… ist ein Auf­satz von Ste­phen Speight, den ich hier mit freund­li­cher Geneh­mi­gung des Autors ver­öf­fent­li­chen darf.

English for Multicultural Purposes

by Ste­phen Speight


I was recent­ly asked if I would like to talk about Eng­lish cus­toms. My rep­ly included the words, “I’m not pre­pared to talk about pan­ca­ke day” which could ser­ve as a sub-title to the pre­sent brief paper. Why was I so much against tal­king about pan­ca­ke day, Eas­ter eggs, mor­ris dancing, diges­ti­ve bis­cuits, mar­mi­te etc.? The brief ans­wer is that I do not belie­ve any of this is par­ti­cu­lar­ly rele­vant for Ger­man lear­ners of Eng­lish. Less than 2% of Ger­man holi­day­makers were plan­ning to spend their holi­days in Bri­tain last sum­mer. I suspect that the majo­ri­ty of Ger­man Eng­lish tea­chers usual­ly head for some­whe­re sun­nier, too. Such topics can be lin­ked up with the idea that the lan­guage and cul­tu­re should be taught tog­e­ther, and that, in this case, the cul­tu­re is Eng­lish or Bri­tish (add kilts, moun­ta­ins and Nes­sie for Scot­land and sheep, ex-mining-val­leys, Snow­don and sin­ging for Wales). As far as Eng­lish is con­cer­ned, Eng­land is not the point at all. If someone deci­des to learn Danish, it’s becau­se he or she wants to talk to Danes and/or under­stand Danish cul­tu­re. This is even true of major lan­guages such as Rus­si­an, French or Ger­man, but it isn’t true of Eng­lish. Peo­p­le learn a world lan­guage becau­se they need it for their own pur­po­ses, not, or not neces­s­a­ri­ly becau­se they are inte­res­ted in the cul­tu­re of the nati­ve speakers.

A first reac­tion might be: “How nice for the Brits, Ame­ri­cans, Aus­tra­li­ans etc. They don’t actual­ly need to learn anyo­ne else’s lan­guage” – and that is what ple­nty of nati­ve spea­k­ers of Eng­lish think, even if most of them don’t actual­ly say it (child­ren in school don’t feel the same need to be tactful, of cour­se, hence a fair­ly dra­ma­tic decli­ne in the num­ber of Bri­tish stu­dents stu­dy­ing French and German).

Whe­re this atti­tu­de exists, it is, in my view, total­ly mista­ken. Being nati­ve spea­k­ers of Eng­lish is very likely to depri­ve most of us of the won­derful oppor­tu­ni­ty to par­ti­ci­pa­te in two, even three cul­tures. Ger­mans have their own cul­tu­re, and the cul­tures of the world lan­guage. It’s the same for the French. Fears in both count­ries of their own lan­guage and cul­tu­re being ero­ded away by McDonald’s and Co. plus Deng­lish and Fran­g­lais strike me as much exag­ge­ra­ted. How much Ame­ri­can influence is the­re in Pro­vence or the Sau­er­land? The ans­wer is: vir­tual­ly none, and cer­tain­ly not­hing to cau­se serious con­cern. A thousand years from now France will still be French, and Ger­ma­ny will still be Ger­man. The French often for­get that about 40% of Eng­lish words are of French ori­gin, but they haven’t yet adopted more than a tiny per­cen­ta­ge of ours. In any case, as Peter Usti­nov put it in a recent artic­le in the Welt am Sonn­tag: “Die Viel­falt der Spra­chen bringt Far­be ins Leben, so wie die Natur es tut. Auf Rein­heit der Spra­che zu bestehen, is so wir­kungs­los, as wür­de man den Wech­sel der Jah­res­zei­ten anhal­ten wol­len. Unrein­heit ist ein natür­li­cher Zustand, und die Luft hat einen hohen Anteil an sprach­li­chen Pol­len. Ähn­li­ches gilt für ande­re Einflüsse.”

