Don't keep apologizing for your poor L2

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Ying Reinhardt wisely advises us in this delightful article:

"I stopped apologising for my poor German, and something wonderful happened:

After a decade in Germany, I was still anxious talking to native speakers – then I realised my language skills weren’t the problem"

The Guardian (4/1/24

What Ying Reinhardt says about German as a second language is true, ceteris paribus, of other foreign languages that one may be learning.  Just plunge ahead.  Of course, one doesn't want to speak utter gibberish, but don't be afraid of making minor mistakes in grammar, vocabulary, and, yes, even tone or accent.  Just get your ideas across in the most efficient way possible within your capability.  It's all about communicative competence.

I have prefaced every conversation with, “Entschuldigung, mein Deutsch ist noch nicht so gut” (“I’m sorry, my German is still not very good”) since I moved to Hermsdorf, a little village in east Germany in 2015. Its purpose was to act as a disclaimer upfront so that the German person I was talking to wouldn’t expect me to articulate complicated ideas or respond promptly and accurately to everything that was said. But mostly, my opening line was a plea for mercy, a signal that I was still learning the language and would greatly appreciate it if they spoke more slowly and clearly. They would always graciously reply: “Ja, Deutsch ist eine schwere Sprache.” German is a difficult language, they all agreed. And for the longest time, that was true.

Growing up in Kuala Lumpur as Malaysian Chinese, I speak English almost natively, given that Malaysia was once a British colony. I also speak Malay, Malaysia’s official language, and Mandarin and Cantonese because I needed to communicate with my grandparents. Before moving to Germany, I already spoke Italian after working on board cruise ships for years alongside Italian officers, and conversational French after dating a Frenchman. Then, I met the man who would later become my husband in a bar on the 63rd floor of a building in Singapore and a thought occurred to me: “Wouldn’t it be funny if I have to learn German this time?”

Learning and speaking German was anything but funny. It wasn’t funny when I started learning the language from scratch and it still wasn’t funny when I finished C1, a level that allows me to study at a German university if I want to. When I was learning Italian or French, the words would somehow roll off my tongue, but in German the convoluted grammar made me choke. Even if I could technically write academic essays in German, the thought of calling a clinic to make an appointment would still induce debilitating anxiety. I would stammer during small talk with a mother I had never met before, while dressing my one-year-old at kindergarten; hide if I saw my neighbour take out the trash; or get my husband to call the ophthalmologist for an appointment. “Why don’t you do it yourself?” my husband would grumble. “How about you try picking up Malay and Mandarin?” I would always retort.

Finally, with a little help from her husband, she achieved L2 acquisition enlightenment:

This went on for almost a decade until a month ago: I was home, telling my husband about a meeting I’d had at the Federal Employment Agency. As usual, I had started the meeting by apologising for my mediocre German skills. The lady behind the desk had looked at me somewhat perplexed: “But your German is great.” I cackled and rolled my eyes at my husband. As if. “She’s right, you know,” he said. “I don’t know why you still think you speak bad German. OK, it is not perfect, but who cares?” Who cares indeed.

Ying gives a number of specific examples of how this "who cares" attitude toward L2 acquisition works out in practice, but one that is especially powerful tells about a diminutive South American woman:

When I was still learning elementary German, I remember being in awe of a Chilean woman in my class who, despite her poor grasp of German grammar, spoke confidently. While I was meek and often squeaked out my words, she commanded attention – all 4ft 9in of her. I asked her how I could be more like her. “After 10 years of living in Germany, I no longer care. I’m not trying to be Goethe,” she said.

Philip Taylor, who called this article to my attention, added in an e-mail:

From my own experience, I know that learning to say "I'm sorry, I don't speak <language X> very well" in <language X> can be very much a two-edged sword, in that if one learns to say the phrase too accurately (native speaker intonation, etc) the effect can be the opposite of that desired, since by using the phrase one has unintentionally appeared to demonstrate one's seeming (but non-existent) fluency in the language …  I once had to sit through four hours of more-or-less non-stop Polish while travelling from Warszawa Centralna to Białystok, having foolishly said "excuse me" in Polish while endeavouring to take my seat !


