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How German has completely fuddled up my English (and how I’ve dealt with it)

Those of you who’ve lived in Germany for a few years can surely relate - once you’ve picked up the local language and it encompasses your daily life, you slowly start to notice signs that your English is deteriorating.

How German has completely fuddled up my English (and how I’ve dealt with it)
(I can't believe I just said "We meet us next week" out loud!) Photo: Deposit Photos/Melpomene

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The process of somewhat losing grasp of your mother tongue or another familiar language due to a new language is a strange phenomenon. If you've gone through this, you’re not alone.

Those of you who have similarly based yourself in Germany over the past few years may know what I’m talking about when I say: the struggle is real when it comes to hanging on to your native language.

When I relocated here in 2012, I was as eager as ever when it came to learning German. Eventually when I could speak the language more or less fluently, it was a fulfilling feeling and I patted myself on the back for it.

Little did I know at this point though that soon afterward, the signs showing I couldn’t quite speak English properly anymore would creep up on me.

I had finally come to be able to chat with people at social gatherings as well as communicate with the authorities and doctors – but all of this came with a price.

Now and then, when chatting with family and friends back home, without even realizing it (complete with a big smile on my face) I’d start the conversation by saying “Naaaa?” This is despite the fact I was aware this term of endearment is virtually unknown to anyone who doesn’t speak German. Doh!

Similarly I’d find myself casually adding an “or?” at the end of sentences even while speaking English. This is likely because I had become so used to tacking on the German “oder?” at the end of sentences and my brain couldn’t adjust quickly enough.

Even nowadays I use German words (sometimes unwittingly) while speaking in my native tongue whenever the English word escapes me. The other day for instance when a colleague’s tire went flat I told him that his Schlauch was likely punctured or had a hole in it.

But these examples which show how German has messed up my English aren’t that bad in comparison with the times I really started to fear for the state of my first language.

From 2012 to 2015, my entire working life was devoted to teaching native German speakers and advising them on the English language. 

It was during this three-year period that I had the feeling my vocabulary was shrinking. I also felt like my ability to speak as eloquently as other English speakers was heading downhill.

Whether or not this was true, I’ll never know. What I know now though is that being surrounded by mainly native German speakers on a daily basis in some way or another affected my English.

This became especially evident when, ironically, I started to repeat the same mistakes I called my students out on. For instance, from time to time I myself would say uncommon or strange phrases like “in the near from” and “in former times” simply because my students said them so often and they were ingrained in my head.

SEE ALSO: 10 mistakes English teachers in Germany are sick of hearing

“It’s inevitable that your English will be affected to some extent if you aren’t surrounded by the language on a day to day basis,” Ciaran Fleck, director of English studies at a Munich language school says.

Fleck adds that “odd German constructions” come out sometimes when he’s speaking English because his brain isn’t fast enough when it comes to switching between both German and English – the two languages he uses each day.

The Munich-based Irish national says he’s met English speakers who have been living in Germany for decades who legitimately “cannot go one sentence in their native tongue without Denglishing it.”

While I’ve never gotten to this point, after living in Deutschland for about five years, I wonder whether the “Anglophones” Fleck is referring to could have found ways to keep their native language up to speed. This is particularly interesting for me to consider since there's a chance I'll end up staying in Germany for the long haul.

READ ALSO: The moment you know you're in Germany for the long haul

When I stopped teaching in late 2015 and moved to Wales to begin a Masters programme, I noticed I gradually stopped using the strange phrases I’d picked up from my students. This led me to believe that one way of keeping hold of your English is to visit or spend some time in countries where it's widely spoken.

What’s also seemed to help me stay sharp in my mother tongue is reading. I found the more of the English language I consumed, the easier it was for me to remember words. Sooner or later I wasn't just retaining my English vocabulary, but also expanding it.

Dussmann book store in Berlin has a large assortment of English language books. Photo: DPA

Making an effort to surround yourself and chat with native speakers may also be helpful to avoid getting to the point of unconsciously mashing up German and English in the same sentence.

This brings to mind something a friend of mine who’s a writer mentioned when we met for coffee the other day. She said despite the fact that she lives in Berlin (one of the only cities in Germany where you can get by without much German), she feels somehow at a disadvantage compared to writers in, say, New York City, since writers there are completely immersed in native-level English.

She added that although most days she's surrounded by the English language, it’s not necessarily mother tongue level; in an indirect sort of way this negatively affects her work.

I could empathize with how this could possibly be detrimental to her writing and personal development. Her situation does share similarities with what I'd experienced while teaching.

After I had a few moments to let what she said sink in, I told her she has something many of those writers in the Big Apple don’t have.