If we accept, then, that major natio­nal lan­guages are not in real dan­ger of any kind, we can return to the ques­ti­on of Eng­lish as an inter­na­tio­nal lan­guage wit­hout see­ing it as a thre­at. What are its func­tions, and how can lear­ners best be pre­pared to ful­fil them? At pre­sent the sub­ject mat­ter of Eng­lish tea­ching could be descri­bed as Ang­lo-Ame­ri­can tra­di­tio­nal. We begin in Eng­land, later cross the Atlan­tic, take a look around the Eng­lish-spea­king world and then stu­dents at the Gym­na­si­um move on to “pro­blems” plus lite­ra­tu­re cho­sen from a rela­tively limi­t­ed canon. I think it is high time we ques­tio­ned the assump­ti­ons which lie behind this choice of material.

1. Ent­ry qualifications

If, ins­tead of accep­ting that the way we have always done things must be more or less right, we ask ins­tead what Ger­mans actual­ly need to know in order to use the world’s second lan­guage effec­tively, we will come up with a quite dif­fe­rent list of requi­re­ments, some gene­ral and nee­ded by ever­yo­ne, others much more spe­ci­fic. In neither of the­se are­as are we doing par­ti­cu­lar­ly well at pre­sent, main­ly becau­se we are busy doing quite dif­fe­rent, in my view not par­ti­cu­lar­ly rele­vant things in many cases. Here are some sug­ges­ti­ons for the star­ter kit,

1.1 The nuts and bolts of ever­y­day conversation

The kit must con­tain the ele­ments of ordi­na­ry ever­y­day con­ver­sa­ti­on. I don’t belie­ve it always does, and can give and exam­p­le from my per­so­nal expe­ri­ence. Last Febru­ary I visi­ted a stu­dent tea­ching in a Gym­na­si­um in Dort­mund. He told me later that he had obser­ved an angry con­fron­ta­ti­on in one of the seni­or Eng­lish clas­ses bet­ween the tea­cher and the boys in the class. The reason for the dis­agree­ment was the fact that every sin­gle girl in the class had recei­ved a bet­ter gra­de than any of the boys. The­re was no over­lap at all. The boys clai­med, and the stu­dent was incli­ned to agree on the basis of obser­ving the class, that they gene­ral­ly made more and bet­ter oral con­tri­bu­ti­ons to the les­son, while the girls quiet­ly made notes. We know, of cour­se, that boys will com­plain if the girls take up more than about one third of the tal­king time, but here the case was dif­fe­rent. The gra­des were cle­ar­ly based on writ­ten work, and the abili­ty to speak was being more or less igno­red. I’m sure this situa­ti­on was not typi­cal, but I belie­ve it is still the fact that writ­ten work is taken more serious­ly than spo­ken. It sim­ply does not make sen­se for peo­p­le who­se spo­ken Eng­lish stop­ped deve­lo­ping around class 6 to be wri­ting essays about Macbeth.

Ever­yo­ne needs to be able to use free­ly all the ele­ments of ordi­na­ry spo­ken Eng­lish, inclu­ding fil­lers and lar­ge num­bers of com­mon col­lo­ca­ti­ons, plus the abili­ty to think on one’s feet and react spon­ta­neous­ly to a speech partner’s remarks, befo­re moving on to advan­ced writ­ten work of a kind which only a tiny mino­ri­ty will need in later life. Of cour­se small talk is tri­vi­al as far as the sub­ject mat­ter is con­cer­ned, but its social func­tion is bey­ond dis­pu­te. And under­stan­ding the natu­re of casu­al con­ver­sa­ti­on is a very sui­ta­ble topic for advan­ced lear­ners. Talk about more serious mat­ters is con­ver­sa­ti­on too, and it is some­thing rather dif­fe­rent from a typi­cal class­room discussion.

1.2 The rules of ever­y­day conversation

It is gene­ral­ly fair to cla­im that the inter­na­tio­nal rules for con­ver­sa­ti­on in Eng­lish are broad­ly based on Ang­lo-Ame­ri­can norms. The­re are things which lear­ners need to know in this area which are not at pre­sent part of the syl­labus. If no one tells them the rules, the­re are going to be pro­blems not just with the nati­ves, but with other users of Eng­lish as a second language.

One Satur­day in March my wife met someone in a flower shop in town who used to sing in the same choir about ten years ago, but whom she had not seen in the mean­ti­me. My wife duly asked about the other woman’s child­ren and was duly told how one was stu­dy­ing law very suc­cessful­ly, and the other was about to get mar­ried and how exci­ting it all was. They then said their goodbyes.

