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The English handicap

I have just been talking to a friend of mine who is German born and bred , and is living in berlin . She speaks English fluently and all of her ( German) friends speak it to . When I asked her why or how she has learnt English so well , and she answered that she didn't really have much choice as her learning and career prospects were so much higher once she has learnt English , because as she says '' everything is in English '' .

My English friends have no idea why I am learning a language when I don't have to , as like my German friend said , everything is in English , and I believe that most English speaking people are missing out on the numerous benefits ( psychological and neurological included ) of learning a different language and being able to express themselves efficiently in it . Where as other languages are more encouraged to learn different languages ( English specifically )

I am wondering if anyone else has this view , or is it just my small patch of the world that seems like this ? :)

Hab einen guten tag

October 28, 2014



"Everything is in English" is a slight generalization. Slight meaning "enormous" here. It highly depends on the field of professional career, of course, and what direction you want it to take.

The overwhelming majority of university courses is held in German. Nearly every course material is available in German as the universities are mainly public universities and have no choice as to teach in German. If you are doing a bachelor of arts (humanities, Geisteswissenschaften), e.g. aim for teacher, archaeology or such then strictly speaking you don't need much English. It will pop up once in a while but mostly it is not too hard in education. If you want to make a career (so teachers are out by now) then you of course you need English even in the humanities as most relevant conferences or papers are published in English either first or at least as first translation. None of French, Latin, German is the scientific lingua franca any more. It is English currently, without doubt. (Broken English, to be specific.)

If you aim for a degree in natural sciences or informatics then you need English from the start. Legally teaching language at most public universities is still German and I know some people who got their degree with being barely able to say more than "My name is ..." (and there were some who had problems with that). But it is de facto impossible, those were professional clowns also, and everyone was able to note it on first contact.

When you strive for a career in a bigger company English is not optional but expected (leading to huge exaggerations in the CVs; everyone speaks English business fluent there; a white lie that everyone has to share as everything else is a knock out). But that's for conversation with foreign companies, not the language within the company. And as soon as it gets legally relevant each part wants to use their own language and you need professional translators. (There are exceptions where "everything" is in English but that mostly will be confined to a single department and specific qualified jobs, e.g. software development or natural sciences.)

But that is for Germans learning English (they have no choice, by the way, because depending on the state they have to learn English beginning at age 9 or 11).

Of course I can't say why you should learn German. But if you are coming to Germany daily life, business life, nearly everything is in German, of course. You can get along with English; there is no need to learn German if you want to stay here as a tourist for a few weeks. Most people will understand you enough to help you in their profession (say, selling you bread at the bakery) or there will be someone willing to help. That is probably true for huge parts of Europe and the world.

If you want to immerse in the culture and daily life you need the local language. This is true for huge parts of the world also.

I too see the problem with motivation that arises from this. And it is even worse in some countries where English is spoken better than in some countries where English is the official language (Sweden or Finland). Try to talk the local language there - as soon as people realize you aren't local they try to be helpful and switch to English.

You don't learn a language to get along as a tourist. It is fun, it will get you some positive recognition by locals, but it is probably too much effort for the effect.

But you need the language if you stay for longer and want to live in the country, work there, get in contact with the local culture.

And that is true in Germany also, even if some people here aren't very careful with their own language. "Everything is in English" is a generalization that needs some context.


The attitude is the same in the United States. My cousin's husband, who is from Michoacan Mexico, pointed out to me that the majority of people in the US will never leave the country, and will probably never meet anyone who doesn't speak at least some English, during their entire lives. Me, I like learning languages, I like traveling in Latin America (I'm focusing on Spanish primarily), and I like talking to people without an interpreter. But I live close to the Mexican border, and DO regularly encounter people who don't speak English. It's an advantage to be at least somewhat bilingual in Spanish here, because of the large number of immigrants, and because a lot of people come from Mexico for day shopping trips. It's a different scenario in Wichita Kansas.


me, born just a few years after the Velvet revolution, was told since child: you can travel as much as you want when you grow up and learn english, we (grandparents and parents) could just travel through communist countries and had to learn russian and languages someone else chose for them. honestly i cannot imagine not learning at least three languages and travelling abroad whenever i can......and so cannot my peers


Well, some people have the attitude that they need to see everything in the US first, others say they can't afford a passport or a passport card (for day travel to Canada and Mexico) and really can't afford to travel, others will go to Canada, where English is spoken but are afraid to go to Mexico, others will travel with tour groups where a guide does all the translating, if they travel at all, and others just won't travel. The US, after all, is bigger in area than Europe outside of Russia, so there are plenty of places to travel without setting foot outside of your own country.