Her experience of living as a foreigner in a country where the local language isn’t her own gives her a unique perspective which can only make her writing stand out that much more. Her counterparts in NYC on the other hand don't have this perspective and never will.

SEE ALSO: Why some foreigners live in Germany without mastering the language

Having lived now in Berlin for almost a year, I’ve seen for myself what I’d been hearing about the capital ever since I moved to Germany: people from all across the globe really do flock here. The common language for the majority of them is English, whether or not that's native level.

Personally though, I don't feel like my surroundings have influenced my first language in any way since I moved to Berlin. My year in the UK (which involved studying, writing and communicating completely in English) did wonders to get my mother tongue back in check and it's been smooth sailing since then.

Besides, Fleck doesn’t see being surrounded by non-native English speakers as necessarily a bad thing. “Adapting your English to those speakers will make you a competent communicator in an international environment,” he says.

This stands in stark contrast to a native English speaker who can’t grade their language appropriately, he adds.

With this in mind, I actually don't mind that German managed to fuddle up my English. And in future if I ever get to the point I was at a few years ago, I won't mind either. 

All it would mean is that I'd be challenged to communicate even more competently and I'd learn even more about the languages and cultures of those around me – neither of which is all that bad.

Member comments

  1. Cheer up! If you speak English with Germans who speak English well, your English will probably improve! 🙂

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For members


10 ways to express surprise in German

From woodland fairies to whistling pigs, the German language has a colourful variety of phrases to express surprise.

10 ways to express surprise in German

1. Alter Schwede!

You may recognise this phrase from the cheese aisle at the supermarket, but it’s also a popular expression in Germany for communicating surprise. 

The phrase, which means “old Swede” comes from the 17th century when King Frederick William enlisted the help of experienced Swedish soldiers to fight in the Thirty Years’ War.

Because of their outstanding performance in battle, the Swedish soldiers became popular and respected among the Prussians, and they were respectfully addressed as “Old Swede”. Over the last three hundred years, the phrase developed into one to convey awed astonishment. 

READ ALSO: German word of the day – Alter Schwede

2. Holla, die Waldfee!

This curious expression literally means “Holla, the wood fairy”. It can be used both as an exclamation of astonishment and to insinuate that something is ridiculous.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Mareike Graepel

There are various explanations as to how the forest fairy made it into the German lexicon. Some say that it comes from the Grimm’s fairy tale “Frau Holle,” while others say it comes from an old song called “Shoo, shoo, the forest fairy!”

READ ALSO: 10 words and phrases that will make you sound like a true German

3. Das ist ja ein dicker Hund!

Literally meaning “that is indeed a fat dog!” this expression of surprise presumably originates from a time in the past when German dogs were generally on the thinner side.

4. Ich glaube, ich spinne!

The origin of this expression is questionable, because the word “Spinne” means “spider” and also “I spin”. Either way, it’s used all over Germany to mean “I think I’m going crazy” as an expression of surprise.

5. Ich glaube, mein Schwein pfeift!

The idea of a pig whistling is pretty ridiculous, and that’s where the phrase  – meaning “I think my pig whistles” – comes from. Germans use this expression when they can’t believe or grasp something, or to express that they are extremely surprised.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

6. Meine Güte!

This straightforward phrase simply means “my goodness” and is a commonly used expression of astonishment.

7. Oha!

More of a sound than a word, this short exclamation will let the world know that you are shocked by something.

READ ALSO: Denglisch: The English words that will make you sound German

8. heilige Blechle!

Often when surprised or outraged, we might let slip an exclamation that refers to something sacred. This phrase fits into that bracket, as it means “holy tin box”. 

The peculiar expression comes from the Swabian dialect and refers to the cash box from which the poor were paid by the Church in the Middle Ages.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

9. ach du grüne Neune!

This slightly antiquated expression literally means “oh you green nine!”, or “oh, my goodness!” and is one you’re more likely to hear among the older generation of Germans.

The origin of the phrase is disputed. One explanation claims that it comes from the famous 19th century Berlin dance hall “Conventgarten” which, although it was located in Blumenstraße No. 9, had its main entrance in “Grüner Weg”. Therefore, the locals renamed it as “Grüne Neune” (Green Nine).

Another explanation is that the phrase comes from fairs where playing cards were used to read the future. In German card games, the “nine of spades” is called “green nine” – and pulling this card in a fortune telling is a bad omen.

10. Krass!

The word Krass in German is an adjective that means blatant or extreme, but when said on its own, it’s an expression of surprise. Popular among young Germans, it’s usually used in a positive way, to mean something like “awesome” or “badass”.