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Learning German - for an international career in academia

by Jens Gerdes

Yes, English is by all means the language of science. Less than one per cent of all scientific publications worldwide are today written in German. Moreover, yes, in some disciplines, you will not even get far with German at German research institutions, as the number of degree courses and doctorate research groups working purely in English is also on the increase. Despite this, there are still many good reasons to learn German.

Learning German - for an international career in academia© igor - Fotolia.comLearning the German language could offer new career possibilities
The competition within academia is tough. At first glance, it therefore seems sensible to invest the time spent in Germany in gaining further specialist qualifications, rather than in learning German. Appearances are deceiving though: it is by all means worth learning German - for a number of reasons. Firstly, foreign academics studying or researching in Germany must also organise their private lives. Although English is a mandatory subject in German schools, certainly not everyone is able to speak and understand it. Secondly, learning German can open up further options: with 185million speakers of which 100million are native speakers, German is one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world. So if a career in academia should not work out - or, conversely, perhaps even work out so well that the research findings can be marketed internationally - speaking German clears the way to the leading markets. Thirdly, you should not even miss this opportunity due to the academic career planning. When learning a foreign language you also always acquire skills that can prove beneficial in professional advancement in the multinational academic world. After all, you never make a career for yourself entirely alone.

Foreign languages and intercultural skills

Take the following situation, for example: the members of an international research group have been busy and in the Monday meeting, they all report to the group leader. The Japanese colleague never looks the latter directly in the eye. In contrast, the Frenchman presents his findings with sweeping gestures and almost exaggerated confidence. Does one lack confidence and the other perhaps have too much? No, they simply come from different cultures. The French communication style - if there is such a thing - is punctuated by gestures; in the Japanese culture, etiquette dictates that it is impolite to look superiors and elders directly in the eye. Such examples are at least described in the literature on intercultural communication. In real-life situations, it is often difficult to establish which aspects of behaviour are individual and which are due to cultural influences. This is not different if the conversation is in English - mostly in the form of an internationalised and specialist variety predominantly used by non-native speakers. Speakers transfer many paralinguistic aspects of their native culture. Moreover, each individual interprets what the others say and how they say it according to their own background.

Crucial is the interaction with other speakers

Our thoughts and feelings, actions and perceptions are influenced by our culture. However, we are not normally aware of this. Cultural anthropology uses the image of an iceberg to illustrate this phenomenon: very few of a culture's characteristics are actually visible. Many supposedly typical features (e.g. food, architecture, and clothing) can be observed and classified. The larger and more complex part lies beneath the surface: group behaviour, learning styles, hygiene, perceptions of time, and much more. Intercultural competence is therefore essential for efficient work within multicultural teams. Learning and trying out a foreign language in the country itself is the best way to deal with the cultural challenges. This enables intensive exposure to the foreign culture - and inevitably also to one's own. One gains clarification and problem-solving skills. Learning a language at one's desk does not have the desired effect in this respect. It is of course necessary to take a targeted approach to build a solid basis and tackle problem areas. However, the interaction with other speakers is always the practical test. You can only acquire communication skills through the interaction with native speakers.

German as a foreign language: the right learning method

The ideal learning method is different for everyone. There is no generic solution to which exercises a learner with the respective individual needs will find the most effective. Broadly speaking, the key aspects are:
  • Who (and where) am I?
  • What do I wish to achieve with the language?
  • How can I best learn (this)?
  • How much time do I have?
Whether one simply wishes to learn different words using index cards or a smartphone app, or wants to learn with a group is therefore essentially up to the individual. One thing is for sure though: each method has its strengths but inevitably also its weaknesses. A mixture of methods is therefore generally recommended - every good German course will take this approach. Moreover, variation also helps boost motivation.

Where can I learn German?

A great many opportunities exist to participate in organised language courses. Those based outside of Germany wishing to converse with a group under the guidance of a native speaker can sign up for an online German course - a so-called "webinar". Within Germany, countless adult education centres and private language schools offer courses. Academics should be sure to enquire at their guest institution: universities often offer free (or at least discounted) courses for their students and employees. In addition, they have the advantage of forming part of academic communication. Another bonus is that many of the other course participants are also academics, meaning that informal simulations of one or other multinational working group meeting are possible in German.

academics :: Februar 2014