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August 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 4

ISSN 1755-9715

Otto's English

Thomas Martini worked as a chartered accountant in positions across Europe for 25 years before in Germany he moved into teaching at universities (International Trade Law & Accounting) and at adult college Abitur level (Politics & Economics, English, German). He is also in the British Chartered Institute of Linguists and the German translators association BDÜ. Email:



That year Easter had been in April, and it had just passed, five weeks after his tenth birthday. We don't know if there was even a single present for him on his birthday or at Easter, probably not. Perhaps just an extra sweet made by his mum. Just a few years ago, when he was two or three, he and his parents and his several brothers had moved from the utter poverty of the countryside to the big city, leaving everything behind, as migrants have done for thousands of years, and still do. But „everything“ was really nothing, so the large cholera epidemic meeting them within a year of arriving would not have put them off (and they did not fall ill). He and his family only spoke a very pronounced dialect when they arrived, but like all children he picked up some „proper“ language quickly, at school, not in the street, where surprisingly the other children's also quite noticeable dialect was different from his but still often more intelligible to him than was his class teacher, at least at first.

Little Otto didn't know that there was more excitement in store for him just a couple of days after Easter. Compulsory free schooling meant seven years, plus an extra one if you were bright – he was - and knew someone – eventually his parents would do - who would pay the school fees for that extra year. Otto was now entering his fifth year at school and there were again over 50 pupils in his class. Two subjects, in addition to the thirteen carried over from grade four, would be new this year – Physics and.... English. The latter had been introduced by the city authorities some years earlier as two thirds of the goods turnover in this, the country's largest port city was with the US and the UK. One wonders where they got the teachers from, for that matter for any subject, when the city schools were now accommodating 80.000 pupils, four times as many as only 25 years earlier and mirroring similar growth of the population overall. 

About the only family papers which survived two world wars are Otto's school reports, issued every quarter and with grades right from year one (a copy of one quarterly report is attached). The place was Hamburg, then and now a federal German city-state, the year 1898, and Otto was my maternal granddad who was attending a local Volksschule für Knaben. If Otto ever learned of other events which occurred in the world in 1898 – I doubt it. For him it was now „English“ that started, in quite a small way, and surely without Otto realizing, to point to a world elsewhere. Perhaps he even noticed that this English at times sounded closer to his Lower German dialect than to High German, and what could that mean? I know little of the teaching methodology at the time but let's safely assume that it was all perfectly traditional, very strict, lots of teacher talking time at the front of the class -  remember, over 50 pupils. And remember that the emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II was to rule for another 20 years. Not much scope, even less desire, for experimental or experiential methodology, most of which had indeed not been developed. Children were taught, and were taught by teachers. And may it not indeed have been fortunate for Otto that imperial Germany was not used to democratic group work and finding things out by yourself.... how would he have coped otherwise?



Fast forward almost 50 years, into 1943 but still in Hamburg. The integration of poor but internal migrants from villages into cities had succeeded for many and certainly for Otto's parents and him and, now, his own family. My mum had just passed her Abitur exams which by now required two foreign languages among its eight subjects and took 13 years to achieve of which nine included English. Right up to today the broad structure of that highest school diploma in Germany has been largely unchanged for over one hundred years – notwithstanding rather several dramatic political changes: Kaiser, World War 1, Weimar, Nazis, World War 2, modern West and communist East Germany, the collapse of the latter (where for 40 years Russian replaced English as first foreign language). MFL in all conceivable regimes democratic or dictatorial, as unshakeable a core subject as was equally the required broad range of subjects in school curricula (and one may well add that there is practically no record of teachers not supporting the three undemocratic regimes mentioned). English for everyone, plus, in mum's case, compulsory French for seven years. If Nazi propaganda and school tuition in modern foreign languages collided somewhat in contents I cannot finally judge but I half guess that, surprisingly, they might not have, or not a lot of the time. When she was almost 90 mum could still recite by heart some of her early French lessons which did - of course – tell of life in a French family, as they would still do today, and not of the German occupation of France. Her, and similarly my dad's school English will have helped them opt for emigration to the US soon after WW2.



In Hamburg, not necessarily throughout all parts of Germany, English is now taught from grade one in primary school (some options exist to have another modern foreign language instead to accommodate children from migrant backgrounds). Two or even three MFL are standard during your school career (Latin and Ancient Greek are also on offer), and formal school exams can be taken in around 20 foreign languages. English as one of them can typically not be avoided by anyone. Quite a few schools teach English language CLIL classes and some schools are in fact entirely CLIL based (in German: bilingualer Unterricht). Even after school, if you train as a carpenter or car mechanic or hairdresser, or as a lawyer or economist some compulsory English lessons continue throughout your training and study years. Based on my own professional background l have taught international trade law, and international accounting and finance on degree courses in business, tourism, fashion or sports at Hamburg universities which were conducted entirely in English.

Has a Master's or PhD thesis ever been written about the respective relevance of competence in MFL and that in engineering, especially where they have gone hand in hand for 125 years and more? As a major component of the wealth created within the country German exports represent 47% of its GDP (South Korea 43%, but China only 20%, Japan 16%, US 12%). When Hamburg made English compulsory for all ten year olds in the second half of the 19th century this was triggered by booming German business with the largest trading nations at the time, US and UK. The expansion of language tuition ever since now also facilitates easy business, often conducted in English, with eg France, China, Netherlands (a transit hub), which together with the UK and US are Germany's largest export destinations. PISA studies typically rank German speakers of English – pupils, students or adults - quite high up the list, ahead of other large nations but behind some of the smaller and even more internationally oriented trading nations such as Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands. And while we need to remember that just because something is compulsory or on offer at school not everybody will be good at it we do need to bear in mind that all students in Germany have been exposed to at least one foreign language, frequently more than one, hence also to meta-language and to opportunities to compare their first and further languages.


