German after English When more is better after all

A knowledge of other foreign languages facilitates German learning.
A knowledge of other foreign languages facilitates German learning. | Photo: © Marco2811 - adobe stock

Physics lessons presuppose a knowledge of mathematics; to learn basketball, one must already have learned to throw a ball; politics classes often draw on the pupils’ knowledge of history. It is surprising, then, that foreign language classes appear to stand on their own. This tendency results in the loss of important potential when teaching GFL.

There are normally two reasons why teachers are reluctant to refer to other languages. First, while physics teachers need have no fear that their pupils will confuse physics and mathematics, foreign language teachers are more wary of interfering influences from the first language or other languages their students have learnt. Though possibly a relic from the time when contrastive approaches prevailed, it is certainly persistent; in the case of learners of German as a subsequent foreign language after English, errors such as “Es war *auf einmal” (based on the English expression “once upon a time”) or “*Ich” (using a capital “I” as in English) are cited time and again (examples from Marx 2000).

Second, even teachers who would happily draw on English, which is generally the first foreign language of their students, have their reservations at times. This is because many lack confidence when dealing with another foreign language – after all, a teacher of German may not like to expose themselves as poor speakers of English.

The learning advantages of a knowledge of English

In contrast to these worries, a glance at research carried out in recent decades reveals that drawing on other languages can indeed be conducive to learning a new language. For example, students who have learnt or still are learning English as a foreign language have various advantages when learning German. These advantages concern not only necessary linguistic knowledge, but also learning strategies and techniques.

Linguistic similarities

German and English have more than just vocabulary in common. German and English have more than just vocabulary in common. | Photo: © Maranso - adobe stock An obvious starting point is vocabulary. German and English share a wealth of terms that are based on internationalisms taken from Latin (Universität, informieren), share common Germanic roots (Haus, Apfel) or are derived from Anglicisms (cool, City). Even in their very first German lesson, learners will easily be able to recognize such words; they also tend to be the most evident for learners and teachers alike. Lay and Merkelbach (2011), for example, were able to show that Taiwanese German learners stressed how helpful they had found their knowledge of English as a first foreign language to be when learning German vocabulary. This is without doubt the simplest, quickest and most productive means of profiting from one’s own knowledge of English.

However, even structural aspects can often be helpful. This is particularly the case for learners whose first language is less closely related to German than is English, such as Chinese, Arabic or Russian. The word order is similar in both Germanic languages when it comes to probing questions (Who knows the story?: Interrogative – verb – remaining information) and yes/no questions (Does the birthday party begin at 3 pm?: Verb – subject – remaining information). Other grammatical elements such as the comparative form (schnell – schneller; fast – faster) and vowel changes in strong verbs (singen – sang – gesungen; sing – sang – sung) also show similarities. It is even helpful when teaching grammar that many terms such as Verb and Artikel are already familiar from English lessons and therefore do not need to be introduced and explained separately. And finally, textual aspects also play an important role: students who have already written a character description in English will already know something about the structure and content of this genre and use this knowledge when writing a description in German.

Foreign language learning experience

Another advantage when learning a subsequent foreign language involves the considerable learning experience students have from their other foreign language classes. Learners apply increasingly more and more appropriate learning strategies with every new language they learn – up to the seventh or eighth language (Mißler 1999). In addition, learners become ever more sensitive towards language, and are, among others, more successful when it comes to recognizing patterns and pragmatic nuances. For this reason, they are also better at learning new language structures (Jessner 2006).

Of course, not all that glitters is gold. A learner who has had unsatisfactory experiences in learning English may well approach GFL lessons with a negative attitude. In such cases, the onus is on the German teacher to approach the subject of foreign language learning with particular sensitivity, and she will need to show learners that they can be successful when learning German.

Methodology in subsequent foreign language teaching

For learners to capitalize on their knowledge and experience, they must be aware of the benefits they bring when learning German. Learners of a second or third language often fail to recognize parallels and benefits when learning a new language (De Angelis 2011). To make proper use of their potential advantages, many learners need a specific pedagogical approach focusing tertiary language learning, such as German as a foreign language after English (Marx 2005).