What was wrong with this con­ver­sa­ti­on? Ans­wer: it was not recipro­cal. If someone asks you about your child­ren, you are sup­po­sed to ask about theirs in return! We have adult child­ren too, and like to be asked about their achie­ve­ments. Who doesn’t. It’s only natu­ral. Obvious­ly a full tre­at­ment of this topic would be a lec­tu­re in its own right., rele­vant for both first and second lan­guage lear­ners. A num­ber of brief points are worth making here:

  • Ger­man is used more direct­ly than Eng­lish as a rule, so lear­ners should be made awa­re of this fact with ple­nty of examples
  • Most Ger­man lear­ners speak a rather for­mal ver­si­on of Eng­lish based firm­ly on the writ­ten not the spo­ken lan­guage. Focus­sing on good spo­ken models in school could help to put this right.
  • Some Ger­man spea­k­ers of Eng­lish just don’t smi­le. This is very off-put­ting for most other users of Eng­lish as a first or second language.
  • Scan­di­na­vi­an and Bene­lux lear­ners of Eng­lish have one huge advan­ta­ge over their oppo­si­te num­bers in Ger­ma­ny: they see Eng­lish and Ame­ri­can films and TV series in Eng­lish with sub-titles. This means that lis­tening com­pre­hen­si­on is not real­ly a pro­blem, and that they can absorb all sorts of useful ever­y­day expres­si­ons sim­ply by hea­ring them used in con­text. As Sig­rid Schöp­per-Gra­be put it in an inter­view in the SZ, “Wenn Sie einem Nie­der­län­der erzäh­len, dass Dus­tin Hoff­man bei uns im Fern­se­hen Deutsch spricht, lacht der sich kaputt.” (Süd­deut­sche Zei­tung, 13.02.2001)
  • Many of the world’s lea­ders speak Eng­lish in inter­views. When such inter­views are shown on tele­vi­si­on, view­ers should be able to hear what they actual­ly said, again with sub-titles in Ger­man. It would be quite encou­ra­ging to dis­co­ver that gre­at men and women don’t neces­s­a­ri­ly speak gre­at English!
  • With about 80% of the Inter­net in Eng­lish, it makes sen­se for Ger­man users of all types to use Eng­lish when­ever possible.

All the­se points tog­e­ther will help lear­ners to know what to say to whom on what occa­si­on, and to have sui­ta­ble lan­guage mate­ri­al not just on the tip of their ton­gues, but actual­ly available when nee­ded. The lan­guage is a cur­ren­cy. If you pull the wrong coin out of your pocket, a Kro­ner or a pound left over from the holi­days, the­re will be a nega­ti­ve reac­tion at the cash desk in your local super­mar­ket. It’s the same with the wrong bit of lan­guage. We still have some way to go when it comes to equip­ping lear­ners with a good star­ter kit. It just won’t help them very much to be able to iden­ti­fy Buck­ing­ham Palace and say that the Queen lives there!

2. Spe­cia­li­sed inter­cul­tu­ral func­tions of English

We need to distin­gu­ish here bet­ween gene­ral and spe­cia­li­sed inter­cul­tu­ral uses of Eng­lish. Obvious­ly not ever­yo­ne needs to be able to descri­be the inter­nal workings of the inter­nal com­bus­ti­on engi­ne in Eng­lish. But if that’s your job, you do need to be able to do this. Tea­chers tend to try and get them­sel­ves off the hook by say­ing, “Ah, yes, but they will learn the­se spe­cia­li­sed forms of Eng­lish on the job.” My rep­ly would be that it is the school’s job to give them a gene­ral basis in tech­ni­cal Eng­lish – or Eng­lish for use in mee­tings – or Eng­lish for busi­ness letters/telephoning/talking about the news of the day, which can be fil­led out later with spe­cia­li­sed sub­ject mat­ter as requi­red. Wit­hout this basis, the results are often rather gro­tes­que, as we shall see.

