Kofi Owusu and the German Keyboard

Maybe the Lonely Planet I read years ago just wanted to be polite – it said something like that you could easily cope in Germany with reasonable English skills of your own, because many or most Germans spoke English. But Herr Kofi Owusu would hardly agree. He attended the Voice of Germany‘s 2nd Global Media Forum in Bonn, and observed elections in three German states.

Observe Our Elections

Observe Our Elections

I’m not sure if he had a cup of tea with Zhang Danhong, too.

I’m more inclined to agree with Herr Owusu’s take on our degree of internationality, than with the Lonely Planet‘s old edition. Only few Germans speak English with ease. And more Germans than you might expect speak only very little English. Which is bad, because if they listened to the BBC only once, German media – state-owned and privately-owned alike – would lose most of their audience, and deservedly so, until they start improving.

Another fact is that this country is still not as digital as Japan. Herr Owusu was given a first-class reception in many ways, he writes, but his hotel offered no internet access. Unless the guests had their own laptop with them, that is. He had a hard time finding an internet cafe. OK. I might say that this has cultural reasons. German peoples’ idea of data protection, for example. Not too many people here can imagine that anyone would do business with any computer but his own anyway.

But while I feel tempted to apologize for the quality of our media, our election posters, or for the level of English language skills here, I’ll make no apologies for the alleged lack of digitalization. Germany basically invented the MP3 player player, as the Lonely Planet almost correctly observes (in fact, America invented it, too – the LP was too polite once again), and I only wish that all that tech had ended up in a trashcan, rather than competing with the rest of our media in dumbing the kids down. Instead, it was marketed. Which, in turn, may be one reason why people here don’t speak decent English. They never learned it thoroughly. They were too distracted.


Travel Advice:
When using a German keyboard and searching for the character “@” [at], press “ALT GR” (to the right of the space bar), and “Q”.

9 Responses to “Kofi Owusu and the German Keyboard”

  1. This is an adorable article, thanks for posting.

    To me, there is nothing worse than residents of certain northern European countries falling all over each other in a race to see who can become more American and less Dutch or German or Swedish or whatever. Once you have all learned perfect English, the only trace of your Germaness (or Dutchness or Swedishness or whatever) will be drinking better beer than most people* and not cheating at soccer.

    I’m personally glad that you write this blog in English, because otherwise I wouldn’t understand it, but come on – if someone from Ghana goes to Germany and can’t understand a speech or use a keyboard surely the problem is his alone.

    *First point only applies to Dutch and Germans.


  2. Thanks for your comment, Alex. I think there are two aspects to my case for better language skills. One is, that while I think that reasonable skills in at least one foreign language (which would usually be English) are important, one should definitely master ones own language. But one skill doesn’t rule out the other. To be bilingual will in most cases make you more aware of your own language. It helps me to appreciate how the use of different languages can shape ones own perceptions.

    But that doesn’t mean that I can’t see your point. Seems to me that some embarrassing tries to be more “international” usually arise when people who can’t speak English drop a fashionable line or word in English, where it could be said in German, just as well. Which is another reason why everyone should learn English thoroughly. Personally, I’m trying to avoid anglicisms in my own language, in a similar way as many French do.

    One more thing, Germany lives of foreign trade, and to some extent of tourism. Don’t get me wrong: I think this country would not be itself if we became as polite as the Japanese or the English. But we should be able to communicate with English-speaking people, at least on a basic level.

    As for the keyboard, I agree. A quick online search might have helped to fix the problem. 😉


  3. P.S.: Heineken is no beer.


  4. You’re right, of course – Dutch beer is garbage. But Dutch people don’t seem to think so, and at least they put it to the right use, sitting around in 400-year-old cafes sipping it as they speak to each other in flawless English, instead of drinking it while watching golf. And, I suppose you’re right that Germany lives and dies by its foreign connections so English is vital, although it’s upsetting. I probably shouldn’t comment as I’ve never *had* to learn another language.

    The point about languages and perceptions is something that has to be learned. My Chinese is pretty good, but I haven’t been to China in quite a while so I haven’t had to really think in Chinese. Now that I’m in the middle of a big translation project, and spending most of my waking time reading Chinese, I’m finding that reading speaking English is incredibly satisfying and curiously interesting.


  5. When I first went to Germany to work, I was also very surprised that not so many people spoke English. No English in shops or supermarkets.
    Once in a while on the train though, I would meet some strangers who can speak English well and were eager to strike a conversation with me.

    At work it was also interesting that the English speaking ability of the students (Uni Heidelberg) varied a great deal. Well, the professors always claimed that everybody spoke English. But I know that an English seminar always left some of the students mightily frustrated.

    About the media, I have met some Germans who will complain that, unlike the German media (eg. Sueddeutsche Zeitung), American media are very biased and often misleading, but I don’t think these people actually ever try to read any non-German news. I get a sense that the Germans like their own culture so much, there is a sense of self-efficiency there that they don’t feel the need to speak English.

    This could be tough at work place for me sometimes. But I was also glad that I was forced to practice my German each time I deal with a secretary, a mechanics or a shopkeeper.


  6. Actually, I think you are a bit harsh on Heineken, Alex. I think it’s a nice drink – it’s just no beer, just as Guiness is a nice drink, but no beer. I agree that reading and speaking a foreign language is incredibly satisfying – but not all of my students seem to agree.

    Meg, I think Germany, Austria and the German-speaking areas of Switzerland, make a region big enough to feel self-sufficient. Also, the Süddeutsche Zeitung or the Neue Zürcher, for example, are good papers. When saying that our media suck, I’m basically referring to television and to a great deal, radio too.

    Both American and British media are something people should read or listen to once in a while, and I guess you are right – most people here probably never did, or only on holidays. When I grew up here in Northern Germany, there was BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) on FM, and you could easily listen to British broadcasters on medium wave, too. With the internet, it should be even easier.



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