With the exception of Quebec in Canada and Mexico to the South, an American can go from New York to LA and Hawaii from North Pole Alaska and the Yukon down to Florida and El Paso, TX and speak English as the primary language for nearly 400 million people. Superimpose that space on top of Europe and other regions of the world and multiple countries and cultures and languages are covered in short order.

Knowing multiple languages and being able to communicate in Europe is a great thing. In Europe and many parts of the world, English is what many hoped Esperanto would become, a language that could be used and understood by many. By knowing English, the ability of many in the world to communicate with others from other countries speaking other languages, to engage in commerce, scientific exchange, learning and so forth is of intrinsic value. It opens more of the world to them.

In the US you can drive from New York to Seattle and while the scenery changes and you go through various regions, not a whole lot changes. In Europe for example cross a bridge and in under 30 seconds you go from Kehl Germany to Strassbourg France and it's like an American flying from Atlanta to Paris. Total immersion in different languages and culture is a short drive, train or plane ride away. A day trip or nice weekend excursion. In my experience at least, as an American whose lived in Germany and traveled around Europe especially for young people you want to communicate. It's not just a somewhat sterile language course in High School or College, it's about life, living, sharing, experiencing. It's not a chore or work or task, it's fun.

You are listening to a German radio station, they are talking about the weather, you can see and feel the weather. You hear traffic reports and you are in the Stau. You see billboards and signs with words and pictures. At times you are learning without even being aware or trying to learn the language. You order food, you go to the market or store, you ride the UBahn your acquisition of, understanding of and retention of German or any other language in Europe takes place at an accelerated rate.

In large cities like Berlin many Germans do speak English and may want to practice their English with a native speaker so it's not hard to get along. Get outside of the larger cities and certain regions of Germany much fewer know English or feel comfortable conversing in English or will not attempt to speak English to you unless you at least attempt to speak German first.

I encourage you to keep learning German



All our language learning exists within larger historical, social, political, economic, and cultural contexts. That said, make the world as you would like it. Maybe you don't need another language for a job, maybe you do, but there are tons of other reasons to learn languages. If you enjoy it (and have the means) then pursue it. Get to know the culture of your German friends and you may find some wonderful/interesting cultural surprises!


I feel like so many other countries teach multiple languages to their children in the early stages of schooling so that it sticks with them and they continually use it throughout their lives. In my schooling in the US, I wasn't introduced to any language classes until high school when we were only required to take 2 years of a language, and then it doesn't stick with us enough to be useful (at least it did not for me). I have always wanted to learn more languages so that I can communicate with more people throughout the world, instead of being stuck in my little Americanized bubble of privilege. I want to be able to experience other cultures and languages and not expect everyone I encounter to know English. Even though many things are in English, I think it is extremely selfish of us Americans for expecting everyone to know English but then we refuse to learn other languages.


Yeah I think this goes along with what anne_87 was saying about the usefulness of other languages. I took several German courses at university in preparation for studying abroad, but never got good enough to keep up with native Germans' conversations. Now that I'm back in the States, I don't have anyone to practice with or any opportunities to use it, so it kind of feels like a waste. I mean obviously I enjoy learning, but I think it would be a lot easier to be multi-lingual in a part of the world where you could actually USE the languages you're learning. Even klgregonis's example of learning Spanish near the border makes more sense than me learning German lol


Make German friends, chat with them on Skype, practice from anywhere in the world. :)

The days of having to live within a few miles of someone in order to learn something are long gone. Have a look around where you live too, there's German speakers in the USA; has been since the late 17th century.