Just as I was about to sign off on this post, I noticed the following headline in a sidebar of the article:

"German call for English to be second official language amid labour shortage:

Politician from governing FDP says skilled foreign workers are being put off by unwieldy bureaucratic German", by Philip Oltermann (2/10/23)

Since it is highly relevant to Ying Reinhardt's article, and since similar calls have been made in Japan, Taiwan, and other countries, and English is already an official language in India and Singapore, this is a proposal that must be taken seriously.


Selected readings



  1. Neil Kubler said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 8:05 am

    There are important points in both Ms. Reinhardt's article and Victor's commentary, but it seems to me that a balanced approach might be best. On the one hand, communicative competence and "getting the job done" is usually what it's all about and there is no need to be excessively apologetic. On the other hand, a certain amount of humility is also appropriate, since if one learned the language later than 12 or 14 years of age, one is almost without exception fated to be a "linguistic cripple" one's whole life. With hard work and the right conditions, one can approach a native speaker's competence ever more closely, but one will never attain it completely. The minute you start having too much confidence in your performance and let your guard down, it's easy to (1) start offending native speakers and (2) stop learning and improving.

  2. KeithB said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 8:18 am

    Whenever someone says that to me, I reply that their English is much better than my <>.

  3. KeithB said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 8:19 am

    And obviously better than my markup language skills. The board swallowed my "Insert Language Here".

  4. Seonachan said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 8:32 am

    A friend who lives next door to a Mi'kmaw reserve in Nova Scotia once told me that he would occasionally get calls from people dialing the wrong number who would speak to him in Mi'kmaq. So he asked his neighbor to teach him how to say "I'm sorry, I don't speak Mi'kmaq", but being able to say this only served to convince the callers that it wasn't true.

  5. Anubis Bard said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 8:42 am

    Having devoted so much time in learning my now horribly rusty German and Russian, I'm very familiar with the sense of embarrassment that comes with inflicting it on a native speaker. With Spanish, on the other hand, where I've never taken a class, I'm much more comfortable just barging forward with my haphazardly collected smattering – peppered with guesses adapted from words with Latin roots. In fact, I get by more comfortably (and often enough more successfully) than my sons who've studied the language in the classroom. After all, to paraphrase the Chilean, I'm not trying to be Isabel Allende . . . .

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 8:56 am

    I've heard it said of Roman Jakobson that he spoke fluent Russian in 17 languages. And I remember the quip partly because it strikes me as applying generally to Eastern European intellectuals of his generation.

  7. Robert Coren said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 9:51 am

    This reminds of a promo for some program that ran for a while on WCRB (Boston's classical music station) in which one of their long-time hosts, Ron della Chiesa (I suspect multiple generations removed from his Italian roots) describes a phone conversation he had with Luciano Pavarotti, and when the singer asked him if he spoke Italian, he said "not well", but then he goes on to say "but we got by in Libretto Italian". I love this, not least because it is a perfect description of my own rudimentary Italian (which I haven't had occasion to use in some time, so it's probably rusty).

    I sympathize with many of the above commenters, because, while I can make myself more or less understood in French, German, and Italian, understanding fluently-spoken responses is quite another matter.

  8. Scott P. said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 10:28 am

    In my case, I go abroad for research. It's always a bit embarrassing being able to think highly complex technical thoughts, but expressing them in raggedy fashion.

  9. Sally Thomason said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 12:47 pm

    @Mark Liberman: I must have heard an earlier version of that Roman Jakobson quip: in the telling I heard, one of his ex-wives told him that he spoke Russian fluently in 6 languages. Your additional 11 languages suggest inflation by repetition.

  10. John Rohsenow said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 2:13 pm

    I am in agreement with Anubis Bard in what he says about speaking Spanish; due to the recent influx of Venezuelans here in Chicago, I suddenly found/find myself having to speak Spanish w/o ever having studied it. I admit that I am a linguist and have had many years experience as a language teacher of both ESL and Mandarin, but I just take his same approach ("just barging forward with my haphazardly collected smattering – peppered with guesses adapted from words with Latin roots", and French grammar.)
    I have noticed that the "feeling" of doing it is different from when I speak Mandarin or even French, which I pretty much do w/o thinking, whereas when "communicating" in Spanish , I am very conscious of what I am doing, even at a fairly high speed, sort of like 'broken field running". It's an interesting, on-going process.

