Monday, 10 September 2012
10 Reasons Why Germans Tend to Be So Bad At English
Two street views, or rather audio-boos from two European capitals:
A couple of months ago I visited Amsterdam- and was truly gobsmacked: Amsterdam is a bilingual town. English and Dutch are spoken as if they were the two natural indigenous languages of that town. Amsterdamers are loquacious, eloquent, and switch codes with ease. Last weekend I was in Berlin. And I was shocked: Berliners mostly seem to speak a sort of pidgin-English, with every verb in the present tense - unidiomatic, halting, and what is worst - they carry their local dialect over into English.
Of course I'm not singling out Berlin as a focus for bad foreign language skills. All over Germany, people will nod enthusiastically when asked whether they speak English - and reply with a resounding"Yesss!" (It's a sign of their incompetence that it wouldn't occur to them to say "I do"). Their grammar is generally non-existent, their pronunciation atrocious and their vocabulary limited to about 200 words. Besides, they have a fatal tendency to translate word by word. "You go high there" (Gehen Sie da hoch).
Why is that? Why are Dutch people so adept at English, and Germans, despite their personal conviction of total fluency so useless at it?
1) Teaching methods are far too theoretical. At school, you don't get exposure to the actual spoken language, you get to memorize rules and regulations. ("The adverb always goes infront of the ...")
2) Teachers themselves aren't very good at English (having gone through equally bad language education), thereby procreating bad pronunciation and general linguistic inadequacy.
3) Children aren't exposed to how English is actually spoken: All foreign TV series are dubbed. In Holland, they all come with subtitles.
4) Pupils are not required to spend time abroad. And few Germans (as opposed to the Dutch) go for ,say, a weekend break in the UK.
5) There is an implicit understanding that German and English are quite similar.Thus, the radical difference in e.g. grammatical tenses gets totally overlooked. In German you get by by just using the present tense - English with its complicated tenses/aspect system doesn't work at all if reduced to the present tense.
6) At university level emphasis is placed on translating texts, rather than active competence of a foreign language. It's almost as if styudying a foreign language automatically means wanting to set up business as a translator. Maybe this is a way of guiding students towards professional pragmatism, but it is not conducive to foreign language fluency.
7) Native speakers as foreign language assistants do exist both at school and unversity level, but they are too grateful for any active participation to actually bother much about students's accents. Incompetent pronunciation is so strong in Germany, that students are often baffled and at a loss when faced with the actuality of proper British (or indeed American) pronunciation.
8) Given the self-image as a competent speaker of English, Germans tend not to carry on learning, or even adding new vocabulary or idioms. ("Wieso? Ich kann Englisch")
9) Idioms are crucial to proper English. German has far fewer idioms, and a rule-restriczve way of teaching/learning never gets anywhere near them. Germans learn words, not idiom clusters.
10) Bad English spawns off more bad English. Even companies advertising for international positions mostly do so in faulty English. Technical brochures, tourism websites, youth magazines and other publications are frequently written in pidgin English. And who is to notice?
A lot needs to be done to help this situtaion. Germany is seriously falling behind in European language competence, especially as other foreign languages (French and Spanish are currently No's 2 and 3) are only spoken by a tiny minority. Massive funding of improved language teaching would help the situation, but what's even more important: The country needs to actually admit to itself that there is a problem which needs addressing.