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.


  1. I tend to agree with what you say. But are Germans given to self-doubt on any topic? The sad thing is that often Germans don't realise the disadvantaged position they are in when speaking English, as they see themselves as adequate and don't even see the huge gaps (not just nuances) of understanding. I also wonder if being contented linguistically on a low level has anything to do with mental agility - the Dutch are in my view almost too mentally agile. Just thoughts.

  2. Language competence usually correlates with a) the size of the language community and b) economic power. While b) is comparable between Germany and the Netherlands a) definitely is not.
    If you went to e. g. Barcelona or Paris, you would find a comparable level of English competence.
    And: I would not even expect to find any kind of German (or any other) language competence if I went to London or San Francisco.

  3. I think your number three is a major problem indeed. In Germany, the English language is first and foremost seen as a school subject. In the Netherlands and other northern countries the English language is probably rather a "natural" language you just speak. You don't use the language, as long as you don't have to.
    And of course the English classes at school aren't sufficient. I myself noticed another problem at school: the teachers don't teach the same language. There's no need for them to decide wether to teach British oder American English. The result is obvious.

    I went to a "neusprachliches Gymnasium" for nine years. I learned Frensh, Latin and English all at the same time (at least for three years). In that time I had some exchanges and school trips to France and England and I have to say: Both, the French and the English students (and also exchange students from the USA) were notably worse in speaking German, then we where in speaking French and English...

    1. Kilian, Markus_ well yes...people in San Francisco etc would no doubt be less likely to be proficient at speaking Swedish or Polish as well, no doubt about it. One simply has to accept that English is THE lingua franca of the Western world, and to be as bad at it as Germans are (who you rightly point out have such economic klout and weigh in percentage-wise) is just a major embarrassment. Why not simply make an effort and get better at it?

    2. I didn't intend to fokus on the fact that English-speakers are even worse at other foreign languages. My point ist, that people (in general) tend to be as sloppy as they can get away with. French, Spanish, German, Russian - as soon as you have a sufficient number of speakers, you won't have that urgent a need to use English (especially as a person not working in international environments).
      The same argument btw holds as well for English speakers - as soon as you have reason to learn a foreign language, you will learn it.
      To sum it up: I guess that you are comparing languages/speakers on different levels. The German overall level of competence isn't any more embarassing than that of comparable speech communities (French, Spanish, Russian etc.); so there is little chance that Germans are going to make the effort. They are behaving quite rationally as it is.

  4. Sorry, butchering the English language is not a sign of being rational in my view.

  5. Christopher Köbel8 October 2012 at 00:33

    Margit, if the everyday contact with native English speakers is minimal, which applies to the majority of Germans, then a limited-vocabulary pidgin will indeed suffice. Markus is quite insightful as regards this.

    I will admit any time that what our school system calls "language classes" is fouled up and suffers from teachers that grew up in that same system. No need for a year abroad, no clear commitment to one flavour of English, etc. The distinction between American and British (and Australian etc.) is lost on most Germans. On the other hand, I suspect that the distinction between German, Austrian and Swiss is also lost on most non-native German speakers.

    As I see it, there's another divide complicating things: While our schools tend to BE, most of the spare time exposure to English (books, games, TV, web, software, ...) will be AE. So our youth combines the dry theoretical BE from school with unstructured AE learning. It's no wonder what comes of it.

    The situation of the Dutch is not really comparable: The are in close proximity to this scrap of earth in front of continental Europe - I can't see many south or east Germans covering 600+ km for a trip to Britain. And the Dutch have turned a disadvantage into an advantage: For several millions of Germans, it was profitable to translate films and TV shows into German. For those few Dutch, it never was, so they got by with cheaper subtitling or no translation at all. I have some Dutch acquaintances, teachers at that, and they stated that this is what made (British) English so widely used in the Netherlands.

    The advent of DVDs/BlueRays with more than one sound track improved the situation in Germany somewhat due to a perceived better quality of the experience, but since more and more video will be streamed, I don't know what will happen to multilingual media.

    A closing word in favour of the Germans: At least they're generally willing to learn foreign languages, even if only a bit of them. My French family, friends and acquaintances rather not - and neither the Spaniards I know.

    (the Franco-German son of an English teacher)

    tl;dr - Markus is quite right: pidgin is sufficient to get by for most Germans. Germans are exposed to a bad BE-oriented school system and AE-oriented media. The Dutch learned good English due to greater proximity to Britain and lower access to localized media.

  6. Dubbing all movies and practically everything on German TV. The average viewer has no exposure to the English language like in Scandinavian countries, in the Netherlands or Switzerland. When asked why, people often refer to the fact those are smaller nations, hence no need/means/whatever for proper translation. There was a prominent article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung a year ago I wrote about in my blog (, but I am not sure about the reaction. It certainly depends on which walk of life you come from, and in certain cases fluent idiomatic English can even serve as a status symbol. Also, there are ongoing complaints of the abundance of Americanisms which are considered detrimental for the language.

  7. Of course, you are overlooking the fact that comparatively speaking, Germans are quite *good* at English. When I say 'comparatively speaking', I mean compared to people in non-European countries. Add Asia to the mix, and the Germans actually come off very well...

    1. Content-wise you're right Tony, and thanks for the pointer. However, I wanted to draw a direct comparison between what I experienced in 2 European capitals (Amsterdam and Berlin), as I state at the beginning of my post. So I didn't "overlook" Asia, it just wasn't my topic. But it's certainly true that all my blogs are Euro-centric and written from a European perspective. Mainly because I know what I'm talking about there ...:)

  8. Funny fact: Dutch people tend to use their foreign languages more often because they consider themselves better at using them than they actually are. Which, in turn, leads to more experience and in the end indeed better English. I did not make that up, it was in a scientific paper I read years ago.

    One thing you are definitely right about is this stupid TV-/movie-dubbing habit. It's really tough to find series with subtitles, and I know that listening to movies (not only watching them, but listening to them as I do other things) has drastically improved my English (and other languages).

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