  11. Chester Draws said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 2:48 pm

    I sympathize with many of the above commenters, because, while I can make myself more or less understood in French, German, and Italian, understanding fluently-spoken responses is quite another matter.

    I have the reverse problem. When I lived in France I could follow all but local patois spoken at full speed, even quite technical language. Because I could do that, the speakers assumed I could speak it too. But, for whatever reason, my ability to speak French never came close.

    During one broken exchange the mechanic switched to English. I thanked him, then asked if he knew any of the technical words in English. Which he didn't, so we moved back to my execrable French, because at least I knew the terms for levier de vitesses.

  12. Hill Gates said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 2:50 pm

    The high point in my Mandarin learning happened in the back of a night taxi ride in Taibei.Chatting comfortably as one does in taxis, we reached my destination. The driver turned to me for payment, and burst out, in unfeigned surprise, “You’re a foreigner!” Observed, I immediately collapsed into my usual gu-gu ba-ba de half-baked Mandarin. How about invisibility cloaks for language learners? Hill

  13. Peter Taylor said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 3:04 pm

    C1 is well past "not good". To put that in context for people who aren't familiar with the European framework, it's the fifth level out of six (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2). Officially C2 is "professional" level, but I get on fine in a Spanish-language professional environment with a level about C1. And in application for Spanish nationality by residence, level A2 is considered sufficient to demonstrate integration into society. Reinhardt's accent probably cues native speakers to allow more consideration than she actually needs.

    On the subject of disbelief of ignorance, accent can be even more of a problem than knowing a few phrases. I knew one guy from Gibraltar who spoke Spanish moderately well (I think B1 or B2) with a perfect Andalusian accent, and the problem he had was that Spaniards who heard the accent assumed that his errors were a sign of intellectual disability, not even considering that it might not be L1.

  14. Stephen said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 3:14 pm

    I try to remind myself how often we find other's people's accents and grammatical slip-ups charming when they speak English, and imagine this happening in reverse…

    One thing to keep in mind is that the social relations surrounding the language make a big difference. There are many accounts from indigenous, colonised people, trying to learn their own language as adults, struggling with shyness, shame and guilt, and sometimes genuine resistance from older native speakers. That's a very different situation from acquiring a language for utilitarian or hobby purposes. I also think of Primo Levi's German, and his account of someone commenting on it and him pointing out that he learned to speak it in the camps…

  15. cliff arroyo said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 3:28 pm

    "How about invisibility cloaks for language learners?"

    Years ago I was doing field methods class where each student had to have an outside language. Mine was Tamil (starting from zero of course).
    Toward the end I was working with my consultant verifying a short text.
    At one point his wife walked through the room and said (paraphrasing) "When I can't see you, you sound like you're from Tamil Nadu!"

    I didn't have time or other resources to continue Tamil after the course but many times comments from my consultant or his wife made me think that 'visibility' is an important cultural idea and I've always wondered about it.

  16. Steve Harlow said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 5:35 pm

    @Hill Gates. Hi. Lovely to hear you again. It’s been a long time. I had a similar experience in my teens in Vienna. I took a tram in the days when they still had conductors and, not understanding the system, attempted to use the same ticket for the return journey. I was reproved because, on the basis of my German (I speculate), “ You should know better “. I don’t think an invisibility cloak would have been any use.

  17. Pan said,

    April 2, 2024 @ 12:12 am

    The reason English is an official language at the national level in India is nothing to do with business. Of course, it started with the Brits, but it has been retained primarily due to fierce opposition from the states where Hindi is not the native language (actually a majority of the population), if not for which Hindi would have become the sole official language in the 50s or 60s.

    In fact, quite often, official communications of the state (as opposed to national) governments are written only in that state's official language.

