videos as competition. Instead, both can complement one another when it comes to their shared objective of teaching a foreign language: the GFL channels offer a wealth of creative lesson ideas. Institutions can pick up on these and further develop them, both on a professional and technical level. The result is properly qualified and diverse learning content.

24h Deutsch – new format for learning German on YouTube

The new YouTube channel 24h Deutsch takes the viewer on a journey through a typical day in Germany. One episode is devoted to each hour of the day, users being accompanied by Ida, a young German teacher. As well as providing an authentic insight into the life of young people in Germany, each episode focuses on one particular topic relevant to learning German: from grammar to oddities to learning strategies, and from tongue-twisters and swear words to the past subjunctive.

The channel is targeted at young people aged between 12 and 25 with A2 level German knowledge or above. 24h Deutsch will be online from 9 November 2017, with new episodes appearing on a weekly basis. 24h Deutsch is the winner of a competition staged by the Goethe-Institut: Deutsch lernen auf YouTube? - Zeig uns wie das geht!
Episodes can be found at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHpnIL-1QIUyVhdGVJ6rW3A