A German learner of English

© Yaron Matras

This is an interview with a former German arms dealer, broadcast on British television in June 1997:

Example 1 [Listen to example]

1At the border in England, were by the custom/
2They have investigated this car very very eh/ eh/ thoroughly and they have removed the panels from the doors, the panels from the luggage room,
3and they in/ investigated in the engine compartments aber they didn't find anything,
4but the/ they have forgotten to got unten/ the/ [clears throat] they/ they forgot to look under the car.

This speaker is clearly fluent in English; note his use of some rather complex vocabulary, such as the words investigated, removed, thoroughly, or compartments. He also speaks fast, and in well-constructed sentences. But notice nevertheless how his native German influences his English speech:

  • Word order: In German, the verb has to be the second constituent in the sentence. Therefore, in line 1, once the expression at the border in England - a prepositional phrase and an indirect object - is uttered, the speaker hurries to insert the verb were. This verb is also used lexically in a way that resembles German, to express existence, whereas the normal English equivalent would have been there were.
  • Tense and aspect: The German perfect tense is the most commonly used past tense, whereas in English the more obvious choice for events that have no direct bearing on the present situation is the simple past: thus, I fell over while I was ice-skating [last week], but I have fallen over [and as a result I am still lying on the ground]. The speaker uses the English perfect tense following the German model: they have investigated, they have removed (line 2), they have forgotten (line 4).
  • Vocabulary: The speaker refers to the boot of the car as the luggage room (line 2), constructing the expression following the German model: Kofferraum, where -raum (similar to English room) actually means 'space'. This is a case of taking the pattern of the German lexical construction, but the shape of corresponding words, or words associated with the German model, from English.
  • Slips of the tongue: Under pressure to narrate the events, and approaching the climax of the story, the speaker slips into German when uttering the contrastive conjunctions aber 'but'. (We know that he is familiar with the English expression but, which he uses in the following line). This is a case of a bilingual 'speech production error' or slip of the tongue, where the choice of the correct form from the appropriate language simply escapes the speaker's control. Such slips are not uncommon especially around discourse markers, interjections, and conjunctions. But note that in line 4 something similar seems to happen: the speaker says got but might have had the German word gucken 'to look' in mind, and this is followed by German unten 'below'; note the speaker's embarrassment and slight confusion after this slip, represented by the fact that he stops to clear his throat before starting over again and re-phrasing.