Why not listen to the news to build fluency?

Students wanting to become fluent in German, may be tempted to read or listen to the news. Although it is exciting and interesting to learn about current events in the world, reading or listening to the news is particularly challenging. Here are the characteristics of news writing and problems they present to a reader seeking fluency.

Characteristics of News Broadcasts:

  • Formal use of language, with model pronunciation
  • Delivery is optimized for efficiency, not intelligibility
  • Unemotional expression
  • Lack of gestures
  • Limited visual cues
  • Rapid context switching
  • Content is often only given as updates

The news is written in the official dialect of a country; in the case of German, the news is written in Hochdeutsch, high German, which is prevalent in the northern portion of the country. The vocabulary of the news tends use official and bureaucratic language, often quoting or borrowing words and phrases from official government documents.

News readers are tasked with delivering the material as fast and as efficient as possible. In a normal conversation, a speaker will provide pauses so that an audience can catch up or follow along, or just consider for a moment what has just been said. The news is not interested in providing any assistance in comprehension; if a user does not understand, they may watch or listen to the next edition. The use of a parenthetic aside, a small pause where an idea is restated in another manner, is extremely rare in a news broadcast.

In a normal conversation or speech, the speaker will smile or chuckle when it suits the subject of the conversation. Or when the subject is sad or serious, the speaker will also adopt a sad or serious expression. In a news broadcast, any emotional colorings are discouraged. A news reader may state his or her empathy with other people in an unfortunate situation, but this expression is always subdued, and is more restrained than typical. Overall, a news broadcaster uses vocal emphasis merely to enunciate words, instead of providing emotional color.

News broadcasts must rapidly switch context to move from story to story. Moving a rapid pace, they cannot provide listeners with any connection between the ideas and stories. Often the news is rigorously organized into the same format (e.g. world affairs, state, local, weather, sports, health, science, technology, etc.). News broadcasts are not composed to make the information easily digestible, and they have no interest in providing breaks, summarizing points, or repeating or rephrasing important details.

News writers assume listeners already have the basic information they need to understand the story. Thus, news stories are often written to provide mere updates. Consequentially, the news becomes update focused, and it is okay for the stories to be incomplete or left unresolved.

Listening to the news is one way to maintain fluency and challenge your comprehension. However, because of the factors above, reading or listening to the news should not be considered as learning activity. Good literature stands the test of being read more than once and still being enjoyable. News stories are often not enjoyable to read more than once.

Lastly, confident beginners listening to the news will typically underestimate the demands of the vocabulary. Besides the special domain vocabulary of each subject covered, and the use of official terms, the pace of news delivery can deliver a staggering amount of words in a short period of time. For contrast, many German language learners will probably have seen a half hour television program about travel to German or Europe. Rick Steves provides excellent travelogues, and in an interview he mentioned that one of his typical half hour programs contains about 3,000 words. His travelogues are sight seeing with narration and explanation, but the pace is much slower than the news, and it is more relaxed. However, for a beginning language learner, that would still be a lot of words to cover in a short period of time. If you can find a German travelogue or educational program, I would encourage you to record that and watch or listen to it repeatedly.

If you do listen to the news, remember that sometimes even native speakers have difficulty or less than 100% comprehension--do not get discouraged from your language learning efforts.

Written by Todd Cook. Language enthusiast, modern outdoorsman, software craftsman. Find him on or

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