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language learning in the digital age

In the Beginning There was Edith Piaf: The Making of “Learn German with Music”

Posted on May 8, 2012 by

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Read this post in German (Deutsch), Spanish (Español), French (Français), Italian (Italiano)

Katja Wilde, Content Project Manager at Babbel, has a vision. Remembering French class from her school days, she stands at home in the kitchen belting out „Non, rien de rien“. Even though she doesn’t always hit the right note—considering the ardor with which she sings—that’s completely irrelevant. She records the Edith Piaf song right then and there.

That’s how it goes when someone works at Babbel and an idea hatches. For outsiders it might seem a bit nuts that it’s considered normal to blurt out cryptic phrases in foreign languages, to suddenly declare the correct term for, say, meatballs, or even to spontaneously turn the kitchen into a recording studio.

But back to our Katja. She’s thinking about music, listening comprehension, fill-in-the-blank texts, but especially how easy and entertaining this way of learning was for her as a schoolgirl, how it was so much more fun to learn languages intuitively through music instead of through rote memorization. She begins to break down the song into its elements and to come up with various lesson parts. 

Around the same time, just under 2000 Babbel users are being asked how they best like to learn. Their answers confirm Katja’s experience, which Miriam Plieninger, Babbel’s Head of Content, later emphasizes: “Whether you’re singing in the shower, listening to music in the car or singing Karaoke with friends—when you’re singing in the language you’re learning, structures are impressed upon you and you understand words out of context.”

So after the implementation of the “Learn German with Music“ idea was a done deal, the first major challenge was to find the right music. It had to have a catchy melody, be copyright free, and appropriate from a language-teaching point of view. The choice fell on eight folk songs, whose lyrics were scrutinized by Katja and the editorial team, modernized here and there, and simplified.

The next step was when Christine Keck, actress, voiceover specialist and musician at Babbel, got the song lyrics, whose melody she also newly interpreted. She then recorded contemporary singer-songwriter versions of the delightful, though sometimes slightly dusty, tunes (like „Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär“ –“If I were a little bird“).

Later the editorial team began to work on translating lyrics into English and the design and order of the exercises. They extracted countless sound bytes, named them, and uploaded them to the server. The Babbel developers tinkered with the complex technical implementation of the new formats, including a Karaoke component.

Taking four months, the production phase was significantly longer (and perhaps a little more difficult) than it had been for other Babbel formats. But it paid off: now Babbel learners who are native speakers of English, Italian, Spanish and French can learn German singing. And if you ask Katja, the mastermind behind the idea whether it was worth it? “Je ne regrette rien“, she announces. She doesn’t regret a thing.

Learn German with music!

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