Maria Steinmetz
Specialist STEM vocabulary in GFL lessons: Why? What? For whom? By whom? How?

Trainee Engineers
© Colourbox

Facts and interesting information – including for engineers

Growing demand for “technical” German

There is increasing demand for GFL courses targeted specifically at engineers and students in STEM subjects. They want to learn German so as to be able to use it as a convenient communication tool in their vocational and technical further and continuing education. Motivation and learning success increase significantly when learners discover that German as a foreign language (GFL) lessons can help them achieve this goal – which is why language courses with a particular focus on technical and vocational vocabulary are becoming increasingly popular.

Subject? Language? The subject-specific language as a means of communication!

The main problem faced by GFL teachers is and remains their “fear of the subject”. Many stress that they are language teachers, not subject teachers; that they know nothing about maths, chemistry, physics or technology; and that they fear that they will not be able to give the right answers to technical subject-related questions.
However, they are confusing two fundamental issues here: in technology-oriented GLF lessons it is not a question of imparting specialist knowledge that the students do not yet have, but of giving them the ability to convey and understand subject-specific content using the medium of the German language. This is something that can be easily learnt in a bridging course that focuses on the specific technical vocabulary used in German STEM subjects.
Young and adult GFL learners (of A2 level and above) who have already studied the subject in question require the foreign language tools to enable them to communicate within the technical context; they need to be introduced to the technical German expressions used in the subject, in both written and verbal form. They wish to be familiarized with the ways in which the German language is used in technical communication.
For example:
  • How is a mathematical equation expressed? 
  • How does one describe an experiment? 
  • How should a method be explained? 
  • How does one ask about a result?
  • How are different research results compared? 
  • How should a report about a specific research method be structured?
To put it simply: 
The problem is not the equation itself, but how to put the equation into words in German. GFL learners familiar with the subject already understand the content (e.g. the equation); what they want to learn is how to talk about it in German. In many cases it is quite simple sentences and expressions that help learners to find their voice in technical situations – for instance when giving a presentation, discussing or arguing.

Verbalisierung der Formel auf Deutsch © Maria Steinmetz (Learners already know how to work out square roots and raise numbers to a higher power; that is not why they attend a German course.)
For GFL teachers with a language background, STEM subjects are often “foreign territory”, which is why they tend to avoid such topics. For the learners, however, it is precisely such content that is particularly useful: they want to learn how to form correct sentences in which equations, formulae, units of measurement, measured values, abbreviations, symbols etc. are mentioned, calculations are demonstrated and precise information is conveyed. They need to find a way into reading and processing informative texts within their subject area.
In this context, a textbook entitled “Deutsch für Ingenieure” (i.e. German for Engineers) is very useful.  It provides materials and exercises that on the one hand are chosen strictly according to the principle of their subject relevance (topics relating to mathematics, chemistry, power engineering etc.), while on the other hand systematically tackling the specifics of the technical language and its particular features (word formation, syntax, communication methods, text types etc.) following a language didactic approach.

Learning goals:
  • to be able to talk to fellow students / colleagues about subject-specific content
  • to be able to competently research subject-specific information
  • to be able to understand technical literature
  • to be able to present technical topics / their own specialist field   
Target groups:
  • technology-oriented German courses at language schools and universities (of applied sciences) in Germany and abroad
  • summer/winter schools with a technology focus
  • international exchange programmes between twinned universities
  • language preparation for internships and work in German-speaking countries

  • general language basis in GFL: A2 to B1
  • specialist knowledge: basic knowledge for university students beginning STEM degree courses 
  • interest in technical matters

In the field of technical language didactics, the following model has proven useful in technical language teaching:


 Phase Lesson goal and focus Teachers
1. Acquisition of a general language basis (A1, A2) GFL teachers
2. GFL lessons with a technical language focus: introduction to German STEM languages via technical content acquired during lesson time in the native or target language; with new information added to update and expand learners’ knowledge  GFL teachers with support from subject-specific experts
3.  Technical knowledge acquisition in the foreign langue (German) = degree / continuing education at a German university (of applied sciences) Subject teachers

In other words, it is only in the second phase that the GFL teaching with a technical language focus begins – for which the aforementioned textbook “Deutsch für Ingenieure” is designed. 

Structured information:
The twelve chapters of the book tackle the following topics:
prospects and opportunities for engineers in Germany,
materials science,
electrical engineering,
power engineering,
bionics and automation technology,
information technology. 
Furthermore, it contains a great deal of information about continuing education in Germany (motivation letter, internship fairs, funding programmes etc.).
The didactic approach is presented in the introduction (workshop report).
The structured table of contents provides an overview of the topics, content, language-structure and communicative aspects dealt with in each chapter, e.g.:
 Content Language-structure aspects Communicative aspects
Terminology and basic terms; formula symbols in accordance with the International System of Units (SI);
measurement of electrical current;
measuring and testing;
digital measuring instrument
Verbalization and formulation of precise questions about equations and units; non-personal sentences – passive substitute forms;
extra-long compound nouns
Technical vocabulary: basic terms, graphic symbols, SI units, abbreviations;
use of technical vocabulary to explain, report; instructions for use; recording information 

Didactic principles: subject relevance and action orientation
The principle of subject relevance means that it is always a question of content in contexts typical of the subject. Specialist vocabulary is used in and drawn from the respective context; of particular importance is the vocabulary that can be used in many specialist areas (known as “scientific language” in the STEM domain). Texts are for the most part authentic, and language exercises are based on the grammar contained in these texts; they focus on key features of the technical language and lead to subject-related communicative activities – such as describing, defining, arguing, presenting and researching. 
Based on the principle of action orientation, information from texts and pictures is combined to create exercises in such a way that language activities come about that are common in technical exchanges. In other words, the focus is on genuine subject-related questions and considerations. The grammar needed to formulate correct answers (in the given example the use of non-personal sentences with “one”; the contrast between passive and active phrases; compound nouns) is incorporated into the exercises. German, in this case the foreign language, is used as the medium for subject-related communication.

