The downside of English as the universal language

Why is it that many Anglophones seriously consider going to Germany to work when they have zero German skills? A German would never for an instant think that he/she could go to Britain or the United States to work without knowing English well. So why would it be OK for English-speakers to live and work in Germany with minimal German skills?

Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? After all, isn’t English the universal language? Don’t many global companies in Germany use English as their “official” language? Everyone in Germany speaks English, right? — Well, the answer is a definite jein (German for “maybe” or “yes and no”).

If you don’t know that English has become the de facto universal language (Weltsprache in German), what cave have you been living in? English dominates academia and the world of international business, especially in Europe. A 2008 survey found that 90 percent of European students study English at some stage of their education. (“Study” does not always mean “learn.” French and German are the most popular but distant runners-up.) A recent article in The Economist states that about 60 percent of young Europeans speak English “well” or “very well.” (Note that it does not say 60 percent of “all” Europeans, just those in the 15-24 range, and even that figure should be taken with a grain of salt, since it includes young native speakers of English.) Even in China, nearly 60 percent of primary school children now get English lessons!

The Economist article also mentions that many European newspapers and magazines, including Germany’s Der Spiegel news magazine, now publish online editions in English, in addition to the local language. This means that many Europeans (and Americans) can follow events and issues that they otherwise would not know about — in English. In fact, Der Spiegel is trying to establish a “pan-European network” that aggregates English websites published by periodicals in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, France, and other European countries. A Dutch journalist points out that “very fine pieces” are published in Dutch that “the rest of the world never notices.” English makes such articles accessible to many more readers who don’t know Dutch.

This preponderance of English threatens the long-standing European Union language policy of “mother tongue plus two,” which encourages EU citizens to learn two other languages besides their own. (Not that the policy has been that successful, especially in the notoriously monolingual enclave of Britain.) The predominance of their mother tongue around the globe also seems to give English-speakers yet another excuse for not learning a second language, much less a third. The US has never had a foreign-language requirement for high school graduation. England and Wales foolishly abandoned theirs in 2003.

But this universal-English thing is a double-edged sword.

Over a decade ago, in 1997, there was a panel discussion at the University of Michigan on the topic of English as the universal academic language. Its title: “English Triumphant: A Problem as Much as a Solution?” One of the panelists, a German, pointed out that the prestigious German science publication, Zeitschrift für Anatomie und Entwicklungsgeschichte, was established in 1876. It was known only by its German name and published only in German until 1974, when an English subtitle (“Journal of Anatomy and Embryology”) was added. Later the journal was known only by its English title and only published articles written in English. (It was renamed Brain Structure and Function in 2007.)

Although it may seem to be just one more nail in the multilingual coffin, this example also serves as a cautionary tale for English. In the 19th century, German was the dominant language of science and technology. French was the language of diplomacy. In the 20th century, both of those languages gave way to English. Today, English is the lingua franca of world commerce and academia, but will it one day go the way of Latin, the European lingua franca of the Middle Ages and into the 17th century? Will Chinese, with over a billion speakers, or some other language eventually become the new universal language?

Such a sea change may be many decades in the future, but there is another drawback for English-speakers right now. While Europeans are learning a second or third language (one of them usually being English), Britons, Australians, Americans and other monolingual English-speakers are increasingly at a competitive disadvantage in the European labor market. Multilingual Europeans can move about freely throughout Europe, while tongue-tied Anglophones are more limited in their options.

Another, less tangible problem is the isolationist attitude and lack of understanding of other cultures that go hand-in-hand with monolingualism (and never reading a newspaper, foreign or domestic). Only a European publication would claim in a 2005 headline: “Only half of Europeans can speak a foreign language.” In Britain or the United States, a similar headline would read “an astounding 50% of Brits/Americans can speak a foreign language!” (If only it were so. The world would be a much better place.) But that headline also means that half of Europeans speak only their own language. So much for “everyone speaks English.”

Okay, even if you won’t buy my cultural, idealistic arguments, let’s get down to brass tacks and practical reality — especially as it relates to Austria, Germany and Switzerland.

While it is true that some English-speaking expats have lived in Germany or other German-speaking countries for years without learning German, there are many reasons why that is unwise — besides all the missed opportunities. About 80 percent of the German economy is made up of small to medium-sized businesses (der Mittelstand) that operate mostly or exclusively in German. Even when your workplace language is English, as with some multinational corporations, you will miss a lot of what is going on in the background if you don’t understand German. (You may be surprised to learn how much non-English communication still goes on in those situations.) Your chances for advancement are also much more limited without German skills, and you will command less respect from your German co-workers. (This has echoes of the U.S. intelligence failure in Iran in the late 1970s because the CIA was getting all its information in English and had no agents who spoke Farsi, the local language. More recent Iranian intelligence failures seem to prove that the CIA learned nothing from that.)

