Poetry-Slam for GFL/GSL Learners
“If you do not understand it, feel it!”

The Berlin slam poet Bas Böttcher
The Berlin slam poet Bas Böttcher | Photo (detail): © Felix Warmuth

​Presenting your own text on a stage and facing up to the judgement of the audience – that's what a poetry slam is all about. Learners of German as a second/foreign language can now use these modern lyric competitions as an exciting way of accessing language.

Back in 2008, only a few students were able to answer when Petra Anders, professor of German didactics at the Free University of Berlin, asked in her seminars who knew what a poetry slam was. Today the question is more or less superfluous. Almost every day a poetry slam takes place in Berlin, and even in smaller German cities these modern poetry competitions have established themselves as a regular event. The German-speaking poetry slam scene is now the second-largest in the world, after the English-speaking one. Eight years ago, Petra Anders was still doing research in the USA to find inspiration for her PhD thesis on the subject of poetry slams. Now the subject is firmly anchored in the framework curricula of Berlin and Bremen – mainly due to it having a didactic base.

Cooler than a literary classic

Teachers also try to sensitize young people to language and literary forms, especially those who have a difficult time dealing with traditional literature. “Many young people find slam poetry cooler than the literary classics they know from school. Some have more fun because they can identify with the role models from the scene. And others find it easier to gain access to this form of art which is characterized by oral language”, explains Ina Lammers, who is working in the field of teaching German as a foreign or second language at the University of Duisburg-Essen. For people who have difficulties with the German language used in education in particular, poetry slams can be a really good start. And furthermore, the subject is also excellent for teaching cultural studies, Petra Anders adds, “Slam poets are both authentic and original speakers. They tackle current issues that society is dealing with.”

The amount of research done on the use of poetry slams in DaF / DaZ teaching is still, however, somewhat thin on the ground. Teachers have also been largely forced to find their own didactic materials. Petra Anders and Ina Lammers recommend other interested teachers first of all to attend a “real” poetry slam event or watch video recordings of them. Another possibility is to invite a slammer into the classroom, as is already customary at many Goethe Institutes around the world. “A poetry slam is an event. The text only lives when the audience gets involved”, explains Ina Lammers. And Jessica Guse, a DaF teacher at the Háskóli Islands University in Reykjavik, Iceland, also emphasized, “The idea that not every word has to be understood, but more that literature or lyricism can also be opened up via emotion is a new and exciting way for many learners to access the language.”

Audio: Wenn ich Deutsch rede (i.e. To speak German, Dalibor Marković: Und Sie schreiben auf Deutsch?, Spoken-Word-Lyric 2016)

Dalibor Marković – Und Sie schreiben auf Deutsch?

Much more than just language

The Berlin slam poets Wolf Hogekamp and Bas Böttcher also emphasize the fact that their art is to be found somewhere between literature, theatre and music. “Eye contact with the audience, body language and the performance itself are equally as important as the words, the text, the content. Good lyrics have the same effect as a favourite song, one you keep humming over and over again, because it has impressed itself on you, because you like it and find it entertaining. When instructors teach poetry slam, they also convey the “joie de vivre” of the scene, which is networked way beyond national boundaries”, emphasizes Bas Böttcher. That is why a common poetry slam motto was “If you do not understand it, feel it.”

A poetry slam, however, is of course not just about reciting, but also about writing poetry. For learners of German as a foreign or second language it can be an exciting challenge to write and perform poetry slam texts. “Poetry slams are multilingual. Anyone who does not know a word in German can replace it with a word from a different language. And for those who speak the second language with an accent – they can bravely use it to their advantage on the stage, provided they are well prepared”, says Wolf Hogekamp.

A stage for everybody

When it comes to the actual composing of slam poetry, it can also be of value to familiarize German learners with general writing strategies and to support them with the help of tutorial writing sessions. Such things as the clustering method helps them to sort their ideas, and by asking precise questions the beginners soon find the right wording. It is a high point for many learners to finally perform their own texts. “Reciting or rapping poems or texts can improve the atmosphere in a class, activate their feeling for rhythm and lead to humorous interludes, which in turn can reduce the fear of having to orally produce something in the foreign language”, says Elisabeth Lehrner-te Lindert, who is working on her doctorate in the department at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.

Traditionally, poetry slam in the USA has always been a socially critical, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual movement. The format emerged there in the mid-1980s. In Germany, too, we should also take the opportunity, through poetry slams, to attract young people to engage in a lively cultural practice and to set up a network of young poets, emphasises Petra Anders. “For DaF and DaZ is not just learning a language – it is also participating in the culture of the country.”

Poetry-Slam: Gibt es das? (i.e. Poetry Slams – “Do they really exist?”)

Poetry Slam: “Do they really exist?”
© Goethe-Institut

The Berlin slam poet Bas Böttcher recommends teachers to work with pupils on varying existing text examples and to add their own writing to them. As is the case in the poem, it is helpful, particulaly at the beginning, to separate sense and sound from each other, i.e. to use the rhyme as a link between two different lines of content. In this way, the pupils' poetic view is trained, not to mention the fact that the fun of looking at the world from an unusual perspective is enhanced. In addition, this leads to good results being achieved even with limited vocabulary.