Posted by: patenttranslator | July 5, 2016

It Is True That Most Adult Immigrants Are Unable to Learn a Foreign Language

It is true that most adult immigrants, refugees and migrants are not really able to learn a foreign language. Some of them learn it to some extent, some of them very well, but many learn it only to a very limited extent. The latest wave of refugees in Germany, mostly Arabic speakers, will find it horribly difficult to try to learn German because it is extremely difficult for most adults, especially uneducated adults, to learn a foreign language.

And there is now a million of newcomers from a very different cultural and linguistic background in Germany. How will such a relatively small country cope with this influx of foreigners?

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s in a small Czech town called Český Krumlov, I remember that in some parts of the town I was surrounded by really nice but really funny old people that we kids called “Nĕmci” (Germans). Some of them could not speak any Czech at all, and some of those who did speak it spoke a funny, simplified version of the language that was full of comical mistakes. Czech has a very complicated system of declensions for nouns, conjugations for verbs and other treacherous traps for foreign speakers. Even natives get it wrong at times, especially uneducated natives.

Quite a few “lucky” Germans who were allowed to stay in the place where they were born and grew up after 1945. Most of them were expelled to Germany and Austria, in spite of the fact that their families had lived in what in German is called Sudetenland for many generations.

It was inexcusably wrong to expel them from their homes, but the reaction of people who were kicked out from what used to be their home first, by the same Germans who were later expelled too, was not unexpected.

When American friends express their shock to me at what was done to Germans in Sudetenland after the war, I say to them, imagine there was a war between Mexico and the United States, and that Mexico won the initial phase of the war and all “Anglos” who were not killed by Mexicans, and many would be killed, were expelled from California, Arizona, Mexico and Texas to the East Coast. What would Americans do in the end to people of Mexican origin living in those states once they did win the war? Let’s not forget what they did after the attack on Pearl Harbor to all people of Japanese origin, many who were US citizens, and none of them guilty of anything.

Wars tend to make a big mess of everything for decades and centuries instead of solving anything.

The first foreign word I tried to figure out when I was about seven years old was the German word “Familie” when I ventured with a bunch of kids my age to a large cemetery at the edge of the town where I lived. What I saw was a weird place with row after row of graves, often with photographs of people placed on the tombstones, with German names inscribed on them in golden script in a funny kind of alphabet that was difficult to decipher, and these names were sometimes followed by the word “Familie”. I tried to figure out what this word meant, but I was at a loss and none of the other kids knew what it meant either. Surely, it could not mean “family” because the Czech word “rodina” which means “family” is so different from that strange word “Familie” on the tombstones. Maybe they all had the same last name I reasoned as a monolingual seven-year-old. The cemetery made such a big impression on me that I saw it again, or what I think I remember of it, in my dreams recently.

The town where I grew up was about 70% German before the war, something that I only found out about my hometown when I was in my late twenties.

I remember one old man in particular, although I don’t remember his name. He loved children and always tried to talk to us in broken Czech, although we mostly just made fun of him by repeating his mistakes in Czech and laughing. But he just laughed with us; it made him happy to see children laughing, no matter that they were laughing at him. I wish there was a way to apologize to him for how cruel we were as stupid kids. Now that I am about the same age as he was then, I could even do it in German.

I had a good friend back then who used to come to my town every summer to spend two months with his grandparents who were German. His grandfather spoke both languages fluently, but his grandmother spoke only German. I never actually saw her outside their house. She probably stayed inside in a world that she could understand where there was always a radio station on in German when I rang the bell to ask if Vašek could come out to play.

My friend’s name was Vašek (a form of Václav), but his grandmother called him Vašku, which is the vocative case that should be used only when addressing someone. Because she did not understand what these damn cases meant, (and there are seven of them for Czech nouns, seven for singular and seven for plural, each with a different ending depending on the “class” of the noun), she would just say with the few Czech words that she did know, “No, Vašku is not home” instead of, “No, Vašek is not home”. But I did not make fun of her or try to correct her. Somehow I understood that it was not my place to do that.