2.1 Eng­lish for Germans

One spe­cial area for Ger­man users of the inter­na­tio­nal lan­guage is their per­so­nal situa­ti­on as mem­bers of a par­ti­cu­lar cul­tu­re. An edu­ca­ted Ger­man spea­k­er of Eng­lish should be able to ans­wer queries on any­thing from break­fast in Ger­ma­ny to the “K‑Frage” of the day to pos­si­ble holi­day desti­na­ti­ons in Ger­ma­ny. I have for many years been able to puz­zle Ger­man Eng­lish tea­chers by asking them how they would trans­la­te the word Auf­schnitt (sug­ges­ti­on from Ame­ri­can Eng­lish: cold cuts). As a rule, Ger­ma­ny plays hard­ly any role in Ger­man Eng­lish les­sons, except as a kind of aftert­hought (How about you – type exer­ci­s­es, for exam­p­le.) I do not think Ger­man publishers would be pre­pared to con­sider a book with the title “Eng­lish for Ger­mans”, alt­hough, as the cli­ché has it, that’s what it’s all about.

2.2 Tra­vel and leisure

It is of cour­se the case that Ger­man works in Ger­man-domi­na­ted holi­day resorts. Howe­ver, this lea­ves a gre­at many places whe­re this is not the case. The who­le of the Eng­lish-spea­king world for a start. Advan­ced holi­day Eng­lish is a very wort­hwhile objec­ti­ve. Most stu­dents would not find it easy even to come up with a list of men­tionable topics.

Lear­ners should also be encou­ra­ged to fol­low up their own lei­su­re inte­rests in Eng­lish. I have yet to enter a Ger­man class­room whe­re the­re were piles of well-thum­bed Eng­lish maga­zi­nes lying around to be read. And they would be read if they were about things lear­ners are inte­res­ted in.

2.3 Per­so­nal pro­fes­sio­nal needs

It is my firm con­vic­tion that a start should be made on tech­ni­cal and com­mer­cial Eng­lish in school. Far too many peo­p­le are left try­ing to make their “school Eng­lish” work in situa­tions for which it was never designed.

2.3.1 Tech­ni­cal English

Here are a cou­ple of dis­as­trous examp­les from my own collection:

I have omit­ted infor­ma­ti­on which could make it pos­si­ble to iden­ti­fy the perpetrators:

“many thanks for your inquiry to our offe­rings of kits for XXX.”

“Our XXX cata­lo­gue can­not be send by e‑mail.”

“As men­tio­ned in the theo­re­ti­cal exami­na­ti­ons on the ther­mal and mecha­ni­cal com­pon­ents beha­viour of the XXX, eco­no­mic­al effi­ci­en­ci­es are fore­most sus­tainable on hig­her tem­pe­ra­tu­re levels.”

“Coo­ling of the XXX through bores flown through by a coo­ling fluid.”

It is not the spe­cia­li­sed voca­bu­la­ry which is miss­ing here. This can usual­ly be picked up easi­ly enough any­way. It is the basic abili­ty to use tech­ni­cal lan­guage. I will never for­get being approa­ched by a for­mi­da­ble Ober­stu­di­en­rat after a talk in which I had been say­ing how important tech­ni­cal Eng­lish is. His com­ment was sim­ply: “Ich has­se Sach­tex­te!” The­re is ple­nty of real­ly fasci­na­ting tech­ni­cal mate­ri­al out the­re, but not much of it finds its way into school. The “cul­tures” invol­ved are topic-rela­ted, and have not­hing to do with the Eng­lish-spea­king world as a rule.

2.3.2 Inter­na­tio­nal topics of gene­ral interest

Inter­na­tio­nal news should be con­side­red a prime topic for advan­ced lear­ners of Eng­lish. It should be stres­sed that major news items do not neces­s­a­ri­ly or even as a rule come from Eng­lish-spea­king count­ries. Half an hour of CNN every day would be an excel­lent addi­ti­on to the learner’s diet, inclu­ding the commercials.

