German universities’ teaching in English is unavoidably flawed

Limited fluency and cultural concerns could lead to a backlash against German institutions’ pitch to the international market, says Brian Bloch

May 6, 2021
Heidelberg University
Source: iStock

In recent years, German universities have begun to offer ever-increasing numbers of courses in English. This aim is clearly to compete for international students who speak no German – or not enough to study in the language. Yet there are several reasons for concern.

The most basic – though very underestimated – worry relates to the linguistic skills of teachers. Some German professors and lecturers have lived or studied in English-speaking countries for a considerable period of time, so their English is excellent (although not necessarily without errors). Yet many German academics who speak good English in day-to-day situations struggle to explain complex material in, for example, economics or mathematics.

I know from my own experience as an English-speaking academic in Germany that teaching in your second language can affect quality and clarity. My German is at near-native fluency, but I can still teach far more easily in English.

For many years, I have been offering conference training in Germany. Almost no presentation that I have heard – mainly from doctoral students but also from academics – has really been good enough. In my experience, most German (and other non-native-speaking) academics make five to 10 pronunciation errors in a 15- to 20-minute presentation in English (some of which, of course, are repeated). Among other problems, this can result in an apparent conflict between what lecturers say and what they write in their PowerPoint slides.

This isn’t just my outsider’s view. During one training trip to a university in southern Germany, the whole group said precisely the same thing to me at the end of the sessions.

This doesn’t go unnoticed by undergraduates, either. In the response section to an article about precisely this issue on Bavarian Radio’s home page, one student described seeing visiting native English speakers “collapsing with mirth” and “falling out of the tree laughing” at “the German accent in the university”. A certain Hans from Munich added that while he did not relish the prospect of lectures in English, if they had to happen, it would be better to “fly in native speakers to do the job properly”.

Yet not all students have a good level of English, as another commenter notes. Many produce poor work in English – but still pass because “the lecturers just cannot be bothered to deal with the problem. The result is that ever higher grades are awarded for ever worse work.”

I had similar experiences with foreign students as a lecturer in New Zealand: academically, they were just fine, but many could not deliver adequate work in English.

Despite all these problems, there is, to the best of my knowledge, little training for or monitoring of German universities’ teaching in English. The right initiatives could improve the situation substantially.

However, deeper concerns also exist about the burgeoning use of English. The identity of a country and its culture are closely associated with language – and universities are major carriers and conveyers of national culture. This has led to considerable resentment among academics and students about an alleged sell-out of the German language, which may also put German students at an academic disadvantage. People who wish to study in Germany, they argue, need to adapt and learn German. One cynical commenter on the Bavarian Radio website asked rhetorically: “Are there master’s courses in the US in German?”

As a result of this sentiment, we may see a backlash in Germany against teaching in English. This has already been witnessed in the Netherlands, where there are concerted attempts to stop what one Dutch academic described as “the unbridled anglicisation of higher education”. The furore ultimately led to the imposition of a legal duty on Dutch universities to improve international students’ Dutch language skills (though original proposals to force them to take part of their courses in Dutch were defeated).

There is no denying the financial advantages for German universities of offering courses in English, while international students gain greater access to them and potentially improve their English along the way. But surely there are indeed limits to how much university teaching should be in a foreign language, even in the international language of English. And the significant practical and quality issues that teaching in English introduces should not be ignored.

That said, they probably will be. The prevailing situation may be an unsatisfactory compromise between internationalisation, pursuit of revenue and protection of national culture and identity, but it is not obvious which of those factors could realistically be disregarded. Perhaps, to quote the title of a well-known German book, this is just one more example of “the globalisation trap”.

Brian Bloch is a journalist, academic editor and lecturer in English for academic research at the University of Münster. He has taught a wide range of economic and business-related subjects, including cross-cultural management. 

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Reader's comments (9)

Since German universities by and large don't charge fees for foreign students I don't see where "pursuit of revenue" comes into the equation...
There are many private institutions in Germany that charge upward of ten thousand euros per year in tuition. This is growth market and giving rise to these concerns. There is also the concern of slipping educational standards even in principally publicly funded institutions.
It comes into the equation, when people go there to study. Even though universities charge little to nothing fees, it still helps German economy in one way to earn from foreign students, because life in Germany isn't cheap. On the other hand, you have to pay huge taxes if you work during the study for financial support, that's adds up to the money pile. Additionally, there are these services like ARD, ZDF which you have to pay money for, and you can't choose to exit, it's mandatory to pay the service charges, even if you don't use the service.
You have to admire the Germans for recognising how artificial trying to communicate to students in a second language is. Other countries, whose foreign language proficiency on average is much worse, seem oblivious to this reality.
German universities are undervalued in rankings, partly because reputation is part of the rankings. They try to improve their position by increasing internationalisation, which should then also lead to more recognition among international peers and growing reputation that is needed for rankings. There is no financial motivation as claimed in the article because there are, by and large, no tuition fees in Germany. I think German universities act in a short-sighted way by increasing internationalisation because it might lead to more managerialism like in the UK and US in the long run. They should retain their model as it is. That said, bashing German academics like in the article seems pretty mean. Why punish somebody for trying to improve?
You don’t appear to have grasped the gist of this article. The ‘bashing’ is largely coming from Germans themselves who have the self-awareness to realise that trying to teach complex subject matter via a second language is not a good idea. By way of comparison, the number of complaints that U.K. and Australian academics ‘with an accent’ receive is off the radar- and these people actually are immersed in the environment and culture of their second language.
In my article, I did not say there are fees. International students bring in a lot of revenue to the cities themselves and to the country of course. After all, the loss to the UK and other countries (New Zealand and Australia being particularly notable cases) due to Corona is massive. And for the UK, Brexit obviously matters as well.
Bravo. The standard of English in German universities is very troubling. This goes for both students and lecturers. The problem is huge and, as a result, is going completely unacknowledged since nobody knows what to do about it. Germany wishes to attract foreign talent to makes its institutions as competitive as possible. Its many private institutions are desperate to attract business from developing Anglophone communities like Nigeria and India. You only have to witness the garbled communication between a predominantly German-speaking Polish professor and a Nigerian English user to appreciate the language barrier and how it is nowhere near a level where a nuanced academic discussion can take place. Without native speakers of English to collectively give a clear sense of what is acceptable, education can border on farcical. There is also the very uncomfortable clash of German educated English speaker whose English comes straight from the grammar books and the many students who use English that is non-standard relative to British and American grammar guides. A native speaker of Nigerian English could be judged illiterate by a European taught in a classroom, and that just isn't right. Such issues should frankly be more scrutinised in a culture that holds itself to be a bastion of progressive values.
Global English doesn't 'belong' to Anglophones and much, if not most communication in English is between those without English as their first language. I'm not sure why it is alarming to have a few pronunciation errors or why there needs to be a native English speaker around to adjudicate on what is or isn't acceptable. Indeed there are considerable phonetic differences between native English speakers, even in the same country (just ask four different English speakers how to pronounce "scone"). Relatively trivial matters of language need to be separated from the more substantial question of communicative competence.