Have a look at classified ads, local papers, community clubs, there's plenty of ways to find people who speak other languages. Or you could even take up amateur radio, the hobby that has the added benefit of involving a lot of talking. :P


Yeah I would love to make German friends! It's tough knowing how to meet people, I guess because I normally just make friends with whoever I happen to be around as I go about work/life (and those people are usually English speaking Americans ;) ). Have you made German friends? Do you know a good meeting place for language buddies?


I made a few. :)

When I was homeless for a while, whenever I had money I'd bounce around backpacker hostels as places like that are 1) cheap, 2) friendly, and 3) great places to meet internationals. Nowadays I use them if I'm ever going into a city as I much prefer them to hotels. Occasionally there'll be the odd person to avoid, doubly so if you're female, but they're few and far between, and nothing that hanging in a group won't fix.

I've met a few through some videogames, a few through online forums (Reddit, Facebook groups, etc), and I found a few after looking in local papers for German festivals. In most places I've been in there's almost always a festival of some sort for other nationalities. They won't necessarily be big, but it's a great way to meet people who immigrated or children of immigrants, and then chat. I've also had some luck with universities and colleges as they tend to have a lot of cheap options for their internationals and no requirements to be a student to come along, though that requires a sizable town.

Language exchange sites like Lang-8 or MyLanguageExchange are great if you're happy to teach someone your language while they teach your theirs, and if all else fails then just pay for friends haha. Sites like Italki for instance are great if Skype lessons are your thing, prices vary depending on language, teacher, location, etc, and German was between ~10USD and ~50USD last I checked.

Lastly, event sites like Meetup can have what you want. Type your location in and see what comes up.

Good luck :)


I live in Pennsylvania and in the lower eastern part of the state are some people who speak Pennsylvania Dutch, ie German. Of course, this would mostly be the Amish, a religious/culture group, I'm talking about. There isn't much difference I've been told between German and Pennsylvania Dutch. Lancaster PA has a strong community of Amish, so if you're ever in the state, try poking around there. I knew an older man who had a good time talking with an Amish man in German and they could carry a conversation for some time. And I'm sure they know English as well if you need a fall back.


I am in the category of native English speaker for who learning a language is a luxury, instead of a necessity. I don't Need it to survive. physically. I want to learn another language so I don't die stupid. Also, so i'm not one of the american a**holes who refuse to try to communicate with people, my own neighbors, co-workers, and customers, in another language.


Well this is the reason why I am learning german , and I am sorry if I didn't make it clear . I enjoy learning german for the challenge of it , and because it is fun for me . I am not even planning on going to Germany or similar .



I understand and share your point of view, but everything is NOT in english. Truth is while it tends to be the universal language, there is way more Chinese speakers than English speakers on earth, for example. Most of them do not know english at all. That's the same for quite a lot of Asian and African countries. Being born and raised in France I can say that even though nowadays most Parisiens can handle having a conversation in english, this is not true for most of the countryside regions. There's a vast majority of people in such regions who don't understand a word of english and surely don't want to be bothered with it.


Agreed. Whenever I've gone to France on holiday I've always avoided the regions most popular with Brits (Normandy, Brittany, Perigord etc) and prefer to go to those overlooked by my compatriots (Alsace, Languedoc-Roussillon and the Auvergne). In two weeks in various parts of the Auvergne, for example, I passed ONE other UK-registered car. Where there are no British or American tourists, the locals have no need to speak English, and you simply have to have enough French to at least get by.


Although English is the international language, you miss out on a lot of things when you isolate yourself to one language! There are so many books, movies, and conversations that are difficult to take part in when you only learn English. It's a shame that some people don't realize that.


I defineately agree with this , hopefully more and more people will join us in learning another language , now that is so easy , and free to do so on Duolingo !


Personally I think the idea that 'Everything is in English so why learn another language" has about as much merit as the notion that "Everyone drives a car, so why bother learning to walk!" Just because English is used a lot doesn't mean that other languages don't have value of their own.


I think Gweylfai's point was less that other languages are worth less, but that it's a lot easier to put in the time to learn something when it's something you need as well as want.

When you don't share a first language with someone, what do you go to first? English! I was stopped on a street in France by a Spanish and they didn't try and speak French, they didn't ask me if I spoke Spanish, I got "excuse me do you speak English?" I was in the Netherlands listening to my friend's car radio and I noticed they were talking to a band in English, but the band was German. When your first language is English you can get away with thinking of language learning as a luxury, not a necessity.

