29 July 2010

Standards of English

Today, I will be heading back to Brunei, so this is my last post from Germany. It has been a wonderful month, and I am most grateful to the University of Regensburg for inviting me here.

One of the most surprising things I have found here concerns the standard of English of the students I have met. I have just finished reading 18 reports written by undergraduates majoring in English, and the quality of their written English is, without exception, excellent. It is far better than what I would get in Singapore or Brunei, and I am pretty sure it is also better than what you might find with undergraduate reports in most universities in the UK.

This illustrates an important point: standards of English are not necessarily linked to the status of the language in the Inner, Outer or Expanding Circles. Although English is definitely a foreign language for all the students I have met here, this does not prevent them speaking and writing it extremely well (though, of course, I assume there are other students here with less proficiency in English).

And this relates to one other point that I have discussed before: you can speak a new variety of English, such as that of Singapore, well, or you can speak it badly. And nowadays there is widespread acceptance that it is fine to sound Singaporean just so long as you speak well.

I don't know if a distinct variety of German English might one day evolve and become generally accepted. Certainly there seems to be little chance of it at present, as all the people I have met here are adamant that their target is native-like ability in British or American English. Nevertheless, the point still remains: it is perfectly possible to speak excellent English as a foreign language, and a few tinges of German influence on your pronunciation do not interfere with this in any way.

26 July 2010


In my previous post (here), I suggested that the shape of most (but not all) signs is iconic, but in contrast the sound of most words is arbitrary, so you would never guess what horse refers to unless you already knew.

There are, of course, some words that indicate something of their meaning from the way they are said. In particular, we have onomatopeic words such as plop and click, and also the names of some creatures such as cuckoo.

There are a few other words that seems to carry some hint of their meaning in their pronunciation. For example, I think the German word schrecklich sounds splendid as a word for expressing something bad, whereas the English equivalent terrible does not even begin to do that.

On the other hand, take the German word Schmuck, pronounced as /ʃmʊk/. If you don't know what it means, have a guess. To help you, here it is on the door of a fashionable shop in Regensburg.In fact, Schmuck means 'jewelry'. Now, to my ears that doesn't sound remotely appropriate, though maybe if you have all your life heard Schmuck referring to pretty things, maybe you would disagree.

As we can see, the sound of most words, in German as well as English, is arbitrary.

23 July 2010

The Iconicity of Signs

We usually observe that the shape of most words is aribitrary, so if you did not know what horse referred to, you could not guess. And note that the word for this animal is massively different in a range of languages, so in French it is cheval, in Chinese it is , and in Malay it is kuda.

In contrast, we usually think of most signs, such as road signs, as iconic: they represent the concept pictorally (to a certain extent). For example, the sign on the right fairly obviously represents an aeroplane, and if you saw it on a road sign, you could immediately guess that it probably pointed to the location of an airport.

However, in reality, many signs are in fact arbitrary. Consider the next two. If you did not know which was which, there would be no way to figure out that the one on the left indicates something good and the one on the right shows an error. In fact, we often forget that this symbolism is arbitrary, and we get so used to seeing certain signs that we imagine there is something inherently 'good' contained in the tick sign and something 'bad' in the cross sign. In fact, there isn't. They are just arbitrary.
This arbitrariness of signs struck me when I observed the signs in an unfamiliar environment, while cruising along the Danube. Take the sign on the right. What does it indicate? No doubt it is perfectly obvious to anyone who travels up and down the river on a daily basis; but it is a complete mystery to an outsider like me.

And here's another one. I just looked up Wasser-Schutzgebiet, and it means 'water conservation'. But I am still somewhat mystified about what the symbols indicate.

17 July 2010

Pronunciation Norms

It is fascinating for me to spend time in Germany, and thereby to appreciate the different approaches to norms for English pronunciation.

In 'outer circle' places like Singapore and Brunei, where English is used as a second language by many and also as a first language by some, there is an increasing acceptance that a localised style of pronunciation can be acceptable. Note that this is not suggesting bad pronunciation, as there are many speakers in Singapore who speak excellent English but who still sound distinctly Singaporean. Nowadays in Singapore there is a belief that you don't have to immitate people from Britain or the USA all the time, and indeed Singaporeans who try and pretend they come from England can sound a bit ridiculous.

