Turkish German learners

© Yaron Matras

The first generation of Turkish immigrants in Germany were known as 'labour migrants' or as 'guest workers'. They were recruited in the 1960s to fill gaps in the industry. Many returned to Turkey after retirement, while others ended up settling in Germany. The intention of the German government was at first to recruit labourers who would eventually leave. Many workers regarded their stay in Germany as temporary, and at first, left their families behind. Opportunities for social contact with Germans were very limited, as were opportunities to learn German in a formal way, through instruction. When speaking to "foreign workers", which was how many Germans regarded the immigrants of the first generation, Germans often tended to adopt a simplified form of the language, both as an expression of their condescending attitude toward immigrants, but often also based on the assumption that simplified talk would be easier for the migrants to comprehend. Thus, immigrants of the first generation were typically exposed to very little spoken German, and most of it in a simplified form. Many developed, as a result, a simplified way of speaking German, which has become known as 'guest workers' German' (Gastarbeiterdeutsch). The development of German language competence among immigrant workers was the subject of numerous investigations in the 1970s and 1980s.

The following recordings were made in early 1984, in the town of Tübingen in southwest Germany. Both speakers are Turks who have spent many years in Germany.

Example 1 [Listen to example]


Here's an attempt at a translation of what this speaker was trying to say:

1Well, my colleagues are all Turks.
2But like I don't speak German very well.
3I always speak Turkish, I always speak Turkish.
4My daughter, my son also, [they] speak German well.
5ah/ I [don't need] an interpreter [or anything like that], my/ for example at the job office or something like that,
6[in such cases] I don't [need] an interpreter.
7My daughter and my son [are] always together [with me] and translate.
8I speak Turkish/ Turkish, the colleagues speak/ uh/
9my son and my/ .. uh always speaker German, they translate, yes?
10I don't speak German very well.
11Eighteen years I have been working [here], but [I don't]...

Note some of the features of the speaker's German:

  • Discourse marker so: There is a generalisation of the German word so 'so, such, in this way' to express various connections to ideas that have been expressed in the course of the conversation, beginning with 'well' (in line 1), and on to 'like' (line 2), 'or anything like that' and 'for example' (in line 5), and on to 'in such cases' (line 6) and 'like this' (line 7). The expression so as well as oder so is quite common in spoken German, but this speaker over-generalises it as an attempt to reassure himself that the listener is following what he is saying and comprehends the various connections that he is making.
  • Determiner inflection: Words such as 'my' (possessive pronoun) and 'no' (negative determiner) carry inflection endings in German which agree with the following noun in gender and number. These rules of agreement are not followed by this speaker, who instead generalises the ending e: meine 'my', keine 'no(ne)'. The generalisation of this particular form is not surprising. Even though the other form, kein, is shorter, keine is arguably more common, since it appears in German both in the feminine singular and in the plural. Also, in the object case, the forms tend to have two syllables (e.g. keinen, keinem, keiner), and so again, they bear similarities to the form preferred by the speaker, keine. As a result of the generalisation of just one inflected form, we find grammatical errors where a feminine/plural form accompanies a masculine singular noun: meine Sohn 'my son' (lines 4, 7, 9), keine Dolmetscher 'no interpreter' (lines 5, 6).
  • Verb inflection: This is completely missing. The speaker uses the famous infinitive-style, a feature that is known to be characteristic of 'foreigner talk' in German. All verbs appear in the infinitive form, with no marking for person, number, or tense. There is one exception: The speaker uses, as a fixed formula, the expression ich bin 'I am'. Although German does not have a progressive tense that uses the verb 'to be' as in English ('I am speaking'), the speaker generalises the combination ich bin, inserting it along with various verbs, as a way to compensate for the absence of person inflection: ich bin nix zu viel deutsch sprecken 'I don't speak very much German' (lines 2, 10), ich bin türkisch sprecken 'I speak Turkish' (line 8).
  • Vocabulary: The speaker is creative in constructing vocabulary items for which he does not know the German expression. We see this with the verb 'to translate' or 'to interpret', which obviously plays an important role in what the speaker is trying to say in this excerpt. The speaker is not familiar with the German word for this verb. Instead, he uses a combination of the noun Dolmetscher 'interpreter', and the verb sprechen 'to speak' - literally: 'to speak interpreter'.
  • Word order: German word order rules are quite complex, and the position of constituents in the sentence varies according to the type of clause (e.g. main or subordinate) as well as the placement of certain elements in the beginning of a clause. Turkish word order on the other hand is much more rigid; the verb tends to appear in the final position, at least in simple sentences that are said with no special emphasis. The speaker tends to follow Turkish word order: immer türkisch sprecken '[I] always talk in Turkish' (line 3), compare German [ich] spreche immer türkisch; or in line 11: achtzehn Jahre arbeiten '[I have been] working for eighteen years', German [ich] arbeite [schon] achtzehn Jahre.
  • Phonology: The speaker has what we would normally refer to as a Turkish 'accent'. But notice some aspects of his pronunciation that are conspicuously different from German: The word Kollega has an a at the end, instead of e. The word nichts 'nothing' is reduced to nix - this is no doubt influenced by colloquial and dialectal German. Instead of auch 'also' we find auf (line 4), the sound sprechen changes to sprecken (lines 2, 3, 4 and more), and combinations of sounds at the end of words tend to be distorted: vielleicht 'maybe' becomes vielleichs (line 5), Arbeitsamt 'job office' becomes Arbeisamt (line 5).
  • Conjunctions: Note that the speaker hardly uses any conjunctions. Connections are generally expressed by so, which, as discussed above, is generalised. When the speaker wishes to express contrast, he uses the Turkish conjunction ama 'but', which sounds somewhat similar to German aber: ama ich bin nix zu viel deutsch sprecken 'but I don't speak German very well' (line 2), ama keine... 'but no...' (line 11).
  • Negation: Verbs in German are negated by the particle nicht 'not', which normally follows the verb (though this depends on the overall word order in the sentence). Note that the speaker uses the word for 'nothing', nix, as a generalised negator: ich bin nix zu viel deutsch sprechen 'I don't speak German very well' (line 10). This too is a well-known feature of the German speech of foreign workers.

