“Englished”: Why it’s harder as a native English speaker to learn a new language

January 16, 2013

Improving my German is a personal, daily goal of mine. Having now spent the past 5 months in Munich, I thought I would share some observations about the language learning process with you. In particular, let me explain why I think that it is harder for a native English speaker to learn German, than, say, a native speaker of Portugese, or most other languages for that matter.

One of the primary reasons it is harder is because you can be “Englished.” Being “Englished,” a term coined by some American friends here in Munich, means simply this: you are trying your best to communicate to the locals in German, and they switch to English. This can happen for numerous reasons and in various situations. Often being “Englished” implies “Sorry, your German is just not cutting it right now.” But other times one is “Englished” because the locals are eager to improve their ability to speak English. Quite often one is “Englished” when the German’s English is better than your German.

Now it’s time for a personal confession: I find myself drawn to Germans who are slow to “English” me. Why? Because the only way I can improve in German is by speaking it. I have a handful of German friends who never “English” me; instead we carry on conversations, and when it is needed, they offer corrections or suggestions. Their patience is always greatly appreciated, and at the same time humbling. How nice to know that the moment I stumble upon a word or make a mistake, they are not going to flip into English.

But for this very reason, it can be harder for an English speaker to learn another language. Here’s why. As an English speaker, you happen to speak the global language. You can travel just about anywhere and expect to find locals who can communicate quite easily with you in English. Why take the time, then, to learn their language? Think about it, who gets “Portugesed”? Who gets “Russianed” or “Chinesed”? I sometimes envy my friends here in Munich who speak these other languages, since they are forced to speak German the entire day. Sink or swim. But the fact that you are a native English speaker and are trying to learn a new language puts you in a disadvantageous position: people will want to practice their English with you; people can speak English better than you can their language; people will make exceptions for you to speak English where they would not have made exceptions for other nationalities. For example, as an English speaker, I could choose to speak in University seminars and colloquiums in English, and it would be perfectly acceptable. This, however, is not possible for other international students.

Being “Englished” can be quite discouraging. I choose to see it, however, as personal challenge to continue to improve my language skills, and to recognize just how much room for improvement I have. Ultimately, recognize that if you want to avoid being “Englished,” you must speak excellent German. The only way to avoid this “Englishment” is to ensure that your German is always better than the other person’s English. But of course, as one learning the language, you are not at this point yet, so the vicious cycle continues.

In conclusion, allow me to share a few insights on how to avoid being “Englished”:

  • Arriving in the country with a basic grasp of the language is extremely beneficial. It allows you to immediately begin practicing and using the language, rather than wasting valuable months learning the rudimentaries of the language–something you could’ve done before your arrival. Furthermore, if you arrive not speaking the language, you will likely be categorized as a non-speaker. Then, even after you have learned the language, people still have in their minds that you are a novice.
  • Never make the same mistake twice. This seems like it would be common-sense, but it is often ignored. What I mean here is this: when you can’t think of a word in a conversation, make sure you nail it when you get home. Practice it. When you make a grammatical mistake, go home and practice and review that section. When you encounter a new word in your reading, look it up, write it down, and then try to incorporate it in your next conversation.
  • As an English speaker, don’t cut corners. Master the grammar, speak the local language in every situation. Then, if you do get “Englished,” at least it wasn’t your own doing.
  • One of the first things you should practice is the pronunciation of a language. This is important, because if you try to speak German but immediately sound like an American, you have really shot yourself in the foot. People will either assume, “Oh an American, he probably speaks a total of 3 phrases in my language,” or they will perhaps use your presence as a chance to better their English.
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6 Responses to ““Englished”: Why it’s harder as a native English speaker to learn a new language”

  1. I get “Englished” here all the time. That’s a large part of why I signed up for my Korean class. I realized that there was no way for me to improve any more without being in an environment where producing Korean was not only expected, but actually mandatory. My fellow classmate is Chinese, he speaks no English and I and speak no Chinese. If we wish to communicate, it must be in Korean. And if the teacher wishes to teach us, she must teach us in Korean. It’s been hugely beneficial and it’s only been two weeks.

  2. bowdenblog said

    I can definitely relate with your experience, Jonathan. I find it very helpful to practice the language among internationals. When one is more advanced than me, which happens quite often, it pushes me in my own use of the language. Among others of similar ability it is helpful to learn from each others mistakes. And when an international uses a word I don’t know, I almost always begin to incorporate it into my own vocabulary.

    So, although the best way to learn is by speaking with the locals, much can be said for conversing and practicing with internationals as well.

  3. i had a funny problem in my sloven classes. english was the common language of the class, given it was a beginers corse. so the students (including myself) would often revert to english when we did not understand.

  4. dderight said

    I find your comments on this to be very interesting. A fellow elder at our church worked in Germany for two years for an American based company. He had the same experience you relate. He tried to learn German by speaking it, but everyone at his company in Germany wanted to learn English by speaking it. He finally gave up and just spoke English with these folks and never did learn much German.

    • bowdenblog said

      Very interesting indeed. I think the key is determination, and lots of it. I’ve found that for me, determination comes in waves. Sometimes I’ll have lots of it and feel very eager to work on my German. Othertimes I have none at all. I just have to choose to push through and keep working on the German even when I don’t feel like it.

  5. bubonicjones said

    I’m not really sure how I stumbled upon your blog but I totally agree. Although I cannot share any experiences in Germany, my experience living and working in Spain has been quite similar (although the average English level is much lower here, it is still very common for people to refuse to speak to you in Spanish once they hear a hint of your accent or you tell them you are American). After just having moved here and dealing with getting “englished” day in and day out because my English accent was still detectable, I come up with a new approach – change my accent. Although it was impossible to sound like a native Spaniard, it was not difficult to sound like a foreigner, so I started changing my rhythm and sounds to anything other than English. In the end everyone that I came in contact with thought I was Italian and I have been able to greatly improve my Spanish to the point that I no longer have to “fake” an accent. However, a new problem has arisen as to when someone specifically asks where I am from and I say the US and then they begin to “english” me. So, anytime someone asks I just say “not from here” and leave it at that. I know it is a little rude of me to do, but come on, I’m tired of not being able to practice Spanish in Spain and I’m tired of people “englishing” me.

    All that being said, I feel your pain. Hope things get better.

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