TEFL The German language in modern spoken American English

In the 1990 United States census , 60 million Americans identified themselves as being of ?German? descent. Native speakers of German made up almost half of all immigrants to the United States between 1821 and 1893. These settlers had an almost immediate impact on the language. German borrowings such as sauerkraut, noodle and loafer came into common use as early as the 1820s .

As these new arrivals and their descendants gained proficiency in the host language, they modified the usage of English words or substituted German words to fill perceived gaps in English expression. These later, more subtle influences have helped shape modern American English.

Some German words were translated into English and retained the same usages, even if they did not apply in English. The use of the English adverb of time already to add urgency to an imperative (Get up already!) is unique to American English and is derived from the direct application of the German word schon in similar contexts (Mach es schon! lit: Do it already!). German uses schon to convey urgency in conjunction with an imperative, whilst this usage was not present in the English language until early in the 20th century .

Similar translations have had other subtle influences on the expression of time. The verbal description of 6:10pm varies between American English (ten after six) and elsewhere (ten past six). This can be attributed to the direct translation of the German (zehn nach sechs lit: ten after six).

Conversely, the British use of half six to describe 6:30pm (or am) does not exist in American English. In German, halb sechs (lit: half six) refers to 5:30pm and a direct translation of the British demarcation is confusing to say the least. This disappearance of half six in American English must be at least in part due to generations of speakers initially unable to understand it and subsequently unwilling to embrace its usage.

Cardinal numbers have also been modified. American English omits the ?and? from numbers higher than one hundred, just as German does. So the British one-hundred and fifty becomes one-hundred fifty, a direct translation of the German hundertf?nfzig (Lit: hundred fifty).

Perhaps the most interesting area of German influence on modern American English lies with the treatment of adverbs. In German, adverbs of manner are identical to their adjectival form. Thus, well done can be translated into German as gut gemacht (lit: good done). Likewise, driving quickly translates as langsam fahren (lit: driving slow). Adverbs of manner are used with far less frequency in spoken American English than they are spoken British English . Both he talks slow and she drives quick are perfectly acceptable in spoken American English but may well grate on the ears of a discerning British listener.

The disparity between the grammar textbook and what is actually said is gradually being reflected in the context of TEFL practice. The late 1980s saw an explosion in the number of ?conversation schools? in East Asia, which as a region favours the teaching of American English. Conversation schools focus entirely on listening and speaking and theoretically must try to represent natural speech as much as possible. Ten after six has long been taught in East Asia as an alternative to ten past six and in 2004, the two largest conversation schools in Japan, with combined enrolments numbering some 200,000 students, removed regular adverbs of manner from their curriculum entirely .

The 1990 United States census records German as the single largest ethnic group, however the number of native German speakers is negligible.

The long process of linguistic integration of generations of these German speakers has influenced the vocabulary and syntax of modern American spoken English. This influence is now manifesting itself in modern teaching practice.

From: U.S. Census, 1990 Detailed Ancestry Groups for States CPH-L- 97. From: The influence of German on American English, Elsa Viita Professor Friedrich Walla, University of Newcastle, pers. Comm., 1996 American and British English Differences

Author: Bill Jones

Date of post: 2006-08-22