  18. Andreas Johansson said,

    April 2, 2024 @ 5:08 am

    My mother's English is considerably better than my father's, but when they're abroad, he tends to do most of the talking with locals, because he's the one who's unconcerned about making a fool of himself.

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    April 2, 2024 @ 6:29 am

    With my wife, much the same situation obtains as with Andreas’ parents, but I don’t think it has anything to do with her (or my) willingness to make a fool of ourselves. Rather, I find it (relatively) easy to ask a question in any language with which I am moderately familiar, but often find it difficult to understand the answer. My wife, on the other hand, often finds it difficult to formulate the desired question in the target language, but finds it relatively easy to understand the response.

  20. Anonymous on this occasion said,

    April 2, 2024 @ 6:55 am

    My first hesitation in attempting to speak my wife's language is that I set very high standards for myself, like I do in anything else I do. My second hesitation is that my wife's friends laugh when I do. When I react, it's somehow my fault for not understanding their intentions – apparently they think I sound cute. I don't want to sound cute. I want to sound as serious as I do in English.

  21. Andy Stow said,

    April 2, 2024 @ 9:50 am

    Obligatory Kids in the Hall skit…

    Oddly, while searching for this, I had a false memory that it was a Monty Python skit. Perhaps it got muddled with my memory of the Dirty Hungarian Phrase Book.

    My hovercraft is full of eels!

  22. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    April 2, 2024 @ 1:20 pm

    I apparently have a great Japanese accent &, like with Philip on the Polish train, it often prompts a response that I can neither understand nor keep up with!

    My German family (in Germany) tell me that my German accent makes me I sound like I'm from Berlin, but my German is apparently peppered with Plaatdüütsch and a few other topolects, so I don't know.

    OTOH, my French accent is atrocious & immediately marks me as an American, though for whatever reason, my accent improved a lot after I studied German.

  23. mg said,

    April 2, 2024 @ 1:42 pm

    Re: invisibility cloaks. I knew a blond blue-eyed guy who grew up in Japan and grew up bilingual, speaking flawless Japanese. He had no trouble speaking with people on the phone, but in person Japanese people wouldn't be able to grok that this European-looking dude was speaking Japanese and would not be able to understand him at all.

  24. Chas Belov said,

    April 3, 2024 @ 1:01 am

    While I try to use my rudimentary Spanish and Cantonese, I've had to learn to remember which waiters and clerks enjoy my attempts and which insist on dealing with me in English, sometimes in the same business.

    A Cantonese-speaking friend asked me to not speak Canto to him as it was painful to his ears. On the other hand, I've found myself with a comped soup of the day or (I consider this my highest victory) tong sui at the end of my meal. I also went into a bakery that I hadn't been to for a few years and was greeted in Canto. So it varies.

  25. Julian said,

    April 3, 2024 @ 5:39 am

    On good accent as two edged sword:
    Once in a social club setting, the guest speaker used the word "witch". Beside me was a woman who I had met and exchanged pleasantries with a bit earlier.
    She turned to me and said quietly: "what's a witch?"
    I was quite flummoxed. Her accent was so good that I hadn't guessed she wasn't an English native speaker; but of course from a native speaker the question would be bizarre.

  26. David Marjanović said,

    April 3, 2024 @ 9:56 am

    I was reproved because, on the basis of my German (I speculate), “ You should know better “.

    Naaah, that's just the Golden Viennese Heart.

    OTOH, my French accent is atrocious & immediately marks me as an American, though for whatever reason, my accent improved a lot after I studied German.

    That's because German and French have generic western continental European sound systems, while English belongs into southeast Asia except for its (hardcore European) consonant clusters.

  27. Peter Grubtal said,

    April 5, 2024 @ 2:15 am

    L1 English speakers have a problem in Germany, which is that any self-respecting German will see you as an opportunity to hone their English. If you are ambitious to improve, it often requires persistence almost to the point of rudeness to continue to speak German with them. Sometimes the conversation goes on surreally for some time with the German speaking less-than-perfect English to you and you ditto in German to him.

    It didn't use to be so bad in France, but the last time I was there, it seemed that younger people will now sometimes try to divert the conversation into English.

    @Neil Kubler at the top of the comments is very apposite.

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