It's not the difference between learning to drive and learning to walk - it's the difference between learning to drive when you live in a tiny village and everything is miles away and life would be better every day with a car, and learning to drive when you live in a city - it's occasionally inconvenient but mainly you don't need to drive anyway so you don't think about it. It's "why learn to drive when I don't own a car and get the bus everywhere?"

It's not about the inherent value of learning to drive/learning a language. For most, it's about whether it makes life easier.


well, if i got one euro everytime i hear it between age 6-18, i would have quite an allowance.......for english natives this may be the way you understood it: as a sign of laziness. But for us from post-com countries, we were told again and again: "everything is in english, how will you find a job/get a degree/work with PC/travel if you do not learn it?" we were literally told: how will you survive without english......now, that was motivational


That is really horrible :(


Have a lingot! Thanks for sharing your insight!!


Who knows. One day english will be replaced by another lingua franca :P the romans, french can sing a song about that ^^

In germany there is a club to "save" the german language of changes such as anglicisms, so not all people think this way.

If you only speak english and you highly expect everyone to speak it too you might experience something bad. When people can speak your language but don't want to (easiest case: You were a ❤❤❤❤❤❤❤❤❤ and people don't want to talk with you anymore)

It can be handy to speak another language just to have some fun. For example being in a public place and don't speak the local language to have a private conversation with someone without worrying that other people understand you. I can say that english is the worst choice for this idea :P

If someone tells you something very important and he doesn't speak english natively, you might end up not getting every detail or even important information. It also would take longer to tell the news at all.

Germans who live all there life in germany and know that they don't move won't have to learn english because for them only very little things are in english. Some fancy words, some new gadget names, the radio songs (where nobody really gives a ❤❤❤❤ about the lyrics). Unless you become manager or so and you end up with a "normal" job you won't need english in your life.

real tourism can be done in any language and if you happen to speak a "common" language of the continent or just have a big group population who speak your language too (french, spanish, german, italian, chinese ) There will be everything available in your language, too. ... probably.

Also this argument with "you learn english in school" ... that is quite weak. Unless you were on a high school (in germany Gymnasium) you won't speak english fluently and if you don't give a ❤❤❤❤ then you will end up with broken basic english.

It is also quite a torture to have to speak with someone when they only speak your broken language.... yes you might communicate but it isn't fun.


You're only saying that because you've never seen someone act out Shrek when they wanted to borrow a movie.


Yes I have never seen that, because I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about lol


When attempting to communicate with people who can't speak well in your language. First it's struggles with verbal communication, after that it's charades and that's where it gets quite fun indeed.


I worked in a clinic (not really a hospital) and some of my collegues where indeed not very amused about speaking with foreigners (who live here for more than 10 years) and can't speak english or german. It takes time away when you are already in a hurry, that's what I am referring to.

If you have all the time in the world and you actually like the other person, then sure, it can be fun.


Can't say I really have an opinion on it, to be honest. We English-speakers do learn other languages, too. I've been learning German, on and off, from home, as a hobby, for almost 5 years. We don't not care about other languages just 'cause ours is so wonderful. (slight sarcasm, although I do love English. :p RIP, King Alfred the Great!)


I think there are two effects here. Everyone learns English because everyone else learns English. Not only do you get to do business with all the native English speakers, but you can deal with people from other countries who learned English because everyone else does. The network effect is powerful.

In addition to that, e.g. Germans largely speak English so they can take an active part in helping their children learn. My dad helped me with my maths. My mum helped me with my English. Both were entirely useless when it came to my German homework. Our national inability with languages has a compound effect keeping us bad at it. And even with my new-found Germans skills, my kid might choose to learn French so even my case is 50/50 as to if I'll be able to help because there isn't a clear cut second choice.

On the other hand I've had occasion to meet more Swedes than usual recently, and although they do all speak English I've notice maybe 10% aren't that comfortable with it (still way better than my non-existent Swedish), so there's definitely space for meeting them halfway.


