Here’s an elaboration on yesterday’s article on the German language decline and attempts to reverse it. The following was written by Sam Dillon for The New York Times, April 13, 2012:
ON the day in November 1989 that the Berlin Wall came down, Michael Legutke, a linguist working for the West German government, was in Casper, Wyo., leading a training workshop for the state’s German teachers. When the TV news affiliate learned there was a real live German, right there in Casper — and one who had grown up in East Germany and spoke flawless English — he was recruited to do a live feed. Dr. Legutke found himself facing a camera, taking turns offering news commentary with Tom Brokaw in Berlin. Moved by the images of East Germans streaming through the breached wall into the west, Dr. Legutke wept during the broadcast.
The drama of Berlin’s reunification and Communism’s collapse focused worldwide interest on all things German, and German classes in American public schools saw significant enrollment increases. But by the mid-1990s, the surge ended. The United States was turning its attention to Asia and the Mideast; Arabic and especially Chinese began displacing German and several other European languages once at the core of the American curriculum.
Ever since, the precarious future of the German language in North America has been a concern for the Berlin government, which has turned to Dr. Legutke and Daniel S. Hamilton, a Johns Hopkins professor, to strategize on how to bolster German instruction here.
“In the U.S., German is on the defensive,” they conclude in a new study that could serve as a blueprint for other languages threatened by tectonic shifts in American demographics. “It is under increasing attack from many directions and for many different reasons.”
Among the most intractable challenges cited are the aging of German teachers here — 40 percent are more than 50 years old, according to the American Association of Teachers of German — and the evolution of America’s student population from largely white to multiracial. Traditionally, few minorities study German, and fewer still teach it. Of 1,424 teachers surveyed by the study, 1,366 were white, eight were black and six were Hispanic. Students, the study says, “must see black, Hispanic, Indian or other people of color who speak fluent German and can serve as role models.”
The study also argues that a well-financed Chinese government campaign to expand Mandarin instruction across the United States has taken a toll on German: “China pursues a very active policy of subsidies, with the avowed goal of anchoring Chinese instruction in the U.S. educational landscape.”
And then there is the character of the American student: “The U.S. is a country of immigrants and foreign-language speakers, but not a country of foreign language learners. A large majority of the population do not see foreign-language skills as relevant for their own economic, intellectual and social progress.”
Of course, Germany, with the largest economy in Europe, remains an industrial, cultural and scientific powerhouse. And after Spanish and French, German is still the third most-studied language in the United States, with half a million elementary, secondary and university students enrolled in classes. (Spanish is in a class by itself, with more than 7 million students; French has more than 1 million.)
But enrollments have declined. In 1990 about 133,000 American college students were learning German; a decade later, 96,000 were, according to the Modern Language Association. For most of the last century it was a foregone conclusion that schools would offer German — the language of parents and grandparents — along with Spanish, French and perhaps Latin and Russian. But a study financed by the federal Department of Education found that only 14 percent of high schools taught German in 2008, down from 24 percent in 1997.
The same survey saw a drop in the proportion of high schools teaching French, from 64 percent to 46 percent, and the French government now has its own effort to increase student enrollments. Italy, too, has mobilized. The College Board suspended its Advanced Placement test in Italian in 2009 because of low student participation. The program returns in May, with money collected by the Italian government and private concerns.
But the Germans have special reasons for worry.
Attracting diverse students is difficult, the study says, because of “the general impression that German is a difficult language” compared with other European languages. Also, many American students — not only minorities — associate Germany with the Third Reich and the Holocaust, and as a land of blue eyes and blond hair, beer and oompah music.
The story of Eddy Enriquez Arana, a German instructor at Pennsylvania State University, Mont Alto, proves that German can attract diverse students. Born in Guatemala, Mr. Enriquez first started learning the language from German exchange students he befriended while in high school in California. Later he studied the language in Austria and Germany, and fell in love with the culture.
“I’ve become an advocate for German,” he says. But he acknowledges that persuading minority students to take German is not easy. “Very occasionally, an African-American student will take German” at his college, he says. “But not very often.”
Margaret Hampton, an African-American professor of German at Earlham College in Indiana, who first became immersed in German on a semester abroad in Vienna, has worked for 20 years on a minority recruitment task force. She believes that students will be more interested if they are shown Germany’s multicultural society, and has produced teaching materials that examine the contributions of diverse groups to modern Germany.
For the past three summers, Dr. Hampton has led groups of educators to Berlin to interview Jews about their struggles to rebuild their communities in post-Holocaust Germany; Afro-Germans who trace their roots to Germany’s 19th-century African colonies; and Turkish-Germans whose ties to Germany date to a labor agreement that brought thousands of Turkish laborers to Germany in the 1960s. “If there’s any area where we need to give ourselves an F,” she says, “it’s on recruiting minority students.”