Beispiel aus der Elektrotechnik
(© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden 2014, M. Steinmetz, H. Dintera, Deutsch für Ingenieure, S. 230 – 231) 

Fragestellung vor Messung © Maria Steinmetz Digitales Messgerät © Maria Steinmetz Abbildung digitales Messgerät © Maria Steinmetz

Vorteile beim Messen © Maria Steinmetz Types of exercise

The textbook contains over 400 exercises, divided into three groups:
  1. closed-ended exercises – exercises with one clear answer
  2. semi-open-ended exercises – exercises with different variants of an answer
  3. open-ended exercises – exercises whose answer depends only on the learners.
The answer section contains the answers (for 1) and model answers (for 2), as well as lots of useful help, tips, suggestions for adaptations and didactical information.  


Being a combined textbook and work book, “Deutsch für Ingenieure” is designed to encourage learners to write and make notes in it.
An exercise book is needed for the many written exercises designed to take the learner further, while Internet access is required for the research. In GFL lessons with a technical language focus in particular, writing has proved especially important:
  • as a means of preparing learners to speak 
  • as a means of giving learners structure in terms of how they think, argue, discuss and research
  • as a means of consolidating vocabulary and language structures that are highly redundant in terms of the technical language
  • as a basis for giving satisfactory subject-specific reports or presentations 
To download:
The sample chapter “Mathematik 1” is suitable for learners of all STEM subjects; virtually the perfect introduction to the expressions used in technical language, it can be used easily at level A2 and above.     


Dr. Maria Steinmetz

  • Şimșekler. Zur Entstehung und Entwicklung ausländischer Jugendbanden. (1987) TUB-Dokumentation Weiterbildung Heft 15. 
  • Fachkommunikation und DaF-Unterricht. Vernetzung von Fachwissen und Sprachausbildung am Beispiel eines Modellstudiengangs in China. (2000) Iudicium Verlag. München
  • Lernen als Vernetzung von Erfahrungen – Konzept und Konsequenzen für DaF. (2004)         In: Hess, Hans Werner (Hg.): Didaktische Reflexionen. „Berliner Didaktik“ und Deutsch als Fremdsprache heute. Stauffenburg Verlag. Tübingen 
  • „Fette Texte knacken“ - Materialien und Verfahren zum Erarbeiten anspruchsvoller Fachtexte. (2007) In: Lernchancen. Heft 59, 10. Jhg., 47-55
  • Bestimmung der Qualitätsanforderungen der Fakultät I der TUB an geisteswissen-schaftliche Abschlussarbeiten – Ergebnisse einer Befragung ausgewählter Professoren und Dozenten. (2008) Beitrag zum OWL-Projekt AssisThesis. Interne Publikation im Rahmen des TUB-Projekts AssisThesis
  • „Didaktischer Werkzeugkasten“ zum Thema „Schreibenlernen im Studium?“ (2009) Interne Publikation im Institut für Sprache und Kommunikation der TU Berlin 
  • „Deutsch interaktiv“ – ein neuer Deutschkurs der Deutschen Welle. (2009) In: FAN Jieping, LI Yuan (Hg.): Deutsch als Fremdsprache aus internationaler Perspektive. Iudicium Verlag. München, 204-209
  • Zur Perspektive von DaF in Zentralasien – das Modellbeispiel der Deutsch-Kasachischen Universität (DKU) Almaty. In: info-daf 4/2009 (Koautorin: Olga Moskowtschenko)
  • Deutsch für Ingenieure. Ein DaF-Lehrwerk für Studierende ingenieurwissenschaftlicher Fächer. (2014) Springer Vieweg, Wiesbaden. (Ko-Autor: Dr. Heiner Dintera)
  • Fachsprachen-Unterricht als neue Perspektive für DaF. Erfahrungen aus Beispielen an innovativen Studiengängen und Hochschulen in Zentralasien. (2015) In: Dohrn, Antje; Kraft, Andreas (Hg.): Fachsprache Deutsch – international und interdisziplinär. Verlag Dr. Kovač. Hamburg
  • Lösungsschlüssel Deutsch für Ingenieure. Springer Vieweg, Wiesbaden. 2016 (Ko-Autor: Dr. Heiner Dintera)
  • Fachsprache Mathematik. (In Vorbereitung) In: Drumm, Sandra; Roche, Jörg (Hg.): Berufssprachen, Fachsprachen, Wissenschaftssprachen. Reihe Kompendium DaF/DaZ. Narr-Verlag. Tübingen. Vgl.: Tempus CoMoLTE

about the Author

Maria Steinmetz Foto: Jan Strempel © ixme Aydiho Originally from Bavaria, Maria Steinmetz read Romance and German studies and educational science at Tübingen, Paris, Berlin and Munich. After working extensively in primary and comprehensive schools, she focused her attention on further and continuing training for teachers and was involved in research into German as a second or foreign language, language and migration at the Institute of Language and Communication at TU Berlin. She worked as a DAAD lecturer in China and took her PhD on the subject of “Technical Communication and GFL Teaching” at TU Berlin.
Numerous DAAD specialist courses in Central Asia and the CIS countries with a special focus on technical language didactics and scientific writing.
Co-author of the textbook “Deutsch für Ingenieure” in 2014