Most Russians study English in school

Language learning experience
German as a second foreign language

Most pupils learn German as a second or third foreign language. This has the great advantage that you already have experience with learning a foreign language. This simplifies the learning process. However, German as a second foreign language can also have disadvantages.

Schoolchildren who learn German as a second (or additional) foreign language can build on existing language learning experiences and expand them. This can make learning a second foreign language easier. For German teachers this has the advantage that they can use the existing knowledge and experience of their students in the classroom.

Foreign language learning awareness

When young people start with German as a second foreign language, they have already developed an awareness of foreign languages ​​through learning the first foreign language and have gained language learning experience and can therefore orientate themselves faster and more effectively in a new language. For example, learners already know from their previous experience with foreign language learning that languages ​​can have different sentence structures that differ from those of their own mother tongue. You have also made the experience that individual words or expressions in the mother tongue have no direct equivalent in the foreign language or that cultural peculiarities play a role in the use of the language.

Experience with learning strategies

In addition, learners are experienced in language learning situations and procedures. For example, they know the phenomenon that in foreign language lessons (in contrast to most other subjects in school) it is normal that there are always situations in which they do not understand everything that is being said. Many learners have already developed strategies to deal with these situations, e.g. how to deduce unknown words from the context.

In addition, students are now familiar with their personal learning behavior when learning foreign languages ​​and have probably already developed their own learning techniques. For example, they have already tried different strategies for learning vocabulary and ultimately found a strategy that suits them personally. [1]

Studies have also shown that students are often more goal-oriented when learning a second (or further) foreign language, are often more open to learning a foreign language, are more willing to take risks and are also more relaxed when they do not understand or cannot understand something straight away. [2] Overall, it is therefore assumed that learners are generally more confident with a second foreign language than with learning the first foreign language.

Disadvantages of German as a second foreign language

Nevertheless, German as a second (or further) foreign language often has a difficult time. This primarily affects the status of the subject. While the first foreign language (often English) is seen as the main subject and is usually on an equal footing with subjects such as mathematics and the mother tongue, the second or other foreign languages ​​are usually taught in just a few hours per week. For any foreign language, however, it is important to start with a relatively large number of hours at the beginning. On the one hand, you have to listen to the new language and get used to it. On the other hand, it is important for motivation to find out that you can use the language. With only one or two lessons a week, it takes a long time to become aware of the usefulness of a foreign language. [3]

Possible bad experiences

Individual adolescents may also have had bad experiences with learning their first foreign language. Perhaps the previous foreign language lessons were perceived by the learners as uninteresting, or some students have received poor grades in the past and are now starting German lessons with the attitude that learning a foreign language is not their thing. All of these factors can have a negative effect on young people's motivation to learn. In addition, one can often observe that learners of the second foreign language are more critical of teaching and learning materials. If they are confronted with thematically uninteresting, (too) simple or even childlike learning content that does not tie in with the previous knowledge or interests of the learners, they react bored and often reject it.

German to English

Another difficulty is that English (the first foreign language in most countries) is perceived by the majority of students as easier than German. The comparatively complex grammar of the German language (which unfortunately still dominates teaching in many places) can quickly have a demotivating effect on young people if they have made the experience that English has a somewhat more manageable grammar and is therefore apparently easier to learn. In addition, in most countries English often plays a much more important role in everyday life than German and is present in many media (e.g. music, films, the Internet). This of course contributes to the young people's motivation. In addition, many pupils who are actually considered to be beginners enter the classroom with a certain level of language skills. As a rule, this does not apply to German as a subject. Thus, access to English through everyday culture is usually much easier than access to German. So when young people learn German as a second foreign language after English, many German teachers struggle with the fact that learners keep comparing the “complicated and clumsy” German language with the “relaxed and easy” English language. However, if German is the first foreign language, this direct comparison is not possible and the learners usually concentrate on learning German without prejudice.

However, German as a second (or further) foreign language after English also has advantages. Young people whose first language does not use the Latin alphabet (this applies, for example, to Russian or Chinese learners) already have knowledge and experience with the Latin letters through the English lessons. This has the great advantage for German teachers that they do not have to introduce the Latin script in German lessons, as the students have already brought this knowledge with them from their English lessons.

[1] Horseshoe, B. (2003). L1, L2, L3, L4, Lx - all the same? Linguistic, internal and external learner factors in models for multiple language acquisition. In: Baumgarten, N., Böttger, C., Motz, M. & Probst, J. (Eds.). Translation, intercultural communication, language acquisition and teaching - living with several languages. Festschrift for Juliane House on the occasion of her 60th birthday. Journal for Intercultural Foreign Language Teaching [Online], 8 (2/3) (

[2] Jessner, U. (2008). Teaching third languages: Findings, trends and challenges. Language Teaching, 41 (1), 15–56. 

Zahirová, E. (2013). Multilingualism at the primary school: German to English. Baccalaureate work at the Chair for German Language and Literature. Masaryk University Brno.

[3] German only as a second or third foreign language? An interview with Hans-Jürgen Krumm. Goethe Institute. V., online editorial office, June 2009 (


Dr. Dorothé Salomo is a research assistant in the Dean's Office of the Philosophical Faculty of the Friedrich Schiller University Jena. Her main focus is on internationalization as part of the BMBF project “ProQualität Studium”. Before that, she headed the project “Young people learn German differently” at the headquarters of the Goethe Institute.