Multilingualism and Economy

Appropriate Language Choice for International Contacts

When dealing with persons who have learned a foreign language, it is courteous to allow them to practice what they have learned. Copyright: Colourbox

For the most part, the French speak French all over the world, self-assuredly and as if it were the most natural thing in the world. But they might well offend their conversation partners by doing so. The Germans, on the contrary, are all too happy to forgo using their native language for international contacts, as they believe it is polite and considerate to do so. The linguist Ulrich Ammon sees things differently: for learners, to insist on another language can sometimes be humiliating. Furthermore, languages lose their attractiveness as foreign languages when native speakers voluntarily refrain from using them.

For starters, a small collage of examples of problematic language-choice decisions for international contacts:
  1. At the 1986 World Conference of Sociologists in New Delhi, the German ambassador surprised the approx. 100 sociology professors from his own country whom he had invited to dinner in his residence, with a speech in English. Later, a rumour made the rounds that this language had been chosen out of consideration for a British guest – who did not come in the end.
  2. At a conference organised by the Goethe-Institut in Paris in 2004 in cooperation with a French partner, the director of the Goethe-Institut welcomed the guests entirely in French, as did the French partner. The GI director, whom I asked afterwards in private whether a welcoming speech both in French and in German might not have been more suitable, answered in the affirmative, but added that choosing languages was often a difficult matter.
  3. The Rheinische Post (a regional German newspaper) reported that an academic high school in Rheinhausen was finally once again hosting British students who wished to learn German. But their German hosts saw the main benefit in the fact that the German students now had an opportunity to practice their English. The British students ended up having hardly any chance at all to speak German.
  4. Chong Si-Ho, the Korean co-editor of my 2003 book, Die deutsche Sprache in Korea (i.e. the German language in Korea), told me that, to the horror of everybody learning German, a Siemens manager stated on Korean prime-time TV that competence in English was much more important than German for Koreans who want to work for German firms, which gives one an indication of this company’s prevailing language choice.
One can discover many similar examples if one keeps an eye out for them. Harald Weydt has published an entire collection of them, deploring the frequency with which Germans refuse to speak German.

Motives behind erroneous language choices

Language choice is often difficult at conferences with an international public. Copyright: Uwe Steinbrich/www.pixelio.deTo be sure, the issue here is only language choice for international contacts, i. e. for persons with differing native languages and nationalities. Among themselves, Germans naturally speak German, so we need not fear that the language will die out any time soon. Prevailing motives for refraining from using German for international contacts, for which Jim O’Driscoll offers a comprehensive theoretical explanation, are the following: efforts at better understandability, concepts of courtesy where language use is concerned (and also diffidence stemming from the recent German past), exhibiting one’s cosmopolitan sophistication and/or parading one’s mastery of foreign languages. They are all acceptable, except for showing off one’s language competences, which in any case plays no part in the examples listed above. But to what extent has language choice nonetheless gone wrong in the cases listed above? Above all, for the two following reasons.

Erroneous concepts of courtesy in language choice

What was intended as courtesy turns out to be discourteous in reality. Weydt warns about the mistaken belief that, „it is a priori polite to use English every time we are dealing with a non-German. This can come across as deeply insulting.“ This is based on Penelope Brown’s and Stephen C. Levinson’s theory of courtesy that is in turn based on the work of Ervin Goffman. Goffmann derived his terminology from the expression, „to lose face.“ Courtesy theory assumes that every human being has two fundamental needs, the preservation of his “positive” and his “negative face.” The latter is the need for personal freedom, one’s own “territory,” and the former the need to be respected by one’s fellows. Only the positive “face” is of relevance in our present context. In this regard, attesting one’s respect and recognition constitutes courtesy.

The consequences for our present discussion are as follows: when dealing with persons who have learned a foreign language it is generally courteous to let them practice their acquired knowledge – while recognizing and appreciating their efforts. Refraining from using one’s own native tongue is thus not always an expression of intercultural sensitivity – on the contrary: insistence on using another language is discourteous, and under certain circumstances even insulting. This naturally applies only to persons who enjoy hearing and using their acquired language.

Lack of understanding of the dialogue partners’ interests

The refusal to make use of other languages besides English is harmful to the interests of the dialogue partners. It is in the interest of all speakers, whether acquired-language speakers or native speakers, that their language be used in as many situations as possible, as it is in this way that it derives its value as a means of communication and cognition and as a mark of professional qualification; in short, its attractiveness as an acquired language. Not using a language where it could be used based on the language competence of the participants, damages the value of the language, to the disadvantage of both acquired-language speakers and native speakers.

Pointers for appropriate choices

Prof. Dr. phil. Ulrich Ammon. Copyright: Universität Duisburg-Essen. Knowledge of this complex of problems helps avoid errors in language choice, to which – as the examples mentioned above reveal – Germans in particular are inclined. They should by no means refuse to speak German in personal contacts if this is desired. In the case of public speeches, one should inform oneself in advance about knowledge of German, if necessary by asking the audience. A greeting in the language of the particular country at the beginning is suitable, at a pinch in English. If knowledge of German is lacking among the audience, a symbolic greeting will do, and one or two sentences in German might follow. In the first case, a short welcome in English and an explanation that one will proceed in German out of consideration for the majority of the audience is appropriate. And in the other situations, too, German should have been given suitable prominence. When dealing with students and teachers of German as a foreign language, one should never refrain from using German – this goes for written correspondence as well. The use of other languages depends on the number of persons who do not know German.


Ammon, Ulrich/Chong Si-Ho (ed.) (2003) Die deutsche Sprache in Korea (i.e. the German language in Korea) Munich: Iudicium. (includes contributions on language choice, for example, an article by Kim Ok-Seon on language choice in german companies in Korea, pp.119-134).

Ammon, Ulrich (2007) Die Wichtigkeit und Schwierigkeit von Deutsch als Arbeitssprache in den EU-Institutionen (i.e. the importance and difficulty of German as working language in EU institutions). Muttersprache 117: pp. 98-109.

Brown, Penelope/Levinson, Stephen C. (1987) Politeness. Some Universals in Language Use. Cambridge UK etc.: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, Erving (1957) The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Anchor Books

O’Driscoll, Jim (2001) A face model of language choice. Multilingua 20: 245-268. Weydt, Harald (2004) Offener Brief zu Volker Honemann: „Usbekistan – Deutschland. Oder: wollen wir die Zukunft unserer Sprache und unserer Literatur weiterhin gefährden?“ (i.e. an open letter to Volker Honemann: „Usbekistan – Germany, or: do we wish to continue endangering the future of our language and our literature?”) Zeitschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik 134: pp. 124-128. 134: 124-128.
Ulrich Ammon
is professor of Germanic linguistics, with focus on socio-linguistics, at the University of Duisburg-Essen.

Translation: Ani Jinpa Lhamo
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion

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May 2009

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