English or German? Deutsch oder Englisch?

Should we teach in English or German? Or both? But then, which class in which language?

This question is at the center of an on-going debate, and it is a hard question to answer. Here is how the Open Source Research (and Teaching) Group is looking at the situation.

The fundamental assumption is that we (German Universities) want to attract students who are not native German speakers. There are two main reasons: (a) It is a large market (for education) and (b) Germany needs new and fresh blood from abroad. English is the international language and the main common denominator. Spanish never made it there and Chinese is a long way off and might never make it either. German, of course, is a remote also-ran.

There are basically two conflicting forces:

  1. Foreign students rarely come with German proficiency, so there must be some mostly English-language path through a particular course of studies, otherwise these students won’t come.
  2. At the same time, German university studies are paid for by the German taxpayer who wants to see a return on investment; this will only happen if students feel at home in Germany and decide to stay. Needless to say, those students need to be serious about learning German and adapting to the German culture.

It is not a requirement for a foreign student to stay in Germany after finishing their degree. Studies are generally enriched by a diverse student body, and even if a student returns to his or her homeland will their presence have been a valuable contribution to everyone’s life. However, if nobody ever stays, the economics won’t work out either.

The only way to resolve this, for our teaching, that I can see, is to offer some courses in English and some in German. This expresses both the willingness to cater to international students and is a nudging of those students to engage with the German language, in particular, if the course they want to take is only given in German.

That said, most teaching is a language-hybrid these days anyway. All our slides are in English, even if we are speaking German. Moreover, every student should be able to use the language of their choice if they are making a presentation. It is one thing to listen to English, and it is another thing to perform a presentation in English.

This semester, the teaching language of the AMOS project is English, with student teams choosing their own language. The teaching language of PROD, the Product Management seminar, is German, with student presentations performed in the language chosen by the respective students.


Note: Comments are written by readers and reflect their personal opinions. They do not necessarily represent the opinions of the university or the faculty.

4 Comments on "English or German? Deutsch oder Englisch?":

  • Dirk Riehle wrote on

    @Michel As long as there is no distinction between research professor and teaching professor, such redundancies are likely to be viewed as too costly. In that respect, Germany needs to get more professional. It is also, IMO, one of the reasons why there are no German universities near the top of research rankings.

    @Deborah Students are required to have passed a basic German test. So this is a precondition. However, passing a test and being serious about learning the language because you are exploring this country as a real option for a future home are two different things… too much of an international bubble makes it all too easy to ignore the host country.

  • Iirc, in Québec English universities a foreign-language student must pass an English proficiency test to graduate. I assume the same applies for French in French-language universities. Added incentigrade to study the local language. (Interestingly, I heard that francophone students can write papers in French in English universities, perhaps to ensure all public prograns are available to all tax payers? or to encourage crossover?)

  • Michel Salim wrote on

    There is, of course, a chicken-and-egg dynamic here — without a sufficient number of English-speaking students, it’s hard to justify English-speaking courses, and vice versa. Perhaps, at least for the larger introductory classes (e.g. AuD and PFP), as well as important seminars, having parallel courses held using English and German would be useful. For smaller classes, it’s likely to be less of an issue anyway.

    It might be worthwhile to see how more international-oriented German universities manage to get there — from what I hear, both Heidelberg and LMU have a substantial number of English-speaking courses.

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