Updated: Jan 20
Introduction to Part II, The Art of Language Teaching. 2nd ed. Jan 2022
- "Next?" says the barman.
- “I become a beer!” says the visitor.
It’s usually funny when we slip up because of languages’ “false friends”.
“I'll have a beer,” would be a fair translation for “Ich bekomme ein Bier”.
However, there is more to communication across language barriers than getting the words right. Background cultures – ways of seeing, doing and saying things – are always involved too and can make a difference between good and bad communication, even among near neighbours like the British and Germans.
I remember a young lad being routinely asked at Schönefeld airport if he would like to hand over his cabin luggage for storage in the hold.
- “Well,… I’m not sure… Sorry, I might – euh - maybe I would need a book or…"
- “Ja oder Nein!” was the exasperated response from the ground staff member.
It was the perfect culture clash. One couldn’t see the need for padding for a yes/no answer. The other didn’t appreciate that both “yes” and “no” were equally good answers for someone who just wanted information, not apologies or explanations. Conditioned by his background, the poor boy just didn’t want to seem rude by being blunt and direct.
In the following sections we explore cultural differences and their impact on communication, for example, what happens when British Politeness Culture meets German Efficiency Culture (my shorthand terms).
Our famous British tendency to indirectness and tentative structures with plenty of padding when making requests, suggestions or complaints, is the very opposite of the Germans’ preferred directness. (The Germans, of course, have their own codes and ways of showing politeness– e.g. being on time!)
If a British host family asks a visiting German guest “How was your room?” there’s an element of small talk in the question as well as an appeal for reassurance. “It was too cold,” is not the blunt answer most British hosts would expect! But if you grow up in an Efficiency Culture and hear a request for information, of course you will instinctively answer as succinctly as possible. And what is information in one culture can translate as criticism in another.
* * *
My definition of culture is as follows:
A set of norms accepted by the majority of any identifiable people grouping.
On that basis, “culture” will affect how we act, how we think and also the ways we speak:
- what we say
- if we say it
- how we say it
- what we mean by it.
When a German colleague asks a British teacher how many hours they teach, the language is simple. But the question will lead to confusion because the German and British education systems have evolved a different ethos over the years. What the question means in one system is absolutely not what it means in the other. (It’s complicated… Just read chapter 5! )
On the other hand, if a husband wakes up with a start and asks “What time is it?!” and his wife says, “It’s Sunday,” communication is fine because of their shared 1500 year old culture where Sunday is a day off. The language seems nonsensical, but the transferred meaning is clear: “Don’t worry. You can go back to sleep!”
Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is always bound up with a multi-layered complex of culturally determined associations, norms and nuances.
* * *
For too long, in our Western education systems, we have fixated on grammatical correctness in the L2 classroom without sufficiently exploring cultural dimensions. We tend to teach language as if it will only be used under controlled, laboratory-like conditions (exams) and not for authentic communication in interpersonal contexts where all sorts of cultural factors will be at play.
But it’s never too late to start.
And it’s never too early to start…
When a child begins schooling in Germany, they are given a large cone full of goodies on their first day. Even something like this can be an opportunity to develop intercultural understanding with incipient language awareness:
“Did you all get nice presents today, children? Guess what? The poor little kids in England .. they don’t get a Zuckertüte. They wouldn’t know what it is and they don’t even have a word for it! Imagine!...”
* * *
In our interactions with people from different countries we have an opportunity to enjoy the adventure of cultural diversity.
Exploring it can also enrich our language teaching in the classroom.
In this second edition of "I Become A Beer" I focus particularly on British-German intercultural understanding and communication. More precisely, I have written a case study primarily with German colleagues in mind who may want to develop the cultural dimension in their English lessons.
As such, the book may seem one-sided. However it can be interesting for British readers also to see themselves through these lenses.
I am not suggesting that adapting to target culture works in only one direction. My rule of thumb is:
Whatever language you are speaking, try to adapt in that direction.
It works both ways. I am not implying that one culture is any better than the other. (Many a time I have wished that British friends and colleagues could take a leaf out of Germans' book e.g. about conciseness or punctuality!)
Sometimes after my lectures on this topic, a German colleague will say to me that she is not prepared to change the way she speaks or acts; and why should she?!
I agree that there should be no pressure. I simply point out that if you want to get the most out of interaction with British people – and leave a good impression – there are perhaps some aspects of communication that could be adjusted to go with the English language you are using.
To help promote better cross-cultural understanding, the following section highlights ways in which the British are culturally different from Germans. This is obviously not meant as a definitive study. It offers a light-hearted batch of examples that might stimulate the reader to cultivate the habit of spotting diversity among European neighbours.
In the final section, I focus more exclusively on language issues involved and explore how developing an instinct for the right words – Sprachgefühl – is often as much informed by cultural as by lexical considerations.
* * *
“To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world.”