Many expats think (correctly) that English skills are a plus in the German workplace, but they forget that there are plenty of other English-speakers — who also know German — ready and willing to take their place. If a German employer has a choice between someone who speaks only English and a person who speaks English and German, guess who will get the job. The same is true in science and academia. Even if you are teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in Germany, knowing German will be very helpful.

But the workplace isn’t the only place where German is important. Most people spend eight hours a day at work and eight hours (give or take) sleeping. What about the other eight hours of daily life? Do you really expect to cope with everyday life in Austria, Germany or German-speaking Switzerland with no German or weak German? While I was living in Berlin, supposedly one of Germany’s most cosmopolitan cities, I remember many situations when the people I was dealing with spoke only German. I’m not sure how I would have coped without German — perhaps the kindness of strangers? I am often amused by Germans who like to complain about how English is taking over die deutsche Sprache. Often the German who says this can’t put together three words of coherent English. Yes, there’s a lot of English used in modern German (so-called “Denglish”), but don’t think that means German is turning into English. Far from it!

Try watching German (or Austrian/Swiss) television without German! (Actually, watching German TV is a great way to improve your German.) True, with cable or satellite TV, you can get CNN and other English-language channels, but is that why you’re in Germany — to watch TV in English? You’ll get much more TV in English if you just stay in your homeland!

If you are a parent, there is another important reason to know German. Your children, especially young ones, will be picking up German like a sponge — at school or when playing with the neighborhood kids. Even if you speak English in the family, you’re going to miss out on a lot if you can’t join in a German conversation and share that aspect of German life with your children. You do want them to become bilingual, right? Well, that’s less likely to happen if you’re still monolingual.

While many younger, well-educated Germans can speak English, the older or less educated the German, the more likely it is that he or she speaks no English. (And far more likely in Austria.) Even tourism in Berlin (and the rest of Germany) has its problems when it comes to English. (Surprising when you know that Berlin is now the third most popular tourist destination in Europe after London and Paris.) When the German capital was preparing for the 2006 World Cup and the expected invasion of foreign tourists, it became clear that Berlin still had a lot of room for improvement in catering to English-speaking visitors. Tourists would see a sign reading “Tickets and More” (in English) at a BVG (public transport) ticket booth, only to be confronted with a ticket agent who spoke no English. (The automated BVG ticket machines do have an English option, like an ATM.) Even many Berlin taxi drivers lack English skills. While German airports are English-friendly, during one of my cab rides from Berlin’s Tegel international airport, I discovered that the driver spoke German and Arabic, but no English. Deutsche Bahn, the German railway, is notorious for train personnel who speak poor English, and train announcements, even at main railway stations, are usually in German only. Berlin is famous for its museums, but many of them have no information about the exhibits in English.

Despite such failings, tourists can manage okay. Austria, Germany and Switzerland are friendly countries with a lot of English on the tourist circuit. But expats are not tourists. Is it not a bit unrealistic and arrogant to assume that a person with weak or no German abilities can adjust well to living in a German-speaking country? I am rendered speechless — in any language — when I hear about people trying to live and work in a German-speaking country without knowing or learning German. It boggles the mind. Please don’t be one of them.


4 thoughts on “The downside of English as the universal language

  1. You’ve captured my sentiments perfectly in this post. I am relatively new in Germany and not close to speaking fluent German yet. It really makes adjusting and living a full life in Germany difficult.

  2. I agree with you that Americans in Germany need to learn the language and I am working towards that. I do have to say one part of your blog in untrue. I know that at least since 1989, the US does require two years of a foreign language in order to graduate High School. Granted this language is usually Spanish or French, but it is a requirement.

  3. Sorry, kanajb, but you are wrong. I taught German at a U.S. high school for 28 years (until 1996). My school offered French, German, Spanish and Italian. At no time did a student have to take a foreign language in order to graduate. I don’t know of any U.S. state (education is a state matter in the U.S.) that has a FL requirement for high school graduation. Most students in the USA who take a foreign language (less than a third!) do so because it is recommended for college, but it is not a requirement for high school graduation. Sadly, the current U.S. trend is even fewer foreign-language requirements of any kind.
    – HF

  4. New York State requires a foreign language for graduation with a so-called Regents Diploma. (Basically, this is the diploma required for college.) I”ve read that New York City plans to begin second language education for all students in elementary school.
    But I think there is an entirely different attitude among Germans, who feel that they should be able to speak additional languages – mainly English. It”s not only a practical skill but a sign of being well educated and cultivated.
    In my field, IT, English competence is a requirement for most positions. And it is perfectly possible to work in IT in Germany without speaking a word of German.
    I have a number of European colleagues in my dept. who have lived in Germany for many years and still speak English at work. Interestingly, they are not native English speakers. As far as I can tell, they have no intention of learning German.
    Too bad. The most fun I’ve had in Germany is going to German classes and meeting interesting people from the entire world. And my German teachers have been wonderful people too. Much more interesting than my job!

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