Tuesday, 28 September 2010

English? Na klar!

There are very few Germans who would not maintain that they speak fluent English. And indeed, English is everywhere - music, films, social media, brands, youth culture... you name it, it's in English. But when it comes to actually speaking English, Germans are - whether they like it or not - quite shockingly bad at it. Of course, if you go there as a tourist, you're probably quite happy that almost everybody has a smattering of your language, and you won't find yourself totally lost. But proper, idiomatic and proficient speaking of English is almost totally absent. I've been paying quite close attention to this phenomenon since I moved here, and have identified what are, in my mind, the most obvious weaknesses.

1. Pronunication. Only the other day I heard somebody say "Latin Lover" in typically German pronunciation . It sounded like thiss "Lett-hinn luffa". Most Germans don't make any effort to pronounce English as it should be. Annoyingly, they often also transport their own local dialect into the foreign language, so you end up with Swabian English, Berlin English etc.

2. Un-idoimatic use of language. Germans seem to be blissfully unaware of the fact that English is perhaps the most idiomatic language in the world. You simply can't go about in your own way and disregard idioms. It ends up sounding clumsy and naive, and that unfortunately, is mostly the impression created when Germans speak English.

3. Treating English as if it was German. Probably the gravest sin, and probably responsible why Germans think they can easily deal with the language: Just translate word by word and you end up with... gibberish. A good example I overheard the other day: "It is now nice since two days, so I go out." Err? There is also a total disregard for tenses (esp. Present Perfect to indicate an on-going state of affairs and Past Continuous which doesn't exist in German.)

I think there is great scope for improved English teaching at German schools and university. It should be a prerequisite that English teachers have spent a considerable amount of time in an English-speaking country. I do believe it's worth learning to speak a language properly (i..e as native speakers handle it) and not in some pidginified version.


  1. Love the photo, it's the funniest speech evahh!!

  2. Aww, did have a laugh, though as you said, would be so grateful to hear English if I were in Germany. I'm assuming that the sentence meant person is going out after staying inside because of two days of bad weather.

    Agree with you about teachers spending time in the country of the language they are teaching. I would want a native speaker if I were studying German here in the US.

  3. Thank you! I was a bit apprehensive when I posted this, thinking readers would tell me off for being too critical... but I think it's worth taking languages seriously.

  4. How true, Margit. I think most countries drag the way they speak their own language into Englsh - French people speaking English aren't much better in my experience. Most Germans I know who speak English do so with some trepidation - and their accents are indeed pronounced. But....at least they try - how many English people can speak bad German? Or bad anything for that matter? Whilst I think a little more regard for correct use and pronunciation of English amongst all foreigners is highly desirable, it would be nice if Brits made a reciprocal effort, n'est-ce-pas?

  5. Regarding '1. Pronunciation', not everyone has the skill necessary to pronounce English as it should be. I am from Germany and do struggle to speak proper Hochdeutsch. I know many people who can copy the accent from other German regions, I can't - and as a result of this lack of talent my English probably sounds the same it did ten years ago when I moved to the UK.