The Language of Expats

tumblr_lmri2fyclW1qg01wvo1_500Whilst in Berlin I’ve noticed that several of my English friends living here make grammatical and lexical mistakes that are akin to those of native German speakers.  Now and then I, too, catch myself using vocabulary that comes directly from German.  It seems that through our exposure to another language we subconsciously absorb different language patterns, but is there also an element of laziness on our part in allowing these mistakes to happen?  And does it matter?

As many of my friends and colleagues are English speakers (native or otherwise), English is (often, but not always) my language of conversation in Germany.  A lot of the occasions on which I speak German are during transactions such as in offices, shops, restaurants, bars, banks, etc.  When I go back to the UK I sometimes find myself chatting to a friend in a café – in English – but when the waiter comes over I’ll start to order in German.  So it’s not only language, but our associations with it, that causes these mix-ups.


Here are a few examples:

Vocabulary and Lexical Phrases

The Germans often say ‘oder’ at the end of a sentence to seek agreement, much in the same way as we might use a question tag or add ‘right?’  The literal translation of ‘oder’ is ‘or’ and I sometimes catch myself adding ‘or?’ to the end of a sentence in English.  I know it’s not right, but a part of me enjoys the appropriateness of the language – or? is so much more open than right? and isn’t so bold as to assume agreement from the other person.


A good friend of mine often texts me using the phrase ‘we are thinking to go to…’  German doesn’t have the continuous aspect so this expression is a mixture of German and English grammatical structures.  Similarly, Germans say ‘we see us tomorrow/later/etc’ as opposed to ‘we’ll see each other tomorrow/later/etc’.  It’s something I often pick my students up on, but have noticed native English speakers use the same form in English.


A colleague finds that since living in Germany her manner has become more direct, even when speaking English.  Her style of speaking has changed over time so that it contains less of the formal, British politeness we’re used to in the UK.  Rather than saying ‘excuse me, would you mind if I sat here?’  for example, she’ll just ask ‘can I sit here?’  without even a ‘please’.

Finding the right words

One particular friend, Andy, who has lived in Germany for 9 years, found that in the first year of his living here his English became more simplified, as he spoke to Germans more slowly and clearly in an attempt to overcome the language barriers.  As his German improved (he’s now at an advanced level), however, his English became more natural, before mistakes started to creep in.  Occasionally he’ll mix up German and English grammar forms or use both languages in a sentence, but often he’ll just feel that a German word fits better, is more appropriate or describes what he’s trying to say more precisely.  Sometimes he can’t find the English word and so will use the German instead, at other times he can’t think of the right word in either language – although he is aware of the concept he’s trying to express.


So how important is it for us to maintain the English language in all its glory?  I’m relatively old fashioned and I tend to shudder at phrases such as ‘ten items or less’ and ‘I’m loving it’, but I appreciate the beauty of the way in which a language evolves (even if I don’t always like what it’s evolving into!)

For Andy, it’s important to keep German and English separate as he argues that it eases understanding in one or other language and it’s better to comprehend a language within its own framework (hence we teach English in English).  Andy also has a (bilingual) child so places a fair amount of importance on him learning both languages correctly.

Another expat friend, Simon, has no qualms at all about the way in which he’s ‘losing’ the ‘Englishness’ of his English.  His life is in Germany now – amongst a variety of nationalities – and his language is adapting to suit that life.  I take no real issue with that (and even enjoy the playfulness I observe in my own language) but as English teachers I think it is vital to remain conscious of the tendency to slip toward ‘incorrect’ English and to avoid it in the classroom.


I’ve heard it said that in Japan schools will only employ a native English EFL teacher for 2 years, as after that time they begin to lose their ear for the language.  Quite right, too.  Hear, hear.


4 thoughts on “The Language of Expats

  1. Some schools in Japan may have that (unwritten) policy, but I’ve been teaching here for more than two years and I still English can speak 🙂

  2. Hi Ellen,
    Do you ever find yourself making mistakes in English? And do you speak Japanese? I wonder whether the degree of similarity of a second language affects to what extent we absorb it into our L1…

  3. I felt myself nodding the whole time I was reading this! As a teacher I try so hard not to let it affect the language of my lessons, but socially I admit I find it more comfortable to speak a misch-masch (or mish-mash?) of both languages.
    On that note, I find my German affects my written ‘speech’ too. My spelling has completely gone to pot as I apply German spelling/pronunciation rules to English (hence the mish/misch uncertainty), which can be quite embarrassing in a lesson. My English texts also have a lot more commas in them than they did before I moved here, reflecting the German punctuation rules. It might be an interesting study to also look some more written samples (like your friend’s text message) as well as the impact on spoken language. What do you think?

  4. Hi Victoria,
    Yes, an interesting thought. Now that you mention it my friend’s texts can be somewhat unusual in the spelling department. I’ll keep an eye out for any similarities with German spelling.

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