From where I sit - Trips and falls of the tongue

October 21, 2010

Germans, and indeed other non-native speakers, desperately need and want to publish in English. The result is that many foreign scholars write papers in English, and with mixed linguistic results.

Having edited dozens of articles written by Germans over the past few years, I have become aware of the negative aspects of writing and publishing in a foreign language with which one is familiar but is a long way from mastering. Only in one's mother tongue does one have what the Germans themselves call Fingerspitzengefühl - "finger-tip feeling", that is, a deep and intuitive understanding.

The result is an academic version of "Denglisch", also known as "Engleutsch" or "Germish" - English that remains shackled within German structures and idioms.

This obviously leads to grammatical mistakes, but also to a lack of linguistic and academic precision and clarity. Incorrect word usage, poor sentence construction and many other traps can also distort the meaning of the work, making it hard (and at times impossible) to understand.

There are occasions where the mere absence of a comma makes a sentence seriously ambivalent. Furthermore, there is often a definite article where there should not be one, and vice versa. A classic is: "there are many examples in (the) literature."

Here are other examples of common mistakes:

• Wrong word: referring to "research efforts" may not be really incorrect, but the author meant "research procedures". Similarly, one sometimes reads this sort of thing: "our model is more reasonable than the others", when the writer meant "more efficient".

• Wrong tense: "Such behaviour is having a serious effect on stability." The author meant always, and not only right now, and thus it should read "has a serious effect".

• Overly literal translation: "A crucial role in this context plays the characteristics of pricing policy decisions."

• Horrendous lack of commas: "Additionally by making problems transparent planning helps to achieve consensus and reduce conflicts."

• False friends: "This is an adequate methodology," where "appropriate" was meant. The German word adäquat is as false a linguistic friend as one can get.

Not only is written English a problem. Academics presenting at conferences often make ghastly pronunciation errors, and sometimes repeat the same mistakes right through the talk. In a conference dry run, for example, I recently prevented a colleague from placing the emphasis on the second syllable of "asset" (a-SET management) from start to finish.

At a conference opening in Berlin, the organiser greeted his colleagues from all over the world with "Hello everybUddy!" (when Germans speak English, the "o" often sounds like a "u"). He then boasted about saving on interpreter costs and proceeded to comment on the prevailing economic situation: "zis crisis make really sense".

The solution to the above problems lies in comprehensive editing of manuscripts and practice sessions for conferences and other presentations.

Non-native speakers are generally unable to write an acceptable level of English for academic purposes, even if they live in anglophone countries for several years. Their work needs to be edited by fellow academics with skills in the right areas, a fine command of English and sufficient motivation to make the necessary corrections. This generally entails changes in almost every sentence, and often bilateral communication with the authors.

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