From fruit juice to life hacks: Why the Germans are so much better at foreign languages than us

Germany-foreign-languages-englishI was visiting a friend in the German city of Nuremberg last week and we popped into a hairdressers for a quick trim. I left most of the talking to my friend, the German words for ‘choppy layers’ and ‘thinning scissors’ momentarily eluding me. I did exchange some pleasantries with the friendly hairdresser though, who seemed glad that we’ve enlivened her otherwise slow Monday morning at Nuremberg’s branch of ‘Hair Killer’. (Wouldn’t ‘Killer Hair’ be more suitable? No matter.)

My friend, fairly new to the city herself, then asked where we could buy souvenirs. The hairdresser turned to me and asked, ‘So what city do you come from, then?’, obviously assuming I was German. I replied, ‘I’m from London. I’m English.’ Somewhat confused, she turned to my friend and asked, ‘So she doesn’t speak German then?’ as if I’d somehow been pretending all along.

To her, the idea of an English person speaking German at all, let alone fluently, was a paradox. The stereotype of the proudly monolingual English is of course rooted in fact. The percentage of English people who can speak a foreign language is very low compared to other European nationalities and falling numbers of modern language students at UK universities suggests that this will only get worse.

The figures are often attributed to laziness (‘languages are too difficult’), ignorance (‘everyone speaks English anyway’), egotism (‘English is the most important’) or island-bred insularity.

But this is too simple. We should not be comparing a German pupil learning English with an English pupil learning German – the contexts are too dissimilar.

While many English children meet foreign languages for the first time in the classroom, where they seem strange, irrelevant and insurmountably foreign, German children are bombarded by the English language on a daily basis from birth and continue to be so throughout their lives.

Brands such as Apple and social media outlets Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, whose names all boast the global supremacy of English, cannot be ignored – unless you are raised in the darkest corner of a Bavarian forest.

The seven highest-grossing films in Germany this week were made in the USA while seven singles in the top ten were English-language. While German-language videos hold their own against British and American influences on YouTube, most of them are liberally sprinkled with English phrases such as ‘top 10’, ‘life hacks’ or ‘Topmodel’.

Germany-foreign-languages-englishGo to the supermarket and you’ll find shampoo with slogans like ‘Repair and Care’ and a brand of fruit juice called ‘vitafit’. Buy Germany’s biggest tabloid newspaper and you’ll find words like ‘Shitstorm’, ‘Stripper-Stars’ and ‘Iran-Deal’ in its headlines.

In this context, it’s no wonder that German children are so good at English. Absorbing it from a young age, it doesn’t feel so foreign. Seeing it around them, they understand its relevance and actually want to learn – even if it’s just to understand Avicii’s lyrics!

So until more foreign-language films get out of arthouse cinemas and into Odeons and more foreign-language music hits UK charts – and until a London hairdressers is launched as ‘Haartöter’ in a gesture to Nuremberg’s finest salon – the dire percentage of foreign-language speakers in this country is unfortunately unlikely to change.

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9 thoughts on “From fruit juice to life hacks: Why the Germans are so much better at foreign languages than us

  1. Further to your 1st paragraph, as a subject librarian for German I find I am increasingly asked – by both British and German colleagues – whether I have a German family background or lived in Germany as a child. The idea that a Brit might just choose to study and work with a foreign laguage and culture out of interest and love for the subject seems to be an unusual one to many people.

    • Yes, I agree! I have had similar experiences. With my German name, people tend to assume I have German relatives or have lived there. They are then quite confused when I tell them I just really like Germany and the German language.

  2. Great article. About 10 years ago I lived with two Germans, one from the Magdeburg and the other from Stuttgart during our Erasmus year in Italy. Both spoke English to a very good level. I was recently in Dresden for a wedding and of the 7 people I stopped for directions or information between Berlin and Dresden, only 2 spoke English. This did surprise me, but I don’t want to make assumptions based on the English skills of a few random people I stopped en route to Dresden. I imagine that age and social strata may play a part in it as well.

    • Thanks Adam. Interesting story – yes, it’s certainly not true that every German speaks good English. Age and social strata definitely play a role, but there’s no guarantee that even young, well-educated Germans will speak it well. They’ll usually have some knowledge though, and it’s often mostly from popular culture rather than the classroom.

  3. I am more than astonished about the discussion! I am myself a German living in The Netherlands. THAT”s the place where foreign languages thrive. My experience (coming from a small town background) is that Germans hardly know how to pronounce English correctly, don’t want to speak the language for fear of not being ‘good’ enough and ALL foreign movies are dubbed. Many don’t even want to watch a movie in its original with subtitles for they think it’s a nuisance to read while watching. So they might be bombarded with a lot of (American) films and songs, it isn’t necessarily that they actually ‘hear’ or understand the Original! Unthinkable in NL. I have many foreign friends not bothering to learn Dutch for they can live here easily speaking only English. So, your experience with fluent English speaking Germans is probably based on a selection of a young, well educated generation.

    • Thanks for reading, Fanny. I totally agree with you about The Netherlands – in comparison, Germans are fairly poor at foreign languages. And it certainly is the younger generation who are more likely to engage with YouTube etc. where English is so dominant. What I was mostly trying to say is that Germans are surrounded by English from a young age, whereas English children may never see or hear German until age 11 (or later) when they learn it at school. So the contexts for learning each language are very different and this can have a big knock-on effect.

  4. Interesting article! I’m not a teacher of languages, but I would be very interested in how German children are taught English…I realise that they will be absorbing English from popular culture all the time, but I’ve always thought that they way they are taught (more interesting? more (obviously) useful? Yet still drilled in) must play a huge role. I’m sure the Germans I know who attended Sprachschule are far more fluent than I managed even after my year abroad…

    • Thanks! I’m not an expert on that either, but yes, my impression is that the German method of teaching languages is very much more effective! My experience certainly suggests that the way we teach German in this country is fairly poor and based around a method of examination that doesn’t encourage real understanding or linguistic proficiency. It seems to have got even worse since I was at school!

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