What now?

With so much success past and present of English as an MFL in the state sector, building on its more than 125 years of experience, is there appetite, if not in state schools, then perhaps on freelance assignments in companies or universities, for that ever longer list of EFL methodologies and techniques? Yes and no may be a fair answer.  The German freelance English Language Teaching Associations (ELTAs) used to publish a quarterly hardcopy magazine English Teaching Matters (ETM). I was local editor for the Hamburg association HELTA for some years in this century's noughties and below review just a few of the observations that colleagues published during that period. At the core of my small personal selection is probably that one can learn a language, rather than just dabble with it, and that one can learn how to learn a language. And that many students, by no means all, enjoy the one and the other – perhaps because they were exposed to both the learning and to the learning to learn from a very young age, or perhaps, in some cases, precisely because they were not. Food for thought.


Learning how to learn a language

We reported fifteen years ago how at HELTA's 25th anniversary celebrations in 2006 editor of Business Spotlight magazine and qualified economist Dr Ian McMaster spoke on “The future of English” when he differentiated between how English as an international language was really spoken and used, and a corpus International English which he said didn't truly exist but was constantly negotiated between its users and had no owners. Would today's native speaker nations still be able to claim authority on International English if, one, they were already now clearly outnumbered by very competent L2 English, or even double L1, speakers, and, two, if in their own countries foreign language competence was rather continuing to decline?

In a similar vein, our colleague Dr Ann Claypole from south Germany had attended a IATEFL conference in Cardiff and brought back her assessment that British English language teaching did not seem to be aware that is was separating from ELT in the rest of the world. In her article “The changing world of English teaching” she suggested that English was ceasing to be a foreign language but was becoming an essential basic skill. EFL teachers as we knew them might become an endangered species as CLIL became more widespread in schools and universities.

Philippa Baker, a graduate of Eastern European Languages at the University of London, had taught in Russia and in Hungary before she worked at International House in Hamburg, from where she later moved on to the British Council in Delhi. In her article “Jumping the language barrier – the fifth skill” she proposed that the weightiest argument – and that weighty it was - in favour of focusing on translation skills in TEFL was that use of this fifth skill – moving between L1 and the foreign language - was a fact of life for very many students. The EFL teacher should actively encourage this strategy.

“Hugely influential” for decades in EFL teaching philosophy is the label Oxford University Press still attributes to Robert O'Neill (who passed away in 2014) who presented to us. The ETM reviewers headed their article “A sceptic's general critique”. Outlining real differences that exist between acquiring one's L1 and learning a foreign language, in his talk Robert was clear that he considered some approaches as inadequate: that language was acquired merely by using it, that learners learned more from each other than from the teacher and that therefore teacher-centred teaching was eo ipso bad. Robert proposed that grammatical form was central to meaning, just as much as words are, and that language seen as a system of representational communication was very different from language simply as a “tool of communication”. He talked of the risk of remaining at “fossilized pidgin versions” of a foreign language if one didn't know how a language system worked as a system. Robert also insisted that EFL teachers must be highly competent in at least one language other than English.

We reported under the heading “We need to focus better” on talks held at our associations in Germany by Paul Emmerson, another teacher and author of many years standing. Paul did not necessarily favour too much authentic foreign language material, especially if it came at the expense of high frequency language. Textbooks were often too arbitrary and eclectic in their selection of language. While all and any methodology had its place – proviso: if practiced in moderation – the reason for repetition in the classroom was:  achieving fluency. By way of analogy, on his current (2021) website Paul suggests that the freedom and fluency of expression of a Jimi Hendrix or John Coltrane were achieved by hours of practice, much of it perhaps mindless and routine. There was no magic bullet to fluency.

After a week of pronunciation theory and practice at Pilgrims I myself reported under the heading “Teaching pronunciation: more teacher talking time, please!” that my lunchtime collocutor and Pilgrims lecturer Adrian Underhill, a past president of IATEFL, considered the disappearance of language labs as “the greatest loss in language teaching in recent decades”. Such labs enabled all students to talk during the whole lesson, at the same time, hence comprehensively practicing fluency, with the teacher intervening as he considered necessary. 45 minutes student talking time in any 45 minute lesson, for each and every student, plus 45 minutes of concurrent teacher contributions geared towards each individual student. Is that not our goal, moving from guided practice to more independent expression eventually?


Otto's family

Otto passed away peacefully at age 84 and after a successful business career which spanned over 55 years from leaving school at 14. I remember him well and with great fondness. Sometimes - just sometimes - I wonder how his education, or that of his two daughters, three grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and to date two great-great-grandchildren, who live in Germany, the US and the UK, would have profited, or for the two youngest might still profit, from some of the debates on pedagogy, methodologies and techniques that we engage in. I probably feel most comfortable if I am allowed to remain in two minds.


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Tagged  Various Articles 
  • Reflecting on Fossilisation
    Laura Edwards, Germany

  • To Meta or Not to Meta
    Vincent Wongaiham-Petersen, Germany/Philippines

  • Otto's English
    Thomas Martini, Germany

  • Boosting Employees’ Intercultural Job Performance with a Flexible Business English as a Lingua Franca (BELF) Mindset as Agile Learning Companions
    Katrin Lichterfeld, Germany

  • Classroom Language and Teacher Language Proficiency – Ideas for Course Design
    Khanh-Duc Kuttig, Germany