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Englisch wird die Arbeitssprache

Published by marco on

The article, «Westerwave» ist talentiert im Vergleich (Tages Anzeiger) (“Westerwave” is talented compared to this), is about the EU commissar Günther Oettinger, who has deemed English to be the language of the future. He has often said in interviews that everyone will have to know English, from newscasters to construction workers. His own spoken English is abysmal, which earns him ridicule. Why is it, though, that he must himself be a master of English in order to promote it as the language of the future? Should we not instead laud him for sticking to his principles despite knowing that he himself will be left out of the future he prophesies?

The video ridiculing him is embedded below:

Oettinger Rede (englisch)- Oettinger Talking (sic) English (YouTube)

First off, as a native English speaker[1], I don’t find him to be nearly as incomprehensible as fluent, non-native speakers of English. It’s an extremely strong accent with a very unique approach to accent and emphasis in longer words. It may, however, not even be the worst I’ve ever heard. Germans with English as a second language find his English to be an impenetrable wall of sound, which means that those who need to understand him most are left out. I’m sure Oettinger doesn’t care that ex-pat Americans can understand him to a large degree.

Still, just because he’s a poor English speaker doesn’t mean he’s wrong. What if he was nearly innumerate but exhorted Germans to become good at numbers? Would people still be so cruel? Is it because he is expected to be able to learn a second language and speak it fluently as part of his job? What is so self-evident about that? Do we just assume that he has the extra time because he’s a politician? Or do we demand that he possess the capability of learning languages as part of his qualification for the job? What drives the ridicule actually?

I personally think it takes quite a lot of balls to give a speech in a foreign language—especially when he must be at least partially aware[2] that his command of English is considered to be quite shaky. If you listen to his speech, he’s using quite a large vocabulary; it would be interesting to know whether he actually understands what he’s saying as some of the mispronunciations indicate that he was reading words for the first time.


[1] Even the poster of video, who is making fun of Oettinger’s English, gets the caption of the video wrong, using “talking” instead of the more correct “speaking”.
[2] Up to a certain point, you can still hear your own accent. After that, you think you have no accent, but others can still detect it. Oettinger is not nearly that far yet.