Understanding News – Language Learning

I’m still working toward becoming a German-to-English translator. After passing the ACTFL German reading exam, I’ve kept the momentum going and have been studying every day.

I still have a ways to go, though, so I’m going to bump things up a notch.

It’s time to get really good at understanding news. As of today I’m starting a 6-week program to get really comfortable with German media.

Berlin TV Tower By Kfm1000 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Berlin TV Tower
By Kfm1000 [Public domain], Image Source

Why news?

For many language learners, the main goal is to be able to speak the language. When they’re looking for materials, they often gravitate toward TV shows, movies, novels, cartoons–anything with natural language that carries over to speaking.

That’s more or less what I did when I was studying Spanish, and I got pretty decent results with that approach.

Sometimes you’re going to want to get to a higher level in a language, though. Maybe you want to work with the language in some capacity. Or you have to take a proficiency exam. Or you simply hate not being able to understand everything you come across.

If this is the case, then you need to tackle media texts: Newspaper and magazine articles. TV and radio news broadcasts. Current event documentaries.

You will never reach an advanced (ILR 3 / C1, or higher) level in a language if you aren’t comfortable with the news.

And I have good “news” and bad news for you.

We’ll start with the bad first. Media can be:

  • Hard to understand, with difficulty ranging from publication to publication
  • Confusing if you don’t have some knowledge of the subject being discussed
  • Quite a bit different from what you’re used to, in terms of language usage
  • Dry, since artistic and rhetorical concerns are (often) secondary to communicating the basic facts

But there’s also some good. Media:

  • Follows consistent patterns, so you’ll understand common structures and conventions in no time.
  • Is clearly written by professional journalists who keep readability in mind (unlike complex texts in other sources).
  • Is clearly spoken using standard, neutral accents.
  • Can be surprisingly rich, especially if you consider editorials or long-form journalism

The Plan

Right now, I’m all over the map when it comes to understanding the news. Sometimes I can read a 500-word article and understand 98% of the words and 100% of the content. Other times I can only understand 93% of the words and miss entire chunks of meaning.

(Sorry for the nerdy percentages, but it’s pretty easy to see where you’re at when you’re marking up a text and selecting the words you don’t know.)

It’s time to go back to the basics. I’m following my own advice and using the main template from Language Master Key. The specific routine? Every day I’m going to:

  • Listen to or watch the news for at least 45 minutes (Free listening)
  • Transcribe 100-200 words from a news article that’s read aloud (Active listening)
  • Do intensive reading and follow-on vocab drills with ReadLang, with a goal of 15 to 20 new words a day (Studying)
  • Read 5 to 10 news articles (Extensive Reading, a bonus activity in LMK)

For the next six weeks, I’m going to put down Harry Potter and stop watching Bob’s Burgers in German and focus entirely on news.

I’m also going to use my transcriptions to identify areas where I need grammar review. Here’s one I did this morning from this article at Deutsche-Welle:


I used that highlighter to mark my errors. I know it’s a little hard to see the colors and read my handwriting, but the only true spelling mistake I made was with the word Trophäen (trophies). I made a few punctuation mistakes, which I’m not going to obsess about since I think a lot of that is a matter of style, which I can work on later.

But I made a few recurring mistakes with adjective endings, including one in the title (which I forgot to mark up the first time). So now I know I need to go review adjective endings for the tenth or eleventh time.

I’m going to do this for six weeks–a 21-day burst two times. After the first 21 days, I’m going to assess my progress and see if I need to make any adjustments, but I’m committing to doing this in some form for six weeks.

Later on I’ll go over where I’m getting my texts from and discuss some of the finer points of this.

Do you like to read news? Any techniques you like to use? Let me know in the comments!



  • Owain Clarke

    I think you are right purely from a language point of view, but I find so much of the news is depressing that I have moved away from this source of learning

    • Tante Leonie

      I hear you Owain, although I’m more cynical and look at the so-called “news” as pumped up propaganda.

      I do read the Dutch tabloids, though. It’s very low brow, but I do get a lot for my language buck.