The situation is very different in 'expanding circle' places such as Germany, where English is generally a foreign language and there are alomost no locals who speak it as their first language. Again, this is not connected with standards of pronunciation, as many Germans speak excellent English. But it is still regarded as a foreign language, and in Germany, there is a strong belief in adhering to either a British or American pronunciation norm.

Indeed, in the University of Regensburg, where I am based for the current month, students of linguistics are required to indicate whether they are aiming for a British or American accent, and then any deviation from this target is regarded as an error.

Put another way, people in Singapore and (to some extent) Brunei feel that they have some ownership of the language; they can develop their own styles of pronunciation and also create new words and ways of using words (though of course there is always the pressure to ensure international intelligibility). In contrast, in Germany there is little feeling of ownership of the language. Indeed, some of the staff in Regensburg have said they are flattered if someone mistakes them as coming from England or the USA.

It is really interesting and valuable for me to have the opportunity to appreciate these distinctions and to gain a greater understanding of the different approaches to English around the world.

14 July 2010


On Language Log of 14 July (here), Mark Liberman discussed the typo in this advertisement, where excepting rather than accepting occurs.
It is interesting to note that this is an error that would rarely occur in Singapore or other places where reduced vowels are often avoided in the unstressed first syllable of a polysyllabic word. It would only occur in the Englishes of places such as the USA or UK, where accepting and excepting are homophones for many speakers.

Sometimes avoidance of reduced vowels can enhance intelligibility.

13 July 2010


If you come to South Germany, you have to go and see Neuschwanstein, the fairy-tail castle started by King Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1869, though construction was stopped when he died in 1886 (something that probably came as something of a relief to the people of Bavaria, as he had managed to bankrupt the state by building so many fantastic castles and palaces).Neuschwanstein literally means 'New-Swan-Stone'. It was "new" to distinguish it from the original Schwanstein castle where Ludwig spent much of his childhood, though this castle was later renamed Hohenschwangau ('High-Swan-District').The swans in these names are from a local motif, which occurs in many names in the region. Here is a family of swans on the Alpensee, the lake near the two castles.

10 July 2010


Currently, there is a jazz festival taking place in Regensburg. Every square has a different act, and it is all free. You can just walk around and enjoy them all. It's brilliant. Here is one act performing in a public square.One noticeable things about this performance, and indeed most of them, is that whenever there are vocals, they tend to be in English. Why is this? Is it because the original songs were in English? Or is it because, if you compose a jazz or blues song, then English is the natural language to do it in?

Maybe it's a bit like opera, which is mostly in Italian (though Mozart broke this mold by composing his later operas in German, and Wagner used German throughout). English seems incongruous for operas, except for the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan and some recent work by composers such as Benjamin Britain.

Why should one language be appropriate for a musical genre and another language seem wrong? Is it something to do with the rhythm? That can't the the answer, as English and German have the same stress-based rhythm, so there should be no difference in choosing between the two languages.

Maybe it is just the level of expectation. So much of art is what you are used to, what is familiar, and if you are presented with something that goes against those expectations, it just does not seem right.

09 July 2010

tall buildings

In Brunei, if you have lots of money and want to impress your friends and neighbours, you might build a big house; and although it might be vast, sprawling over a large area, it is unlikely to be very tall. Most houses in Brunei, however big they are, are only two storeys.

In contrast, in a more densely populated town, the way to make a statement about your wealth and importance is to build high. Look at this view of the skyline of Regensburg.Of course, the cathedral dominates, as one would expect. But many of the other towers are not part of churches; they are private houses.

Here is one of the tallest. It was built in about 1250, though it was extended to its current height in about 1300. In fact, at that time there seems to have been quite a competition to see who could build the tallest and most impressive tower.

Of course, the same is true around the world today, with developers competing to build the tallest building in Chicago, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Dubai .... Nothing has changed!

My guess is that one other reason for trying to build something high, such as the towers in Regensburg, is that in the past a busy town such as this would probably have been quite smelly; so if you could build something taller, you would get fresher air. It must have been quite a climb to get to the top, but maybe it was worth it for the quality of the air you got up there.

07 July 2010

buying a ticket

I just wanted to buy a bus ticket. What do I do now?It's strange being in a place where I can't understand anything written on the signs. And while it is a bit frustrating, it is also refreshing to be somewhere where people always speak to me in their own language, something that seldom occurs in Brunei where almost nobody is willing to speak Malay to me.

I think if I were here for a bit longer, I could learn to speak German quite quickly. It's just a pity that one month is not really long enough to get very far. In contrast, one could live in Brunei for twenty years and still not learn more than a few words of Malay.

