Communicating in English

As I am doing my exchange in England, the language is not such a big problem for me. If I had done my semester abroad in France or Spain, for example, the situation would have been different. Although at school I learned French for eight years and English only for six years I feel much more comfortable in the English language. As my mother tongue is German, this circumstance is probably not very surprising. German and English belong to the same family of the Germanic languages. French however, along with for instance Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, belongs to the Romance languages. There are lots of similarities between languages within the same family in both grammar and vocabulary. Therefore, I guess that in general it is easier for a native German speaking person to learn English than any Romance language.

But out of the foreign languages I speak I came in touch with English the most  frequently also before my exchange. First, because I am studying Computer Science and most of the terms used in this field are in English. Secondly, I watched lots of TV shows in English. Therefore, both because English seems more natural to me than other language and because of my previous experience of the language, my level of English was quite acceptable.

During my exchange at first I had problems understanding accents I have never listened to before. The ones that caused the most problems were the Singaporean, Chinese and Scottish accents. The Singaporean and Scottish accents were difficult for me because of the very distinctive pronunciation and the high talking speed. My problems with understanding the Chinese people probably came from their use of certain words in an unexpected content and sometimes because their grammar had some holes. This is probably due to the great difference between Mandarin and English. During the term, my understanding increased as I got accustomed to it and hence I had to ask for repetitions less frequently.

Mathematics and Computer Science modules generally do not require the reader to have great language skills because mostly the grammar is simple and the vocabulary is limited. So, of course I had to learn the mathematical terms in English at first, but after two weeks reading comprehension was no great problem anymore.

As in writing does not figure largely in Mathematics and Computer Science modules, my writing skills have not been used a lot.

I think the principal problem in my language skills was and is speaking. Generally, my English is fluent, but when I want to talk in an elaborate way, I lack the right vocabulary. Furthermore, I have been told that my grammar contains some errors, but my problem is that I do not recognize when I am making one. And regarding the pronunciation, I was told that my Swiss accent is still very clearly audible.

Of course I feel more confident as a communicator in the English language after the exchange. I think I made the greatest progress in understanding various kinds of different talking styles and accents. I also got in touch with some of the English habits connected to language like being called sweetheart, love or darling at the supermarket’s counter or like being obliged to say ‘Sorry’ when someone steps on my foot. These usages might sound a bit weird and overly polite to us Swiss people. But I liked them a lot because I think they, along with saying ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’, contribute to peace in a society.

Joël Niklaus

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