      Speaking of tabloids, Ron, I had a Francophone chiropractor in Luxebourg who taught himself German by reading Bild!

      • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

        Bild is my guilty pleasure, lol. A year ago I didn’t care whether Bushido and his girlfriend were reunited, but now for some reason I do. I discovered, though, that I can’t read Bild or watch videos at work. hahaha

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Oh, wow, I’ve been so desensitized to news that I hadn’t even considered that. (Not a good thing.) I go through phases like that you mentioned with English news, but it doesn’t come up often when I’m using the news as a source for language learning. Once in a while I feel a twinge of…feeling weird?…when I learn a vocabulary word from a story about a death or tragedy. I justify it a little by telling myself that it’s an opportunity to learn other cultures’ stories, good and bad, but I’m lying if I say I’m not a little disconnected as I add “death” or “genocide” to my flashcard deck.

      Thank you for mentioning that, Owain. That’s good food for thought, and I’m going to try to take steps to do this without losing my soul or getting into the dumps.

  • acutia

    Euronews (especially the app) is a good resource for short news items. One especially good feature is that EVERY report comes with:
    1) an almost exact transcription, for checking your dictation quality whuch IMHO is better than the often dubious untertitling of news programs in the various ARD Mediatheks and
    2) multilingual versions of the same report so you can draw on your other language(s) and assess translation of terms & framing.

    Good Luck

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Wow, thank you so much for the tip. I like all those reasons, especially #s 2 and 3. I’m going to definitely use that as a resource. Thanks again!

    • http://www.diyclassics.com Patrick J. Burns

      Thanks for the Euronews tip.

  • http://compassionatelanguage.wordpress.com/ Compassionate Language Learner

    I love reading the news for language study! I’m not nearly at as high a level as you, but I feel like I can get a lot out of it anyway. Plus, because I get multiple email newsletters per language (from different newspapers), new vocabulary I learn gets reinforced because different newspapers will still use the same vocabulary on a topic (I’m sure you’ve read a bazillion articles about Pegida, for example…). I also really appreciate getting a view on the news that’s not from a US or UK English-speaking viewpoint, of course.

    (And yes, speaking of grim vocabulary, the word for “wounded” has consistently been one of the first words I’ve picked up in any language I’ve started reading the news in… pretty sad. But also sadly useful.)

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hey, thanks for the note. :) Yeah, I definitely heard a lot about Pegida. For a while, it seemed like the only thing on the news.

      Similar to what you pointed out, I noticed that if I start the day off with slowly spoken news from Deutsche Welle, I’ll see the same stories repeated over and over by other news sources..

      Yeah, wounded is a big one. Bild always has stories about a “Horror-Unfall” (horror accident) and someone losing their life. I might start sidestepping those and spend more time with more pleasant stuff, like recessions and natural disasters. (hah)

  • http://lightonspanish.com/ Jorge Sivit

    Hi Ron!

    Thank you for sharing this, specially the methodology you are going to use.

    I enjoyed reading news in German from the beginning because they include many nouns and verbs with a latin origin, which appear less in colloquial speech, but are quite easy to understand for Spanish speakers because of their similarity with Spanish.

    But at the beginning that was all: I could understand many words but not the meaning of the full sentences. German news include quite complicated structures, such as the long adjectival clauses that appear before nouns. But, as you say, these patterns are repeated again and again, and it’s easy to get used to them. And I still marvel at such beautiful structures!

    Looking forward for updates on this program.

    Viel Glück!