06 July 2010

Roman Regensburg

Regensburg was originally a Roman settlement, and in places the original fortifications are still visible. Here they have been incorporated into a building on the edge of the cathedral complex.In many places, the Roman walls have long been buried under later constructions. In the next picture, the ancient walls were only discovered when a car park was being constructed, but as much as possible has been preserved under the car park building.It seems a bit bizarre for the ancient city wall to disappear under a car park; but actually it is rather well done as a historical monument.

The next picture shows another part of the Roman fortification. This is part of an archeological excavation. Now, why is there a McDonald's sign next to it? That seems particularly incongruous, creating the greatest negative advertising one can imagine for McDonald's.

In many ways, this seems even worse than the graffiti I mentioned in my previous posting. Sometimes commercial graffiti is even more ghastly than the spray-painting efforts of individuals.

What can we do about it? One thing we can do is to refuse EVER to go to McDonald's. But I guess they won't care too much. McDonald's never did earn any money from people who can think, as anybody who can think knows that the food there is absolute rubbish.

04 July 2010


The views of Regensburg over the Danube can be quite stunning, especially when the buildings are reflected on the calm surface of the water.However, something that is rather surprising in such a beautiful city is the amount of graffiti on some of the buildings. Let's look, for example, a bit more closely at the orange building in the middle of the photo above.Now, some people might call it art, but I don't see anything artistic there. I guess it depends on what you mean by 'art'. If it refers to freedom of expression, then maybe one could classify this as artistic. But to me, art should incorporate some element of beauty, and I don't see anything beautiful there.

The big question is: why would people want to deface a building in that way? That's something I don't understand. Maybe everyone wants to be heard, and this is one way of achieving that; but I still don't see the point of it.

03 July 2010

Picturesque Regensburg

I am now in Regensburg, which is really beautiful. It is located at the place where the Danube meets the Regen (from which it gets its name). This is a view of the city taken from a boat cruising on the Danube. You can see the cathedral spires soaring over the rooves the houses.The commentary provided on the cruise boat was recorded in excellent English. But one word caught my attention: the speaker stressed picturesque on the first syllable (rather than the third, as is more usual).

Jennifer Jenkins has suggested that English as an International Language can develop its own norms of pronunciation, and there is no need for non-native speakers always to refer to the styles of pronunciation of native speakers. To this end, she says that some things are important for international intelligibility, and some are not.

Many people might agree with this. The problem lies in which things we regard as important. Jenkins suggests that lexical stress is not important, and people can be understood perfectly well even if their English has non-standard stress-placement. I am not too sure about this, as it seems to me that non-standard stress can cause all sorts of problems. In this case, I found picturesque hard to understand with stress on the first syllable.

02 July 2010

Street Theatre in Munich

I previously mentioned the street theatre in Cambridge (here). Here is a performance on the street in Munich.These musicians are from Mongolia, and the singing they produce is quite extraodinary: a very low-pitched buzzing sound. I have no idea how it is made.

I have seen these singers on the Discovery Channel (or somewhere like that); but to see them actually performing is quite special. And to come across it in a pedestrian precinct in the middle of Munich is rather unexpected.

01 July 2010


I am now in Germany, where I will be for the month of July, as a Visiting Professor at the University of Regensburg. Yesterday, my wife and I visited Munich, the capital of Bavaria, the big southernmost state of Germany. Here is a picture of the splendid Rathaus (Town Hall) in Munich.It will be very interesting to compare the English that is spoken here with that found in Brunei. The students I will meet here all have excellent English (I believe), probably comparable to that found among students at UBD in Brunei; but the status of this English is a little different.

Brunei English belongs in what Braj Kachru has termed the 'Outer Circle', places which had a colonial relationship with Britain or the USA and where English has some sort of role as an official language. In Brunei, for example, English is the medium of instruction for most subjects from the fourth year of primary school onwards, and it is now being introduced as the medium of instruction for some subjects from the first year of primary school.

In contrast, English in Germany belongs in the 'Expanding Circle', places with no colonial relationship with Britain or the USA and where there is no official status for English. Nevertheless, English is widely used in Germany, as it so important in the modern world for commerce and also for access to knowledge.

In more traditional terms, we might say that in Brunei, English is a second language, while in Germany it is a foreign language. It will be fascinating to compare the status of the language in the two places.