Robert Williams has grappled with these hurdles teaching German for the past decade at Fairfax High School in Virginia. “Kids come in with a negative image of Germany and the Germans,” he says.
Fairfax High is a suburban school where 42 percent of students are white, 24 percent Asian, 18 percent Latino and 10 percent black. When Mr. Williams started teaching there in 2002, only a handful of the 75 students enrolled in German were Asians or Hispanics, and there was one lone African-American. He has made it a point to emphasize Germany’s diversity, showing videotapes of people speaking the language who don’t look traditionally German, including President Obama’s half-sister, Auma Obama, a Kenyan who lived in Germany and speaks fluently; and the actor Boris Kodjoe, who is the son of a German psychologist and a Ghanaian physician. Some Korean students signed up after seeing a poster on his office door showing Asian youths studying German in Berlin.
“This tells students, ‘Hey, Germany today is different; not just white people speak German,’ ” Mr. Williams says. This year he teaches five classes totaling 125 students. Roughly 60 are white, 20 are Asian, a dozen are black, and another dozen are Latino. That mix does not completely reflect the school’s diversity. “But every year I get closer,” he says.
Still, Mr. Williams is looking over his shoulder — at Chinese. In 2000, about 100 students in the Fairfax district were studying Chinese, compared with 2,400 students enrolled in German. In the 11 years since, German enrollments have crept up modestly, to 2,650 students. Chinese enrollments have exploded, to 4,800 students.
Many districts have seen similar surges. Hanban, an agency of China’s Education Ministry, is rolling out an ambitious, long-term Mandarin expansion plan. It has recruited hundreds of young Chinese teachers to work in American public schools, their salaries subsidized by the Chinese government, an enticing offer to school superintendents with tight budgets. And it has flown thousands of superintendents and other school administrators to visit schools across China, at Beijing’s expense. Many of those educators, on returning home, have organized Mandarin classes in their districts for the first time, often deciding to phase out an existing language to make room. Not infrequently, that has been German.
Parthena Draggett, the world language department chairwoman at Jackson High School, in Massillon, Ohio, and a curriculum coordinator from the same district toured China with 400 other American educators as part of a Hanban-sponsored trip in 2009. In an interview days after their return, Ms. Draggett gushed about China’s friendly people and growing economy, and about expanding Jackson’s fledgling Mandarin program, begun in 2007 with Hanban support.
Unfortunately, expanding Chinese meant phasing out German, which was less popular than Spanish or French.
“There’s nothing wrong with German,” Ms. Draggett says today. “But look at where languages are spoken — French all across the Mideast, and Spanish all around us.” Jackson High stopped offering German I classes in fall 2010, and will stop teaching it altogether in 2013.
It was partly in reaction to these Chinese initiatives that Dr. Hamilton, who served in the United States Embassy in Berlin during the 1990s, convened several dozen German and American educators in 2010 to discuss German’s future. They gathered in Bemidji, Minn., where he runs Concordia College’s German immersion summer camp each summer. The German government made clear its own concerns by sending its ambassador in Washington.
A follow-up conference in New York City last fall came up with the slogan “Just Add German” for a media campaign to persuade students that a minor in German would improve their marketability in a global economy.
“Adding German to a degree in engineering or computer technology makes an unbeatable combination,” says Eva Marquardt, a director at the Goethe Institute who organized the New York conference.
Last year, the German Foreign Office contracted Dr. Legutke, a professor of linguistics at the University of Giessen, and Dr. Hamilton to carry out their study. Dr. Hamilton worked the East Coast, Midwest and South. Dr. Legutke surveyed the West, where he spoke with many dispirited educators. In the Tualatin-Tigard district, outside Portland, Ore., Tualatin High had stopped teaching German in 2007, and Tigard High had just begun shutting it down. “Several teachers reported on local battles trying to save a German program, and losing,” he says.
Their study makes some 80 recommendations. They include creating stipends to help minority high school students pay for summer language study in Germany, incorporating language training into German-supported soccer camps, and organizing internships with German companies for American students. It also recommends borrowing tactics from Beijing. The young teachers who have fanned out across the United States under China’s guest teacher program have projected an attractive image of China, charming thousands of students into trying Mandarin. German students seeking a teaching degree could to do their student teaching in American classrooms — to “represent young Germany” and “get Americans excited about German.”
The study’s sense of urgency is palpable. “One must adjust to new times,” it says. And a new world.