2.3.3 Bri­tain, Ame­ri­ca, Australia

It remains very desi­ra­ble for stu­dents to deve­lop an inte­rest in a par­ti­cu­lar regi­on or aspect of an Eng­lish-spea­king coun­try, inclu­ding histo­ry and/or geo­gra­phy, any­thing from pop music of one kind or ano­ther to a love of the Lake Dis­trict or the Rockies, to detec­ti­ve novels and/or serious lite­ra­tu­re. It’s all grist to the mill, but other kinds of grist should have an equal cla­im on the learner’s time

3. Tools and topics

Artic­les on mul­ti­cul­tu­ral issues usual­ly con­cen­tra­te on dif­fe­ren­ces and simi­la­ri­ties bet­ween cul­tures, ste­reo­ty­pes and how to deal with them, avo­i­ding cul­tu­ral clang­ers and so on. The medi­um tends to be of secon­da­ry importance. In fact this often fair­ly subt­le sub­ject mat­ter could nor­mal­ly be dealt with bet­ter in the first lan­guage, par­ti­cu­lar­ly at Sek. I level. My view is that what we might call the mul­ti­cul­tu­ral mine­field is cer­tain­ly very important – and often pro­vi­des a litt­le inno­cent amu­se­ment as well, which is gene­ral­ly a good thing, but it is just as important to see Eng­lish as the prin­ci­pal tool for deal­ing with mul­ti­cul­tu­ral issues, and by issues I don’t neces­s­a­ri­ly mean pro­blems. I sim­ply mean kno­wing the words, col­lo­ca­ti­ons and kinds of lan­guage beha­viour which are requi­red for one’s own are­as of inter­na­tio­nal culture.


A wai­ter (trai­nee hotel mana­ger) in a local Greek restau­rant nee­ded an equi­va­lent for Guten Appe­tit and various other expres­si­ons when deal­ing with a group of Polish busi­ness peo­p­le through the medi­um of Eng­lish for a week. Quite a good test of his school Eng­lish – it failed!

A Greek stu­dent tea­ching a Real­schu­le class 6 about her coun­try. After the les­son, my group of stu­dents expres­sed the view that this les­son was somehow “dif­fe­rent”. In what way? We deci­ded it had some­thing to do with the fact that she was tal­king about her own coun­try with enthu­si­asm – not, as in the ordi­na­ry way, about someone else’s coun­try (Bri­tain or Ame­ri­ca), wit­hout actual­ly being a mem­ber of that cul­tu­re. I can ima­gi­ne that texts about non-Eng­lish spea­king count­ries would be frow­ned on by the edi­tors of Eng­lish books at Ger­man publishers.


Eng­lish has beco­me the medi­um through which we gain access to inter­na­tio­nal cul­tures of all kinds. Ine­vi­ta­b­ly this situa­ti­on has its dan­gers. The French jour­na­list Jean Qua­tre­mer recent­ly expres­sed his reser­va­tions in the­se words: “In their zeal for stan­dar­di­sing ever­y­thing, the offi­ci­als of the Euro­pean com­mis­si­on have a sin­gle dream: that all the union’s citi­zens should speak Eng­lish and that their natio­nal lan­guages be rele­ga­ted to the level of local dialects. (…) Curious­ly, Eng­lish is per­cei­ved as a ‘neu­tral’ lan­guage, while being the sym­bol and expres­si­on of world domi­na­ti­on exer­cis­ed by the United Sta­tes (and not Gre­at Bri­tain).” (The Sun­day Times, 19.08.01) In my view it is up to Euro­peans to use Eng­lish in ways which suit them, rather than allo­wing it to remain the “sym­bol and expres­si­on of world domi­na­ti­on” which it may once have been. It is very good for Euro­Eng­lish to have taken on board terms like sala­mi-slicing, crump­le zone and traf­fic-cal­ming, none of which have any­thing to do with the US. It is also worth poin­ting out that many varie­ties of nati­ve Eng­lish can­not be con­side­red part of the inter­na­tio­nal varie­ty becau­se they are only unders­tood within a small area. One of my nephews, a tea­cher with a magni­fi­cent Leeds accent, moved to a school less than a hundred miles away to the north-east. Result: mutu­al incomprehension.

At pre­sent “school Eng­lish” is essen­ti­al­ly a mono-cul­tu­ral enter­pri­se which does not prepa­re lear­ners very well for Eng­lish as it is used in the real world. As a result, they are not par­ti­cu­lar­ly good at it. We think we know what should go into the Eng­lish books – fami­ly and school life in Eng­land, Lon­don, New York, Indi­ans, Eng­lish all over the world … It’s a tired list – and it’s the wrong list.