Language Hack: Read the Classics Before You've Mastered German

Language Hack: Read the Classics Before You've Mastered German

You've begun the journey. You've set out to learn German, and now you're knee deep in vocabularly, adjective endings, and prepositions. But you're impatient. You're tired of role playing simple conversations. How many months of flashcards and mistakes and memorizing can you endure? Relax. One German publishing house has a beautiful solution for your language-learning woes.
by Nicolette Stewart

The Kindermann Verlag was founded in 1994 by Swiss Author and Publisher Barbara Kindermann. Their goal? Making literary classics accessible.  Today, the Kindermann catalogue includes 16 classics in their Weltliteratur für Kinder (World Literature for Children) series, as well as another 14 titles in the Poesie für Kinder (Poetry for Children) series (as well as series on art for children and classic musicals).  But don't let the words "for children" in these series titles fool you. Kindermann’s beautifully illustrated books are practical (and interesting) tools for adult language learners, tools that can help you improve your German vocabulary and reading comprehension skills while getting a dose of German high culture. 

If you'd love to read Goethe, Schiller, Büchner, or Heinrich von Kleist, but your language skills aren't up to the originals—yet—Barbara Kindermann's retellings of well-known German authors offer language learners the unique chance to read the classics themselves in spite of a beginner or intermediate language status. The texts retain the meat of the stories, but are written in a style that beginners will find palatable—and far less frustrating than the originals.  Let's be honest: even German native speakers have trouble with the texts of Goethe and Schiller because the German language has changed considerably since they were published.  Old-fashioned words and idioms may be interesting to an expert, but reading can be a frustrating struggle for a beginner, the more so when much of the language is no longer in common use.  A modern take on the classics makes these stories both more accessible—and more useful—for adult language learners.

At the same time, Kindermann's classics retain many of each work's most famous quotes—always in italics—so that readers can get a taste of the original prose and recognize well-known lines.  For example, in Kindermann's version of Goethe's Faust, the line "Blut ist ein ganz besondrer Saft" (translation: Blood is a juice with curious properties) remains intact.  After reading a Kindermann edition of Faust or Götz von Berlichingen, you may not be able to say you've read Goethe in the original, but you will be able to quote (and recognize) the most famous lines and scenes as if you had.

However, we recommend that beginners start with the Weltliteratur series.  The books in the Poesie series use the original texts, and that means that the language remains challenging.  Also make sure you double check the author before picking up one of these books.  While the majority of Kindermann's books are based on the work of German authors, they also have covered the works of Shakespeare, to take one example.  While reading Shakespeare in German will help your language skills as well, it won't have the simultaneous benefit of adding to your cultural knowledge of Germany.

The gorgeous illustrations that accompany the text in both the Weltliteratur für Kinder and Poesie für Kinder series are another element that make the task of reading a German text that much easier for the language learner.  Feeling overwhelmed?  Take a break and look at the illustrations done by artists like Klaus Ensikat—one of the most revered contemporary illustrators in Germany today.  Each page is a work of art in its own right, and the illustrations may help you figure out the meaning of a word or a sentence without having to reach for the dictionary.

Remember: There is no shame in reading children's books when you're learning a language.  Language-learning experts all agree that reading children's books can only help you on your journey.

As one teacher of English as a second language points out on the Livemocha blog: "Many people fail at learning a second language because they get frustrated when they can’t complete tasks at the same level that they can in their native language. We all forget just how far we have come in learning our first language. I always encourage my students to read as much as possible...but often, learners don’t realize that it’s only necessary to read slightly above their current level. For example, reading lengthy news articles aimed at adult native speakers is probably not the best starting point for a lower-level...student. Of course we always want to challenge ourselves, but if we select reading material that causes us to reach for the dictionary every other word, we are more likely to get discouraged and give up."

Children's books—particularly retellings of classics that might have more appeal to an adult—can make an otherwise drudging task more fun—and any language hack that will bring you closer to cultural and linguistic fluency more quickly is one worth trying. 

A sample from Kindermann's edition of Goethe's Faust:

"Mitten in der Nacht klopfte Mephisto laut und vernehmlich an Fausts Türe.

"'Ich will dir einen Handel vorschlagen,' sagte er. 'Ich weiß, dass du dich alt und unwissend fühlst: Das Leben macht dir keinen Spaß. Lass mich dein Diener sein: Ich führe dich durch die Welt und zeige dir, wie schön das Leben ist.'"

A sampe from Kindermann's edition of Schiller's Wilhelm Tell:

"Vor vielen hundert Jahren lebten die Bewohner der drei Schweizer Talschaften Uri, Schwyz und Unterwalden in Frieden und Freiheit. Es war ein unbekümmertes Leben in einer herrlichen Gegend! Über dem hohen Felsenufer des Vierwaldstätter Sees breiteten sich grüne, saftige Wiesen aus und rundherum ragten Bergspitzen auf. Teilweise konnte man sogar bis zu den Eisgebirgen sehen."


Kindermann Verlag

by Nicolette Stewart