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Intelligibility of Germanic languages underestimated

22 February 2016

Dutch school pupils learn foreign Germanic languages much more easily when teaching is based on understanding a language rather than speaking and writing it. This method could enable schools to teach more Germanic languages, and safeguard the diversity of languages within the European Union. These recommendations are based on research into the mutual intelligibility of Germanic languages, conducted by Femke Swarte. Swarte will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 3 March.

Femke Swarte studied the mutual intelligibility of twenty Germanic language combinations. This is the first time that this has been done using just one method. Approximately 2,900 speakers of the languages took part in the study.

Germanic languages

Dutch, German, English, Swedish and Danish are all Germanic languages but the degree of mutual intelligibility between these languages differs. Danish and Swedish are the most mutually comprehensible, but German and Dutch are also mutually intelligible. English is the most widely understood language of all the Germanic languages studied, but the British have the most trouble understanding other languages.

Predictors

The position of the English language illustrates an important finding from Swarte’s research. Exposure to a language is the most accurate predictor of the intelligibility of that language. The British have considerably less exposure to Dutch or German than the Dutch or Germans have to English. Listening to and reading a language seem to make it easier to learn that language than learning grammar or aspiring to fluency.

Hund and hond

Another good indicator is what is referred to as the lexical distance between languages. The small lexical distance between Germanic languages means that they share a large number of cognates or words with similar roots. The German word ‘Hund’ and the Dutch word ‘hond’ are fairly similar, whereas the English word ‘dog’ resembles neither of its German or Dutch counterparts. Swarte thinks that teaching methods should zoom in on these similarities to make it easier for pupils to master a language.

YouTube in the classroom

In her own lessons, Swarte regularly sets pupils assignments that involve listening to YouTube clips in which cognates, for example, play an important role. Fellow researchers have also had positive experiences with exercises designed to reinforce language recognition. ‘There is evidence that this approach to learning a language improves pupils’ vocabulary, and it is obviously a method that pupils enjoy and respond to.’

Receptive multilingualism

The research may have consequences for communication within Europe. Danes and Swedes know from experience that they can understand each other without necessarily speaking each other’s language. Swarte thinks that the Germans and Dutch could make more use of this capacity for receptive multilingualism. As the Dutch are taught German at school, they tend to speak German whenever they meet someone from Germany. However, the results of the research show that Germans have an above-average grasp of Dutch, ‘particularly in everyday situations. This is why Swarte is convinced that German and Dutch people could make more use of mutual intelligibility in their communication. Swarte would advise future researchers to focus on finding fast, easy ways for people to improve their receptive skills, and work out how to fit this into the school curriculum.

Curriculum Vitae

Femke Swarte carried out her research at the Center for Language and Cognition Groningen, which is part of the Faculty of Arts. She now teaches German at the Bornego College in Heerenveen. Her thesis is entitled Predicting the Mutual Intelligibility of Germanic languages from linguistic and extra-linguistic factors. Her supervisors were Prof. John Nerbonne and Prof. Vincent van Heuven (Leiden University). This is one of three projects being run as part of the broader Micrela research project. Her co-supervisor was Dr Charlotte Gooskens. The research was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

More information

Femke Swarte, femkeswarte[at]hotmail.com

Last modified:12 March 2020 9.42 p.m.
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