    • http://www.5minutelanguage.com/ Agnieszka Karch

      That’s a very common challenge, I think – being able to understand individual words but not sentence meaning. Fortunately, similar structures do come up every now and then, which helps memorising vocabulary in context.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      I tried to learn from news a couple years ago, but I ran into the same problems as what you mentioned. Still, I got a lot of value out of listening and struggling to understand via contextual cues. Now that I have a good base of comprehension, though, I think I’m ready to really start benefiting. Thanks for the support! I’ll need it. lol

  • vern777er

    Hi Ron,
    I’m still battling away with Spanish! Reading tennis articles has been one of the mainstays of my language learning. I’ve been reading at least one article everyday since I started. I’m interested in it which is a big help and they use the same sentence structure and terms over and over again. The other thing is I can flick back to the English version of the site and read it to make sure I got it right. I now prefer to read the tennis in Spanish as I don’t find it difficult and only miss one or two words. I’ve also started reading BBC Mundo which I am enjoying. They have a good section on health and fitness which interests me. I think that’s the key, find something that interests you.
    I haven’t done much listening to media yet as I find it a bit hard. I’m still working with podcasts and a bit of simple youtube stuff. Listening for me is proving quite difficult.
    Still enjoying your site, keep it up.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi Vern. I appreciate it, thank you.

      And this is great: “I now prefer to read the tennis in Spanish as I don’t find it difficult and only miss one or two words.” What this tells me is that you’re really starting to “get it” with Spanish. You have an intrinsic sense of structures, and when you’re familiar with the vocab and topic, you’re able to understand. Really, I think it’s just a matter of repeating that same process in other areas besides tennis–the BBC Mundo health and fitness articles are perfect. Soon what you don’t know will be overshadowed by what you do. (But don’t stop reading the tennis articles in the meantime.)

  • http://www.5minutelanguage.com/ Agnieszka Karch

    It sounds like a sensible approach. The only challenge I can see for learners of more niche languages is identifying news sources that have a reputation of being well-written. I’m going to take up a new language in the next couple of days so will need to do some research into that soon! Good luck with your plan!

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hey, thanks for the note! I know exactly what you mean. It’s tough. BBC and Voice of America are good options for less commonly taught languages, but of course not every one is covered.

      Which language are you taking up?

      • http://www.5minutelanguage.com/ Agnieszka Karch

        You can find out which language I’m learning from my vlog :)


        • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

          Okay, I saw 5 Minute Polish and it’s been on my blogroll, but I completely missed your new project. Sorry, and looking forward to it!

          By the way, I’m gonna send you a message on Twitter about something. (It’s blog related…not trying to sell you a timeshare or anything, lol.) Check your messages in a few. :-)

          • http://www.5minutelanguage.com/ Agnieszka Karch

            I’ve expanded 5-minute Polish to include other languages as well. So now it’s called 5-minute language. Confusing – I know 😛

  • http://www.gospeaky.com/ Ludovic Chevalier

    Great article Ron! Using http://www.alexa.com/topsites/countries is a great way to find the most visited websites in a country, and therefore the best news sites!

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      I appreciate it! Thank you for the tip!

  • http://fluenthistorian.com/ Natalie

    Oh, I like this project a lot! I’m doing a similar thing: working through some formal courses that are heavily based on the media, so it’s quite similar. Some of the exercises have transcription. I’m terrible at transcription right now, but I find that it really helps me to do it. Maybe in a couple of weeks, I’ll try a challenge like this one. :)

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Man, I hate to give spoilers, but it’s only been a week and I’m seeing quite a big improvement. If you gave something like this a try, especially considering your background and the work you’re doing now in your course, you’d see rapid improvements. I read on your site before about the realities of reading Russian literature, and I loved that you were honest about it, because in every language I’ve studied, literature is like the final frontier. lol…it can be soooo hard. Meanwhile, news is definitely difficult but much easier attained.

      I think I’m the only language blogger who repeatedly harps on transcription. Linguistic/language education journal articles even call it “dictation.” But you’ll get it! You might even start to like it. Yikes!

      • http://fluenthistorian.com/ Natalie

        Wow! If you’ve seen that much improvement in just a week, that’s amazing. I will definitely have to give this a try.

      • ElfinW

        Hi, I am very interested in the transcription side of your project.

        Personally, I record my sessions with my tutor and then listen to them. When I do that, I take notes and transcribe the parts that seem linguistically interesting/ challenging like, tense usage or complex sentence construction.
        I enjoy doing it, I see it as a way of doing a form of active writing ? I don’t really know. I realize this is totally different from your project, but I was curious about your opinion. How do you think it actually benefits the process ?

