Language study: Speeches in the Bundestag partly incomprehensible

When the twentieth Bundestag met for the first time in October 2021, the boss made a clear statement.

Language study: Speeches in the Bundestag partly incomprehensible

When the twentieth Bundestag met for the first time in October 2021, the boss made a clear statement. "Politics is only good if it is understandable," said President Bärbel Bas (SPD) in her inaugural speech. Only those who speak clearly can reach those who no longer feel addressed by "politics". "We can show through our language that we have the best interests of everyone in mind," said Bas. She received applause from all ranks for her words.

But there is a lack of comprehensibility in the Bundestag, as a study by the University of Hohenheim shows. On the whole, the researchers are satisfied with the speeches. For example, they are more understandable than those of the Dax board members at their general meetings, as co-author Frank Brettschneider said. "Nevertheless, there is still room for improvement for some."

Tapeworm Sentence and "Denglish"

For their study, Brettschneider and his team took 96 speeches from last September's budget debate and checked them for comprehensibility. "Foreign words and technical terms, compound words and nominalizations, Anglicisms and "Denglisch", long sentences - all of this makes it difficult to understand," said co-author Claudia Thoms. From such criteria, Brettschneider and his team developed the so-called comprehensibility index, which is intended to make the results comparable.

Their results show that some politicians are already close to the optimum with their speeches, but there is a wide spread. The left-wing politician Gesine Lötzsch gave the most understandable speech according to the index criteria with 19.5 out of 20 possible points. From the cabinet, the then Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht (SPD), Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinker (FDP) and Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) did best. The speech by the CDU politician Kerstin Vieregge achieved the fewest points with 7.9. For comparison: doctoral theses in political science average 4.3 points.

There is a trend that the team complains about: more and more "Denglisch", ie the mixing of German and English. There is talk of "game changer instruments" or "out-of-the-box thinking". English is seeping deeper and deeper into German, as the new additions to the dictionary show.

"Studies show that the climate is getting rougher in Parliament"

Such anglicisms could be used in the political debate to give himself and his party a modern look, said Marcus Maurer, professor of political communication at the University of Mainz. There are certainly terms that politicians should avoid. However, comprehensibility down to the last word is not the primary goal of the deputies.

"The speeches are aimed at the public, but the media stand in between," said Maurer. In their reporting they would have to penetrate with their speeches. "And the MPs have experience with what you have to say to appear in the daily topics in the evening," said Maurer. Emotionalizing or attacking the political opponent are, according to him, tried and tested methods. "Studies show that the climate is getting rougher in Parliament."

According to Brettschneider's team, one of the most common violations of the rules of comprehensibility is "word monsters": long, compound words that are often used for laws. The "Federal Armed Forces Procurement Acceleration Act" or the "SprinD Freedom Act" are mentioned as examples.

According to Maurer, how understandable the debates in the Bundestag are also depends on their nature. There are hardly any reports on specialist debates, which is why MPs have to make less effort to make them understandable. "In the general debate, the comprehensibility is probably high, but it's less about the matter and more about the exchange of blows," said Maurer.

This either/or is not what Bärbel Bas had imagined in her inaugural speech. On the contrary, she called for the difficult legal questions to be translated in such a way that everyone can follow. "We need words that are fun to listen to."