During the two months that Vašek spent every year with his grandparents from an early age, he always learned enough German to communicate with his grandmother, but as he told me once over beer in a pub when we were about 16 or 17, he would then forget most of his German during the rest of the year, so that eventually he forgot all of it.

There were still many kids in my high school who were German, but we did not really perceive them as having a different nationality because they spoke perfect Czech without a foreign accent. The only visible difference was that their first names, like Elfi (for Elfriede), or Hedvika (for Hedwig), were kind of unusual, but once I was a teenager, those names sounded more exotic than funny to me. And the last names did not really matter that much because German last names are almost as plentiful in the Czech Republic (sometimes with simplified spelling to match a different language) as Czech names in a phone book in Austria, or Polish names in a phone book in Germany, assuming they still use phone books in these countries.

So based on my experience in post-war Europe, I believe that even if most “migrants” who eventually put down roots in a different country and different culture are not really able to learn the language very well, it simply doesn’t matter very much. The children of new immigrants always learn the language of the new country and after a few decades, the problem is that most of the children of new immigrants don’t bother to learn their parents’ language. Even if their parents try very hard to pass on their language to their children, the children of immigrants often speak the language of their parents like a third grader, if they speak it at all.

And this is true not only of the United States, but probably of many other countries as well.



  1. Are you aware of what the Germans did to the Czechs when they marched into Prague? Who started the “kicking out of their homes”? If the allied powers had reacted IMMEDIATELY to the German occupation of the Sudetenland, there would have been no World War II, but they just let the Germans do as they please. Note I write “Germans” not “Nazis” because they were all in it together as is illustrated by the unspeakable brutalities inflicted upon the occupied peoples, to say nothing of the Jews and the other “untermenschen”. I hope the Sudeten Germans suffered, but their suffering is as nothing of the millions in the Ukraine, Poland, etc. who died of starvation as it was cheaper for the Germans to kill them this way than wasting bullets or gas on them.

    Josephine Bacon aka Bakonovà


  2. Of course, I know. My father lost his health in coal mines in Northern Moravia where he had to work during the occupation to supply German Reich with coal. He hated Germans all his life. But I don’t believe in “an eye for an eye”.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. My maternal grandmother was born in ‘Sudetendeutschland’. As my mother was born in Germany (1948). I assume that she was thus one of the bad Germans who were expelled after WW2. Did she suffer? I hope not. Reading Mrs Bakonova I start to get where Trump voters come from.


  4. I believe she lives in England, or in what is at this point still called Great Britain, not United States.


  5. Thank you, Steve, for this sensitive article.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for reading my silly posts, Chani.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is my pleasure, Steve. I feel we are on the same wavelength.


  7. I think if you’re someone who was deeply rooted in their homeland before they left, your language is the only thing left – and, as a result, you cling to it for dear life. If you then live in a parallel universe (Chinatown, Little Italy), what incentive do you even have of learning your new language?

    I think about this a lot, also in light of all the German language courses that are being offered here for refugees, most of which are free (aka paid for by taxpayer money). The problem I think is that a) many of the teachers are severely underpaid, so you tend to get the idealistic and unqualified rather than the efficient and highly experienced. And b) if you don’t know whether you’re even allowed to stay in your host country, then why bother to learn? Unless you’re from Syria, it is hard for people to gain permanent residency. Also, many of the African (Somali etc.) refugees know some Italian because they stayed there for a while, and now they have to start over. It would be the same with the Syrians currently stranded in Turkey. I guess once you feel save and settled you can think about learning the language… and by that time you’d have been around for several years and probably have a job where you don’t even need German. So, it’s up to the next generation.

    My guess is that English will become more ubiquitous in day-to-day life and gain official status (Brexit or not) here in Germany, like it has in India and Nigeria. At least that’s a bit easier to learn than German 😉


    • I live in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic. Russians and Kazakhs have been living here together for decades. 99% of Kazakhs spoke Russian during the Soviet era. A Russian speaking Kazakh was quite rare. Many Germans, although not numerous, spoke both Russian and Kazakh.
      Few Russians bother to learn the Kazakh language now, when Kazakhstan is independent and Kazakh is the country’s official language (Russian is considered as “a bridge language”). This fact causes hot ongoing disputes. So, Russians still act here like the first-generation-immigrants.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Are you by any chance one of those rare Russian speakers who also speak Kazakh? Please say yes so that I could admire you!