        You are right, nobody talks about it.

        It takes time, it really does but a friend has noticed some improvement in my written Spanish for sure. I don’t really know.if it has improved my speaking.

        • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

          Hi! Yeah, transcription is an important part of my studying. I wrote an article here: http://www.languagesurfer.com/2012/08/25/how-to-transcribe-an-essential-skill-in-foreign-language-learning/

          I think there are numerous benefits. First, transcription helps you recognize patterns. I think that’s actually been documented in some studies. (I don’t have them at hand, but I’ve looked up “Dictation” on Google Scholar before and saw that.) Second, it helps you identify issues–spelling issues, issues just *hearing* words you know when they’re spoken, and grammatical issues. Finally, it’s a nice bridge to writing–you can focus on putting words to paper, spelling them right, and so on, without having to come up with something to say or having perfect command.

          I really like the way you say you transcribe. I think that’s awesome, and I’m sure you’re getting benefit from it.

  • Lava

    I learn Japanese but there doesn’t seem to be any news sites to listen to 45 mins straight, the ones I practice on are usually only 1 min long clips of certain topics on Youtube or NHK. But I find it really hard so far, my teacher does the “fill-in-the-blank” listening exercises using news clips, but I find myself concentrating on what words are being said as opposed to the actual information in the news. If anyone knows any good Japanese news sites or radio, it would be great if you let me know :)

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi Lava, thanks for the comment!

      I sometimes have difficulty finding longer texts too. Also, 45 minutes was doable but tough for me. I’m in the last half of this project, and I’ve cut back to 30 minutes. 30 minutes is almost effortless, but 45 minutes seems infinitely harder.

      Listening to radio stations being streamed live and news station podcasts are good bets for longer broadcasts. If you have access to Japanese TV stations, check to see if they have entire episodes online.

      If anyone has specific sources, please let Lava know!

  • http://www.diyclassics.com Patrick J. Burns

    Great article and I have used many varieties of Deutsche Welle news articles, podcasts, etc. for years for improving my German. I wanted to make two brief comments on your good news/bad news list:

    1. Good news: Many news stories develop over days, weeks, months, etc. Yes, diving into a new news thread can be overwhelming, but almost all of the vocabulary that seemed difficult, obscure, technical, etc. on Day 1, will stick very quickly because it will appear in every article on the subject. The payoff with news in this respect unfolds over time.

    2. What you list under bad news under “confusing” I’ve found to be often the opposite case. I tend to approach (at least international) news stories with some awareness of the situation from hearing the morning news here in the US. So I’m reading the German news with a certain amount of “filling-in-the-blanks”, i.e. I can better predict words in contexts and better understand difficult sentences because I already have an idea of what they’re meant to get across.

    I wish I could find more news sources (esp. in other languages) as good for language practice as DW’s “Langsam gesprochene Nachrichten.” Good length, with a variety of topics, available as podcast with transcription. Highly recommended.

    Again, great ideas here. Going to try adding transcription to my routine. Thanks!

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hey, Patrick, nice to meet you! Excellent points. During the project, I noticed exactly what you talked about regarding news stories unfolding over time. That is absolutely the case. I was so sick of hearing about Greece’s debt crisis, but pretty soon I was understanding quite a bit of the language associated with it (and understanding the story better).

      I’m not sure if you saw this, but I had a project wrap up post here: http://www.languagesurfer.com/2015/04/04/project-wrap-up-understanding-news/

      (I need to add that link to this post.)

      Also, here are some easy German news sources: http://www.languagesurfer.com/2015/02/26/easy-german-news-7-sources/

      If you’re reading the Langsam gesprochene Nachrichten, you’ll probably find those sources a hair too easy, though. Only one I’d add is Bild’s News Ticker. Just get to it from the bild.de homepage–if you Google it, it takes you to an archive page. The ticker has stories at about 50 to 100 words a pop, just right if you’re not trying to go too far into the weeds.