How to Learn German by Visiting Art Museums (for B1+ learners)

On your first day in Vienna, you will be overwhelmed by all the stunning buildings around you. Especially Vienna’s city center, the first district (also called „Innere Stadt“ meaning „inner city“ due to the huge wall, that surrounded it until the 19th century), is filled with century-old palaces, baroque churches and world-class museums. All these sights are so inviting that you won’t be able to decide which one to visit first. And yes, there is no way to do all the sightseeing in just one day (not even within a month), so make sure you always have some spare time in between university and German lessons. If you mind some of the following tips while doing what every tourist does you will even gain a greater benefit: Advance your command of the German language while exploring Vienna’s cultural heritage.

So what is there to see? Almost everyone around the world has heard about the Austrian capital, famous for its golden concert halls and prestigious boulevards, its everlasting mix of cultures and vibrant nightlife. Of course, there would be a lot more to say about the theatres, parks and castles. But generally speaking, it is the famous artwork, that makes Vienna a world capital of culture. And if you are new to Vienna, visiting the art museums is a great way to start your sightseeing. You might even come across some famous painters from your home country. Why is that, you ask? Let us explain.

The Habsburg dynasty ruled over Austria for over 650 years and left huge footprints in the historic townscape. The Hofburg for example, where the winter residence used to be, is one of the biggest building complexes in the world, while the summer residence, the Schönbrunn castle, is a slightly smaller version of the Versailles castle in France. Both of them are well worth a visit by the way. But the house of Habsburg did more than simply building nice palaces. They were famous in Europe for being collectors. They sent diplomats all around the continent (and sometimes even further) to buy the most precious jewelry, to find the most talented artists and give all of them a new home in Vienna. After World War One, the Habsburgs lost their throne and fled the country, but the artwork they had been collecting over centuries remained.

Have you heard about Caravaggio? How about Pieter Brueghel? Or maybe even Gustav Klimt? All of them are world famous painters and some of their greatest artworks can be found in art galleries throughout Vienna. The Kunsthistorisches Museum (museum of Art history) and the Oberes Belvedere (Upper Belvedere) are the two best museums for you, if you are interested in captivating paintings. We definitely recommend the Upper Belvedere to get familiar with Austrian artists, especially the famous “Jugendstil” (art noveau) group.

Before you visit, be sure to check out their opening times:

What sightseeing has to do with German lessons

Now that we have established that Vienna is the place for discovering art, let’s look at the benefits of sightseeing when it comes to learning German. Of course, it is tempting to read the flyer you get at every museum entrance in English, but how about picking the German one? Or did you ever notice the little info boxes underneath each and every famous item in a museum? Naturally you would just read the English one as you have a faster reading rate and there is so much else to see in the never-ending halls, that are oh so crowded with marvelous things to stare at.

But next time when you visit a museum, let’s say the Belvedere, try and do the following: Pick five or maybe ten paintings that really take your breath away, and then read the description, but not in English, no, try the German one! Try to read closely, maybe even speak the words out aloud (but not too loud, after all, it’s a museum, my friend!) and try to understand it. Usually it describes the most striking aspects of the painting or maybe which topic it deals with or even reveals something about the artists biography. Some words might be difficult, but many will be easy to understand for you. And as always when studying a new language, it’s not about analyzing every word in detail, it’s about a general understanding of what the text is trying to tell you. And then, only then, read the English version. In most cases they are translated sentence by sentence and you can easily find out what you missed before. By doing so you’ll not only learn some new words, you will also learn to focus on certain paintings you really like and not get puzzled by the thousands of other artworks hanging around in the building. And there is even more to that technique: the content of the text is always close to the painting, which means that you will find it easier to understand the subject matter because the subject is right in front of you.

Another technique, that works for many German learners: bring a friend, maybe a fellow student from your German class, who is also interested in art. And then repeat the task: choose ten paintings you really like, but this time, don’t read the info box. Instead, tell your companion why these paintings are attracting you so strongly, talk about the colors, the action taking place, the emotions, maybe even tell the background story (it helps if you are familiar with the bible or Greek mythology). All of this: In German, of course! It doesn’t matter if you lack some words or expressions, we all struggle sometimes when we try to express our feelings about something, even in our mother tongue. But do not give up, rephrase it, use simpler words, try to communicate your opinion, dare to make mistakes and learn from them, just as you would do in one of our INNES German classes.