      • I do speak. But only everyday language. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • That is more than my friend Vasek’s German grandmother 60 years ago.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The problem is that there is also a certain percentage of Kazakhs living in cities who cannot speak or even understand Kazakh language. Despite criticism, they still use Russian and have few opportunities to master the language. When I was surrounded by Kazakhs I had a chance to speak Kazakh, now I have more Russians around me.


  8. I understand what you are saying, although I don’t understand why some people simply refuse to learn a foreign language, even though they do need it badly if they actually live in a foreign country.

    I am the exact opposite, I find every foreign language fascinating and if I am exposed to it for a period of time, I can’t resist, I automatically start learning it, from a textbook, from radio and TV and from speakers of that language. In the seventies I spent a month in Bulgaria, so I brought with me a Bulgarian textbook and after about 3 weeks I could understand quite a bit. When I lived in Germany in early eighties, I had many Polish friends, so I automatically bought a Polish textbook and tried to learn as much Polish as possible.

    It’s so much fun for me! And for you too, I think (I remember how you were walking around with a Spanish dictionary).

    Different strokes for different folks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “I understand what you are saying, although I don’t understand why some people simply refuse to learn a foreign language, even though they do need it badly if they actually live in a foreign country.

      I am the exact opposite, I find every foreign language fascinating and if I am exposed to it for a period of time, I can’t resist, I automatically start learning it, from a textbook, from radio and TV and from speakers of that language.”

      I am exactly the same as you, Steve, but we should not forget that not everybody is as skilled as we are. For many people, the process of learning at all is difficult and tedious.


  9. “I don’t understand why some people simply refuse to learn a foreign language, even though they do need it badly if they actually live in a foreign country” – You’re preaching to the choir 😉 Any excuse for me, though you’re the hyperglot around here. But as you said, different strokes for different folks… Not everyone is as crazy about language(s) as we are.

    However, you’ll be pleased to know that I am currently teaching myself Italian, prompted by a recent trip to Italy. I have decided this to be my starting-off point (Italian being easy enough with my French/Spanish background) to something more challenging, such as Arabic or Chinese. We’ll see. I read somewhere recently that machine translation is having a hard time with unrelated languages (especially non-Indo-Germanic), so trying to increase my market value.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I knew it!

    I hope your next challenge will be Japanese! It will give you something to spend your time with for the next 50 years!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Steve, I know so many examples of what you describe from the families of friends in high school and others. And in a way I am living all that now in a new country and culture where I have to remind myself every week that I am not in fact stupid because I communicate worse than the average child born about the time I arrived. The real issue should be not whether these newcomers master a language but rather whether they will live as peaceful contributors to a community, even if that community is an enclave, and offer no harm to those in it or outside it.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. I was born in 1943 in what was then Czechoslovakia of a Czech father and an English mother and as a young child was totally bilingual. When the Communists came to power in 1948 my mother was immediately endangered because she had been working in Prague for the British Council which was looked upon as supporting capitalism and thereby made both her and me persons non-grata so we left to live in England and I was not see my long-lost father again until 25 years to the day from when we had left. This was based on a sudden urgent need to visit him that struck while I was staying with very good long-term French friends at their cottage in the Dordogne area in SW France. One day I suddenly (and accurately) intuited that my father was dangerously ill and therefore I left immediately to hitch-hike to Prague which, miraculously, I achieved in one virtually non-stop ride that delivered me directly to my father’s door. Naturally he was not expecting me and in fact he was still in hospital when I arrived but he managed to “escape” as soon as he heard from his Czech wife that I had arrived on the scene.
    This was one of the hugest “red-letter-days” of my life to date and both my father and I barely even had enough time to sleep because my visa had a very short period of validity which made it virtually impossible to waste precious time by spending it in bed.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. So true from a point of view a first generation migrant trying to teach a (minority) language to my child. I see people so eager to assimilate that they don’t bother to speak to their children in their native language choosing the second language to communicate at home and quite often the knowledge of the host country language is not that great. It makes me sad to watch although I can understand why they do it…

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Ich bedanke mich für den Einblick in das Leben von Deutschen in der ehemaligen Tschechoslowakei, ist ein Thema, über das ich überhaupt nichts weiß.
    Bei deutschen Nachnamen im Tschechischen fällt mir gleich die Sängerin Aneta Langerová ein. Die mag ich gern, auch wenn ich ihre Sprache nicht verstehe (aber kommen hier: im Titel Schmetterlingsflügel vor?)