A successful teaching strategy in these contexts is based on two primary elements. First, learners should be taught to reflect on languages and on how to autonomously access and systematize interlingual parallels. Second, they should reflect on the language learning process, which assists them in reviewing and adapting strategic knowledge. A research team led by Neuner and Hufeisen (2009) suggested the following practical guidelines:
  1. Wherever it makes sense to do so, class work should span more than one language and subject area. Teachers should let their students be creative in discovering parallels between languages. This will help learners to reflect independently on their own existing knowledge.
  2. Linguistic structures should be embedded within a content and textual context. Students who are learning German after English have already learnt a foreign language, so there is no need for content to be radically simplified.
  3. Receptive competences should be developed in particular at the start of the learning process. This will enable learners to tackle texts that should in fact be well above their level – and thus increase their motivation (Kursiša 2014).
  4. Step up the learning pace: as less time tends to be available for later-learned languages such as German, it is important to ensure that relevant content is taught as quickly as possible, especially at the beginner level. It is precisely here that English can serve as a useful accelerator.

Taking advantage of teaching potential

The fairly extensive research that is now available and the experiences gained in teaching and learning German as a subsequent foreign language clearly show that learners who are aware of  knowledge and experience they have acquired in other languages can benefit from these when learning a new language. Of fundamental importance is a supportive teacher who helps learners to take a cross-linguistic approach and who is not wary of the influence that English might have. The result will be a teaching approach that prepares learners not only for learning German, but also for a lifelong career in language learning.


Readers wishing to find out more about this subject are referred to the Fernstudieneinheit 26 (i.e. distance learning unit 26) by Neuner et al. (2009). Marx (2016, 2018) allows for a brief insight into research-related and practical questions. For teaching materials that can be used immediately at lower learning levels, refer to Kursiša/Neuner (2006).

Angelis, Gessica de (2011): Teachers' beliefs about the role of prior language knowledge in learning and how these influence teaching practices. In: International Journal of Multilingualism, Volume 8, Issue 4, p. 216-234.

Jessner, Ulrike (2006): Linguistic awareness in multilinguals: English as a third language. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Kursiša, Anta (2014): Lesen und verstehen, "ohne das Deutsche so besonders gut zu können". Lesetexte im schulischen Anfangsunterricht DaFnE. In: Fremdsprache Deutsch Issue 50, p. 30–35.

Kursiša, Anta/Neuner, Gerd (2006): Deutsch ist easy! Lehrerhandreichungen und Kopiervorlagen "Deutsch nach Englisch" für den Anfangsunterricht. Ismaning: Hueber.
Lay, Tristan/Merkelbach, Chris (2011): Deutsch als Tertiärsprache in Taiwan. Eine empirisch quantitative Erhebung zur Einschätzung vorhandener Sprachkenntnisse und Sprachlernerfahrungen für den Lernprozess des Deutschen. In: Renate Kärchner-Ober (Hg.): Mehrsprachigkeit und multiples Sprachenlernen = Multilingualism and multiple language acquisition and learning: Vol. 7. Multilingual thumbprints. Different perspectives of multilingualism in South-East Asia. Baltmannsweiler: Schneider Hohengehren, p. 25-55.

Marx, Nicole (2000): Denglisch bei nicht-indoeuropäischen Muttersprachlern? In: Zeitschrift für interkulturellen Fremdsprachenunterricht Volume 5, Issue 1, p. 1-16.

Marx, Nicole (2005): Hörverstehensleistungen im Deutschen als Tertiärsprache: Zum Nutzen eines Sensibilisierungsunterrichts in "DaFnE". Baltmannsweiler: Schneider Hohengehren.

Marx, Nicole (2016): Lernen von zweiten und weiteren Fremdsprachen im Sekundarschulalter. In: Burwitz-Melzer, Eva/Mehlhorn, Grit/Riemer, Claudia/Bausch, Karl-Richard/Krumm, Hans-Jürgen (Ed.): Handbuch Fremdsprachenunterricht. 6. Aufl. Tübingen: Francke, p. 295–300.

Marx, Nicole (2018): Von DaF zu DaFnE zu DaT zu DimK und zurück zu DaF (bzw. DaZ)? Ein Streifzug durch die Tertiärsprachenforschung und -didaktik in Deutsch als Fremdsprache. In: Merkelbach, Chris/Sablonty, Martin (Ed.): Darmstädter Vielfalt – 10 Jahre Fachgebiet Sprachwissenschaft – Mehrsprachigkeit. Baltmannsweiler: Schneider Hohengehren.

Mißler, Bettina (1999): Fremdsprachenforschung und Lernstrategien. Eine empirische Untersuchung. Tübingen: Stauffenburg.

Neuner, Gerd/Hufeisen, Britta/Kursiša, Anta/Marx, Nicole/Koithan, Ute/Erlenwein, Sabine (2009): Deutsch als zweite Fremdsprache (=Fernstudienangebot; 26).