Netflix, Headbanging, and Heavy Metal: Language-Learning at Swarthmore

When I first arrived at Swarthmore, I was a happy K-pop stan, spending my days immersed in bouncy synths and candy-colored music videos. Nowadays, I listen to metal. German industrial metal, to be precise: think cavernous basslines, writhing guitar riffs, and growling. So much growling.

Let me explain. (It’s a long story…)

When I enrolled in Intensive Intermediate German (GMST 003) during my first semester here at Swarthmore, I knew pretty much what to expect. I’d taken 5 years of French before college, so I knew what language courses looked like. Textbook readings, grammar exercises, conversation drills, lectures about culture and history, the whole shebang.

In a lot of ways, Swarthmore met those expectations. That semester in GMST 003, we talked about a new German-speaking city each week, covering a bit of history and a bit of vocabulary and a bit of grammar. I learned about Heidelberg’s uniquely student-centered culture, the dialects of German spoken in Cologne and Bavaria, and a German ice cream dish designed to look like spaghetti. Par for the course, yes?

(I don’t have one specific favorite song, but rather a constantly rotating cast of contenders. At the moment, “Liebe macht Monster” is busily clawing its way to the top of the list.)

Swarthmore also met a second expectation: tiny class sizes. I’d come to Swarthmore expecting a small LAC with small classes; true to form, my fall German course had exactly 5 students. Having attended a bustling public high school with over 3,000 students, I eagerly welcomed the difference that small class sizes made. At Swarthmore, I had the opportunity to speak plenty of German in class, rather than jostle with 30 other kids for speaking time. Initially this was a bit nerve-wracking, but I soon shed that fear, since our classes consisted mostly of free-flowing conversation between students and professors. Whenever I messed up a grammar structure or blanked on a word, there was no danger of judgement, or of nosediving grades. Instead, I was able to get constant and instantaneous feedback on my German speaking skills.

But in many, many ways, German at Swarthmore entirely diverged from my expectations.

Most notably, I watched Netflix as homework. See, GMST 003 had an immersive, interactive component: we worked our way through Season 1 of the German show Dark. We were assigned to watch an episode every week as homework. (The German department even offered to pay for a semester’s worth of Netflix for me!)

If you haven’t seen Dark, I’d best describe the show as… dark. Creepy music, sci-fi overtones, dark forests, kidnapped and murdered children, time travel, nuclear power plants. With all of the intergenerational conflict and constantly shifting timelines, I think Dark would’ve been difficult to understand even if I’d watched it with English subtitles. And so you can just imagine — in German, Dark was nigh on indecipherable.

At least, it was indecipherable for the first few episodes. Those first weeks, I had to pause the show nearly every other line, to quickly Google the words I didn’t recognize. It was rough, and sometimes rather discouraging. But, by the second half of the season, I’d learned enough of the lexicon of Dark that I could easily follow along with the show, and truly immerse myself in the (extremely fast) plot.

(I certainly didn’t expect to encounter anything like Dark in a college class — a messy, splintered journey through 3+ timelines and alternate reality and nuclear wormholes.)

And it turned out that Dark, as confusing as it is, actually presents a great opportunity for learning German grammar due to all of the time travel in the show, my classmates and I could practice a myriad of verb tenses when we discussed Dark in class.

It’s hard to describe the sense of satisfaction I felt, knowing how just far my German had progressed: I started off barely understanding anything said in Dark, and ended up able to ramble for 15 minutes at a time about this show’s complex plot.

At this point, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “This is all well and good, Isabella, but where do the metal bands come in?”

I’m getting there, I swear! You see, in the process of watching Dark and seeing rapid improvements in my German, I started wondering why I seemed to pick up German so much quicker than I did French. As I mentioned earlier, I’d taken 5 years of French in middle and high school, and to this day I cannot say much more than bonjour and la baguette. Swarthmore German taught me what high school French didn’t: the importance of immersion. During my first semester in college, I started seeking out more German media, so that I’d hear and see more German in my daily life.

Enter the metal.

I started off with LaFee’s “Ich bin ich,” which I found when trawling the internet for German song recommendations. At first, I didn’t even register that LaFee’s music, which places her light voice front and center, counted as metal.

Later on, I edged into harder territory with OOMPH!’s “Such mich find mich,” a rollicking electronic number that takes the dancey energy I was used to at the time, and welds it to an industrial metal backbone. Soon the deep growling stopped bothering me; from there, I spiraled into ever heftier cuts of metal: Eisbrecher’s “Schwarze Witwe,” Rammstein’s “Sehnsucht,” Megaherz’s “I.m. Rumpelstilzchen.” The list goes on.

Believe it or not, I’ve found a lot of intersections between the metal I listen to and the material I’ve learned in class:

  • Dark‘s vocabulary overlaps quite a bit with popular words in industrial metal songs, to nobody’s surprise. A few examples: das Leid (pain), zerstört (destroyed), jagen (to hunt).
  • When reading the lyrics to Eisbrecher’s “Schwarzes Blut,” I wondered why they sing “das schwarze Blut” instead of “das schwarzes Blut.” My question was answered when we learned about adjective endings and declensions in class.
  • I familiarized myself with da-constructions in German by looping Eisbrecher’s “Dagegen,” a roiling wall of sound, because that is of course the optimal studying strategy.
  • I’ve even heard that Prof. Werlen plays Rammstein’s “Du Hast” for the GMST 002 students, as a demonstration of the past perfect tense.

My German classes thus far have been incredibly flexible and personalized, meaning that I was allowed to bring metal into the classroom. This spring semester, in my German Conversation (GMST 006) course, I gave a presentation about metal. For 10 minutes, I talked about the German industrial metal industry’s flirtations with far-right imagery.

This presentation ended up sparking a lengthy conversation among my classmates, which culminated in my professor revealing that Swarthmore paid for German Club’s tickets to a Rammstein concert 6 years ago, when the band last came to Philly.

(“How was the concert?” I asked my professor towards the end of class.

“Well,” he replied, with an oh-you-teenagers sigh in his voice, “It was… interesting.”)

And so there you have it: my full journey from K-pop stan to metalhead. When I registered for a German class, did I know what I was getting myself into? No. Really, how could I have imagined myself constructing elaborate sentences in German about a Netflix character, of all things (“Mikkel had traveled through time,” “he would have traveled if he could,” “he probably will already have traveled,” etc.), or leading in-class analyses of German industrial metal bands’ political leanings?

To me, my experience thus far with German at Swarthmore speaks to two things. First, the level of attention that professors give to students. Second, the sheer unpredictability of life at Swarthmore there’s always new surprises lurking around every corner, like Swarthmore paying for my Netflix, or gaining a German vocabulary stuffed with words from metal songs.

In my remaining three years at Swarthmore, I hope to become fluent in German. Perhaps, at the same time, I’ll also end up dipping my toes into even heavier metal genres. Death metal, anyone?

(Author’s note: This article was written a year before multiple women came forward with allegations of sexual assault against Rammstein’s Till Lindemann and Christian Flake Lorenz. Since learning of these claims, I have stopped listening to the band’s music.)

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