Yes what you say is exactly my point , and exactly the reason why I , a native English speaker , want to learn as many languages as possible , starting now with German and then who knows , but most likely what ever duo comes up with ! :)


I think that if someone says 'why you learning a new language?' you should stick up to the language you are learning or the language you were born with. If you move to a new country knowing a second language is helpful. I personally will learn every language I can in my youth so that I can speak it fluently. I have a grandma and a dad the grandma is German and insists we call her oma my dad is German but not bred to be German my biological dad is not I have not one drop of German blood but can speak it fluently I refuse to stop it.


part of the problem with English speakers learning other languages is that many people who speak other languages know English. The Netherlands for example it is completely possible to live and work there without knowing any Dutch In fat I heard of one American man whose father was Dutch and then he moved there and married a Dutch woman and they had Dutch children and he didn't speak any Dutch. Point being, though this is an extreme example, that if you're surrounded by English speakers it is much harder to learn anything else.


There is less incentive as an American to learn a second language. For one thing, which language will it be? Spanish? French? Tagalog? Japanese? It depends on where we live in the U.S. In most non-English speaking countries, English is the obvious choice for a second language.

Having said that, I believe that you really don't understand your own language (structure, vocabulary, syntax) until you make an attempt to learn another. My two years of high school Spanish did not make me fluent enough to survive in Spain or Mexico (or even some parts of L.A.), nor will my few months of Duolingo Deutsch launch me a career in Austria or Germany, but they have greatly increased my understanding of English. Even if only for this reason, study of a foreign language is important.


When we learn to speak our own language, we don't give a thought to cases, sentence structure, etc. Like you, I've learned so much more about English grammar since beginning to learn another language.


What you get to learn in schools is tied to the imperatives of the nation-state. In the US, we really need to go about changing the way it is done if for no other reason than the way it is currently means you don't really learn the languages very well. We need to have foreign languages at younger ages if we hope for more people to learn many of them or well. It wasn't this way, I imagine, in the US schools because the US historically had isolationist tendencies and a strong desire to make people into "Americans" which you do by homogenizing language/culture.


ikr its so bad that people think they don't need to learn other languages Its a benefit in life


I agree with you, Gwylfai. The neurological benefits are great, especially as we get older, and the achievement that I'm feeling as I progress gives me a lot of satisfaction, hence adding to psychological benefits. I know that there is probably no need to learn another language, but the enjoyment of learning a language is important to me, whether I get to use it or not ... though I really hope that I do manage to get to Germany some day and am able to make myself understood. :O)


Yes , the neurological benefits are great , along with significantly reducing the chance of Alzheimer's disease and dementia , and general neurological decay . Also I am enjoying talking to natives germans currently , some who don't speak English , or not very well , and some who are very fluent . But I talk to them though a german forum of my interest , in my case Pferde und reit , and this is very rewarding , as I am communicating and using the language . Understanding and responding german , this is a great encourager , but it also helps solidify the neural pathways made in the brain ( Law of exercise ) :)


what a great idea! I am afraid my skills are too basic right now, but it would be fun to discuss hobbies on a German forum :)


Don't you think being a native English speaker can also be a chance? Let's look at this the other way and say you've always been interested by foreign languages: you can immediately choose a language you like and learn it! As for us, non-native English speakers, we have to learn English, no choice except for a few exceptions. It didn't bother me because I love English, but what about people who don't want to study it and would rather learn, I don't know, Polish? Well, you can't, because the school system is not made for that, and not everyone has the motivation to learn a language by themselves.

Yes, we are encouraged to learn different languages but we don't always have the choice. Speaking English is a plus: you don't have to learn any language. You just have to pick one you like ^^


I find British (English) people very ignorant in this sense. I feel absolutely terrible when I go to a foreign country and cannot speak the language. I remember being in Hamburg on a guided tour, I asked the (english) guide how long it took him to learn German, his answer - 'I don't need to learn German, I just hang out with the British community here'. How can you ever expect to fully integrate with local culture and society with that attitude?


Yes! I understand! I feel as though many are not applying themselves, that is the underlying problem. I think that really anyone can learn a second language and should if it is practical. That is why Duolingo is so great, it gives you the opportunity to learn a second language. :)


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