Let us look at the advantages of this method: on the one hand, the object you are talking about is right next to you, which makes it easier for your companion to understand and you can point out the details you’re fascinated by. On the other hand, you always have a topic of conversation and it is way outside your everyday small talk comfort zone. You will find the need to expand your vocabulary to express opinions and feelings and, yet another advantage, you will also broaden your cultural horizon. At the end of the article, you will find a useful guideline on how to talk about artworks without being an art historian.

The perks of using a guide to learn German

There is one more thing that you can try out when visiting a museum: make use of a guide. After all, their job is to open your eyes to something you didn’t realize before. All the big museums in Vienna offer guided tours with an art historian, both in English and German and they are not too expensive (usually around five euros additionally to the entrance fee). Of course, you as an enthusiastic German learner will take part in the German tour, so you can watch an enthusiast highlighting the most fascinating details about a painting you might have overseen. It is always exciting to listen to someone who really loves the things he is talking about and it might be contagious (in a good way, though). As with the info boxes, you won’t get each and every word, but the general idea is what’s important. And since there won’t be any translation of what the guide is saying, you simply have to concentrate and open your mind to this German monologue of appreciation. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, there will be many other people in the audience who might struggle with certain expressions.

Certainly, in these modern times, there is a cheap way to have a guide on your own, which you can stop, whenever your head starts smoking: audio guides. They are accessible in each and every museum throughout Vienna and they are even cheaper than a human guide, but usually not as charming. Here are some advantages of taking an audio guide:

· You can start and stop whenever you want

· You can listen to the chapters as often as you like

· You can switch between German and English

· You can enjoy artwork quietly before turning the device on

· You can walk around in your own pace

· You won’t be surrounded by nerdy art historians

As you can see, the advantages are numerous. In any case, when it comes to practicing German, we really recommend to use one of the techniques mentioned above. Which one works best for you is dependent on how you learn best. For example:

Do you belong to the auditive type? Then taking a tour with a guide or renting an audio guide will do just fine.

Do you learn new words best when seeing them in written form? Then read the info boxes in German first.

Or do you maybe want to practice your speech and pronunciation? Then take a companion and inspire him in the same way as a certain painting inspires you.

Talking about art – the easy way

Now that you are excited to practice German surrounded by beautiful artworks, you might find it difficult to start. Here is a quick and easy way to talk about every painting, no matter who painted it or when it was created, you don’t even have to have the tiniest bit of a clue of art history.

Choose any painting, but be sure it is one that you really appreciate. As mentioned before, your enthusiasm will echo in your audience (how else do you explain the popularity of love songs?), so don’t choose the most famous one. DaVincis Mona Lisa is nice, but isn’t she looking quite bored? Also, the Mona Lisa is in Paris, so try something else. Whatever it is you fancy, choose it. And then you start to talk about it. To keep the attention of your audience, use this golden thread (in German we would say “roter Faden”):

Begin with the obvious. Is the painting bright or dark, is it colorful or monochrome, is it large or small, rectangular or maybe egg-shaped? Continue with what the painting shows, but be careful not to deliver any interpretations. Explain what you see and always go from the main features into detail (never the other way round), otherwise you will lose yourself and the audience. Talk about colors, shadows, figures. Then go further into detail: What do the people wear, what’s the weather like (this one might sound stupid at first, but wouldn’t you agree, that a thunderstorm pretty much changes the mood of a painting compared to a cozy late summers day?), what is in the center of the painting,…?

Only after that you can start to make interpretations or even tell the story the painting is showing. And finally, you can give your own opinion and let the audience know, why you find this picture worth looking at. With these easy three steps (description, interpretation, opinion) you will never struggle to talk about art in whatever language. By the way, you will notice that even art historians use this method, they even invented it!

You are ready for Vienna’s most glamourous collections of artworks. Just don’t forget to ask for a student discount to save some money. And if you really fall in love with one of the museums, think about a “Jahreskarte” (annual ticket), they usually pay off after three visits. Now go out there and practice your German skills in one of the many stunning museums Vienna has to offer!