Germans doing Science in English

November 7, 2016 Academic, Training 0 Comments

German researchers often have excellent English skills. How, though, do you go from fluent to native level proficiency? It’s difficult in any language and takes a huge amount of practice.

One way is to work with a native English speaker to work out any last ‘Germanic tones’ to your speech and writing.

First, you have to decide if you want them gone.

To gain fluency, along with vocabulary, you need to conform to English sentence structure and idiomatic usages.

Getting your English right means reading as much English as you can. It also means practising your speaking and writing as much as possible.

First, you need to build your vocabulary. English is a Germanic language but has adopted almost 50% of it words from French and Latin, so it’s more like a romance language in practice. This means French speakers may score higher on tests of English vocabulary size than German speakers because of the overlap in vocabulary, especially among ‘literary’ terms and more advanced English.

On top of using the words a native speaker would use in a particular context, you need to use them in the same combination. Getting on top of contextual English means not only learning grammar right down the most arcane rules but also idiomatic usages.

Polishing your English is about as quickly as possible pushing your learning curve beyond ‘translating’ from German to English to directly thinking and working in English.

Once you get to this point, you’ve hit a milestone.

Clues that a speaker is not native even when they use perfect English might come in the form of an accent, but in the written word, they will come in unusual word choices, word combinations, and sentence structures that don’t sound native and lack of idiomatic usages.

Take for example this sentence in English: “I saw the cat.”

In German it is: “Ich habe die Katze gesehen.”

You have to know that German and English speakers use a different verb tense to express the past in this sense.

This example is simplistic, but at increasing levels of sophistication, it is the primary source of sounding non-native. It is found again and again when English is ‘matched up’ against German and just doesn’t quite fit.

Saying things the right way just takes knowing how. You don’t always get the correct steer from your mother tongue; the same applies for English speakers communicating in German.

Many of the most common high-level mistakes of very proficient speakers of English involve still translating too directly. For example, the literal translation of “bis zum Ende der Woche” is “until the end of the week”, but in English, it’s idiomatically expressed as “by the end of the week”.

In terms of complete sentences, there are gross differences between German and English. We all famously know that German puts the verb at the end while English does not. German is also wonderfully adept at creating long sentence full of descriptive phrases. In general, this leads to German sentences tending to be longer than English ones. It’s not just the length, but a different way of thinking. To sound native, you’ll have to break that flow of thought and adopt an English style of structuring information into sentences.

In general, try to split and simplify sentences. Work to directly say what you mean in as few words as possible. Try to avoid lengthy sentences with many phrases marked up with commas. Overly long thoughts just won’t end up sounding right to native English speakers.

German is also a language that creatively builds compound words. English does not. Differences in German syntax can form ‘pacing issues’ in translated sentences. Information is either too dense or too sprawling to pass as native English.

You’ll also know that there are different forms of English, with American and British English being the two most widely used in science. Usually, the venue you are writing for dictates the flavour of English needed.

If you are writing in scientific German, you are well ahead because German adopts technical language from English at a fast pace.  If you highlight all the English words in any article in a venue like Der Speigel you’ll see a lot of colour on the page.

If you are writing scientific papers in English, the most important thing to remember is that at the end of the day, it’s the content that matters. Good scientific content, logical structure and clarity will trump small, non-native errors any time.

Science communication is the same no matter what language you use. You want to focus on the meaning, clarity of thought, logic and organisation, and have a solid structure. Picking the right words to express your thoughts is only a piece of the puzzle.

If you get help polishing your English, you’ll have to make choices about getting the grammar right and keeping your own voice. What you really want is to find your unique voice in English.

The mismatches between languages can complicate the process of translation considerably. You’ll often be asked not just to tweak words but to rewrite the higher order structure of your sentences.

Still, if you shorten your sentences, write directly, and keep your clear thinking hat on you’ll be way away. Best of all great content is language-independent so make that your priority always.