Here is another speaker, with a similar background:

Example 2 [Listen to example]

1 Strasse ein bisse wenig aber/
  street a bit few but
2 Autoparkplas auch wenig, Strassen.
  parking-space also few streets
3 immer so schuldig parken schreiben, Geldsahlen.
  always such guilty park write moneypay
4 aber nich gut, anderes besser, gell?
  but not good other better right

Example 2 Translation

1There aren't many streets but/
2There aren't many parking spaces either, on the streets.
3One always receives a parking ticket, and needs to pay a fine.
4But that's not good, something else would be better, right?

Note some of the features of this person's speech:

  • Plural endings: In German, as in English, most nouns must be clearly identified, usually through their ending, as either singular or plural. Note that in line 1 the speaker is referring to 'streets' in the plural - arguing that there aren't many streets, but he uses the German singular form: Strasse 'street'. By contrast, in line 2, he uses the German plural form Strassen 'streets'. Is this a question of not being certain about the plural ending? It may actually be a direct transfer from Turkish. In Turkish, one does not normally use the plural ending when the noun is determined by some kind of quantifier, such as 'a few' or even 'many', since the quantifier already specifies that the noun is plural. Thus, the Turkish equivalent of the sentence in line 1 would be: sokak azdır, literally [street few-is]. On the other hand, when referring to a definite entity, the plural ending is obligatory (thus sokaklar '[the] streets'). Thus, when the speaker in line 2 refers back to the streets as the location of the (few) parking spaces, he is referring to a definite, known entity: 'the streets'. In Turkish, this would be sokaklarda literally [streets-on], 'on the streets'.
  • Lexical creativity: Here too, the speaker improvises in order to create expressions for concepts that are not known to him in German. In line 3, he refers to the issuing of parking tickets. Not being familiar with the proper terms in German, he puts together words whose meanings add up to represent the concept that he wishes to express: 'guilty' + 'park' + 'write' = 'parking ticket'. The concept of 'fine' is replaced by the more general 'money'.
  • Connections: As in the previous example, few expressions are used to express connections between portions of what has been said. This speaker too uses so 'such, in this way'. In a sense, this serves as a signal to the listener that the listener should draw a connection between what is being said, and things that are generally known to be true: 'in this way' meaning, 'you can imagine what I am saying'. But note how inexplicit the speaker is with regard to the connections to previous talk in line 4: What isn't good? What 'something' would be better? Much of the interpretation is left to the listener, and the speaker, for lack of vocabulary and especially for lack of command of grammatical vocabulary that can express connections or conditions, leaves quite a bit unexpressed, relying on the listener to do the work of contextual interpretation.