English for German First Language Speakers

Fred Thompson – Head of English at the University of Koblenz – Landau

As teachers for English, we are always thrilled when our German pupils come to class well prepared as well as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.  Our enthusiasm, however, can be dampened whenever we hear a sentence like the following one from a pupil:

“I have made my homework last night at home”.

While this utterance should not cause a major breakdown in communication, it does lack a certain degree of accuracy in Standard English, especially with grammar and linguistics. In its written form, we have problems with verb tense, collocation and word order. And in its spoken form, the pronunciation of final voiced consonants will most likely need some more attention.

To begin, German speakers often confuse two English tenses: the present perfect and simple past. The usage of the present perfect in the utterance above (i.e. have made) may appear to match perfectly with the German perfect form or Das Perfekt (i.e. habe gemacht) as both tenses in these languages contain an auxiliary verb and past participle. This assumption, however, is a pitfall. The German perfect form is always used for completed past actions; English uses the simple past (not the present perfect) in similar cases. The English present perfect, in contrast, describes events that begin in the past but have some connection to the present moment of speech. It should be noted that there is no exact German equivalent for the English present perfect.

Another mistake in the original sentence is linguistic, specifically choice of verbs. The English verbs make and do can cause problems for German speakers. Whereas we do our homework in English, Germans use the verb machen or make (i.e. die Hausaufgaben machen) with this expression. This explains the odd combination of made my homework above. It is not always easy to know which of the two English verbs should be used, as direct translations can sometimes work. In both English and German, it is appropriate to say to make a mistake (i.e. einen Fehler machen) or to make fun of someone (i.e. sich über jdn lustig machen). In other expressions, however, we must know that only do can be used in English, for example to do the shopping (i.e. die Einkäufe machen).

Word order is also problematic. The specific order of adverbs in the end position of an English sentence can be particularly tricky. In contrast to German where adverbs of time usually precede any other type of adverb, English speakers generally prefer having adverbs of manner first and then having adverbs of place and time. In the original sentence, last night should actually follow at home.   

Turning our attention to pronunciation, we must concern ourselves with the “notorious” devoicing of final voiced consonants, especially with plosives and fricatives. Final devoicing or Auslautverhärtung is a common feature of L1-German speakers. Instead of articulating /meɪd/ for made in the original sentence, /meɪt/ (or mate) is usually uttered. Mate and made are two separate words in English. Likewise, the devoicing of have will create a new word: half.  Concentration on saying I have made and not I half mate will increase intelligibility between both the speaker and interlocutor. Needless to say, had the correct word order in the original sentence been used in the first place, we would have avoided at least one articulation problem with have!  

Fred Thompson – University of Koblenz – Landau

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