  15. Yes, “Hříšná Těla, Křýdla Motýlí” means “Sinful Bodies, Wings of Butterflies”.

    Thanks for the video clip, I may use it in a post one day. Aneta Langerová wrote many of the songs she sings herself. German last names are quite common in Czech pop music, the best know Czech singer is Karel Gott, and there is for instance Marie Rotterová, Aneta Langerová …

    What does the language sound like to you even if you don’t understand it?


  16. Ach ja, Karel Gott – der ist in Deutschland durchaus bekannt, wird von meiner Generation aber als furchtbar altmodisch empfunden.
    Ich höre viel Musik in Sprachen, die ich nicht verstehe, darunter auch Japanisch. Wie Tschechisch für mich klingt? Viel Gezische und dazwischen ein paar merkwürdige Diphthonge. Ab und zu verstehe ich dank meiner Polnischkenntnisse was (daher meine Vermutung mit den Schmetterlingsflügeln).


  17. Oh, you know Polish? Then maybe you would be interested in the lyrics of a song I translated into English in one of my posts.

    An advantage of “languages of limited diffusion”, such as Czech, is that everybody basically knows the same songs. Here in US people are more likely to know just a certain kind of music; for instance truck drivers and blue collar workers usually like country music, white collar occupation tend to listen either to pop or classical music, young people to the latest hits, etc.

    But in a small country, everybody kind of knows everything, including this song from the sixties:


  18. Ich habe mir den Post angesehen und das Lied angehört – beim Hören verstehe ich so gut wie gar nichts, aber wenn ich den Text lese, kommen mir ein paar Sachen bekannt vor.
    Ich habe vor zehn Jahren oder so mit Polnisch angefangen, es war für mich aber immer nur ein Hobby, daher bin ich nicht sonderlich gut. Irgendwann werde ich sicher wieder einen Kurs besuchen. Was polnische Musik angeht, mag ich Edyta Bartosiewicz.
    Falls Sie sich in musikalischer Hinsicht mal langweilen, klicken Sie einfach auf meinem Blog auf die Kategorie “Musik”. Ich entdecke öfter etwas Neues und schreibe dann darüber.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I will do that. I went to your blog once but somehow I missed the music section.

    My favorite Polish song is from the sixties:

    But I wonder if I am the only one who noticed how similar it is to this song by James Brown:


  20. To prawda, “Dziwny jest ten świat” to super piosenka.
    Und nein, Sie sind nicht der Einzige.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. “The problem is that there is also a certain percentage of Kazakhs living in cities who cannot speak or even understand Kazakh language.”

    This has been and is a problem in many countries where the language of the people of that country is under attack by another, more dominant language, for example French v. English in Quebec, or Swahili v. English in Kenya.

    Languages sometime disappear when people don’t fight back against a dominant language. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, most educated Czechs had no choice but speak German in the Bohemian part of Austria-Hungary because higher education was available only in German from high school to university. But then there was a period of national renaissance when children of peasants demanded that they be taught in their own language at institutions of higher learning, and the government in Vienna eventually gave in.

    Had those children of Czech peasants been largely passive two centuries ago, my first language would be German and I would probably not know any Slavic language.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. I agree. Since its independence, Kazakhstan has been seeking to ensure rebirth of the Kazakh language. It has made certain progress, but the situation is far from being settled. To my mind, both sides make mistakes. Certainly, there is resistance of those who do not know or are not going to learn the official language. But those who are fluent in Kazakh are often too harsh towards the former. It will take time to change.


  23. […] I was a child, my parents had two radios in our apartment in a small town in Southern Bohemia. The radio in the bedroom was a big traditional radio with four beautifully glowing vacuum tubes […]


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