The German Language in Decline — But is a revival in the works?

I found this interesting paper (a plea, really) by Daniel Hamilton and Michael Legutke, arguing that the U.S. needs to breathe new life into learning German in the U.S.  Below I have reprinted their introduction. Over the past year I have noticed some t.v. advertisements advocating for the learning of German.  I agree that German language learning needs a kick start here.  What do you think?

German in Retreat

In the U.S., German is on the defensive — retreating, not advancing. To get out of this defensive position, to strengthen the role of the German language and thus raise American awareness about the importance of Germany, the German Federal Government should make the United States a strategic “priority country” for the promotion of German, and offer some appropriate stimulus. The Foreign Office should commit to an active language policy in the United States, issue a correspondingly clear mandate to German institutions, and above all support and engage more directly with American colleagues and decision-makers to win them as equal, collaborative partners to advance the future of the German language in America.

At first glance, German remains strong in the U.S. — still the country’s third language, with growing total numbers of learners. even with increased total numbers of students. But first glances can be misleading. Changes in the U.S. require enhanced and modified German efforts to support the German language. Since the end of the Cold War, promotion of German in the U.S. has not been a particularly high priority. This cannot continue. Without new energy and initiative, the linguistic bridge to one of Germany’s most important global partners could be in danger. One must adjust to new times and act accordingly.

For a growing part of the U.S. population, German — and Germany — is losing its relevance. Only 6 percent of Americans today who study a foreign language learn German —more than a third less than in the 1960s. The learning opportunities for German have been halved in that time; German students are confronted with a shrinking number of German programs and teachers. The numbers of students are falling, compared to increases in other languages. In some regions of the United States, German programs in high schools and colleges have already been closed or are about to be closed — including very good, healthy programs. American teachers of German are demoralized, and ever more frequently they lack a sense of being part of a common enterprise how great it is to be part of a larger effort, that one’s work is appreciated and worthwhile.

In short, although German continues to remain an important language in the United States, it is under increasing attack from many directions and for many different reasons. The number of current learners can not obscure the impending decline in importance of German as a foreign language in the American educational landscape. Given the steady population growth in the U.S., German is more retreating than advancing, even though in some regions pupil numbers have grown slightly.

Conditions in the U.S.A.

German has come under additional pressure for various reasons.First, in general, this must be understood in a nation-specific context. 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. Those who learn foreign languages do so primarily at school — but only 20 percent of pupils study a foreign language. First there is Spanish, followed by French, and German almost on par with Chinese. In addition, there are demographic developments. The population of German descent, which until the end of World War I almost guaranteed that one studied the language of one’s parents and grandparents, has played hardly any role since in the choice of foreign language to be learned. In a survey in 2000, only 1 percent of pupils said they learned German because of their own German origin.

In the United States, interest in learning a language is often dependent on geo-political and socio-economic factors. In this respect, the relevance of German — and Germany — is not always understood, especially given the plethora of challenges in the Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East/Southwest Asia, and also at home. A typical response to globalization is to say that the whole world is now learning English — another reason to waive foreign language teaching. Others look more to the rise of China and believe that the schools should therefore offer Chinese rather than another European language.

Moreover, some challenges exist at the federal level. The U.S. government attaches importance to the education of multilingual global citizens, but this general appreciation of multilingualism does not lead to concrete measures that could counteract widespread monolingualism in the United States. The budget of the largest national foreign language program was recently cut in half; further cuts seem inevitable. One must also consider that the promotion of language teaching by the U.S. government could be described as a zero-sum game.

New funding for one language is usually deducted from that of another, while at the same time government grants for foreign language teaching in general are stagnating or are declining. In addition, there are also other federal government initiatives in education, for example the No-Child-Left-Behind Act, that push back the teaching of foreign languages even further.

Since education and training are for the most part a matter for the U.S. states or local school districts, the challenges for German at this decision-making level are even more difficult. Only eight states require that pupils actually learn a foreign language, and usually for only two years. Due to the budget crisis in the U.S. states, foreign language programs with low demand fall victim to the red pen. Not infrequently, German programs belong in this category. Unfortunately, there are also places where German programs are cut even though they are in good demand. This is due mostly to the language policy priorities of the respective school districts. Along with the students, the number of German teachers is also declining, and with it those who can lobby on behalf of German as a foreign language. More importantly, German teachers do not decide whether German is offered at a school. Local decision-makers —principals and superintendents — also need to understand why German should be offered. They usually are not integrated into German circles. Therefore, partnerships with entire school districts, rather than with individual teachers of German, are of crucial importance. Because of the size of the country one cannot work everywhere — 15,000 school districts decide on their own foreign language offerings. But one can seek out specific strategic partners and win them for the German language cause.

But to win such partners, one must keep clearly in mind that German as a foreign language is under pressure by the encroachment of other languages, especially Chinese. China pursues a very active policy of subsidies, and not only in the U.S., with the avowed goal of anchoring Chinese instruction in the U.S. educational landscape. Some schools are directly paid $30,000 and more to introduce Chinese in their schools. Three thousand school superintendents and administrators were brought to China, at Chinese cost, so far. Sixty Confucius Classrooms have been established at the school level and more Confucius Institutes have been established at the university level. The Asia Society, headquartered in New York, is planning to establish another 80 Confucius Classrooms in the next two years; the state of North Carolina alone is planning another 45.  These efforts further crowd out German in a context in which it is less clear why Germany/German should still be relevant.

To counter these trends, the German government should elevate the U.S. to the status of a “priority country” and conduct an active language policy in the United States with new energy and drive.  For the promotion of German as a foreign language in the U.S. it is important to develop strategies that in the long run not only keep the reservoir of German learners at the highest possible quantitative and qualitative levels, but also continue to expand them further. In this regard, the German government and relevant German language institutions should understand one thing when they take standard language promotion programs used around the world and simply implement them in the U.S.: the U.S., a global power, is a special case. What from a German perspective may make sense worldwide, sometimes makes no sense for the United States.

Many young people abroad for example, want to complete their entire university degree in Germany. They therefore seek to learn German so well that they can be accepted by a German university. A small number of Americans may have similar goals, but an overwhelmingly greater number of Americans consider spending at most a year at a German educational institution. Most are more likely to spend a semester or less. Furthermore, many American students would prefer that their study at a German educational institution include the possibility of an internship or practicum. Most young education-conscious Americans consider Germany and German, on the one hand, from the perspective of a non-foreign language-learning world power that has its own excellent tertiary education system. And on the other they view Germany in terms of personal career opportunities, in which an experience abroad often only seems worthwhile if, in a relatively short time, it promises to generate something concretely beneficial.

At the same time, it must be noted that millions of people in the U.S. are engaged every day to promote the German language. They are not needy recipients of German ideas and German funds. They themselves are imaginative, engaged and deeply rooted in their respective professional circles and communities. Sometimes they know better about what could arouse interest among their countrymen about Germany and German. It would be very worthwhile to tap their proper potential — they stand ready.



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2 responses to “The German Language in Decline — But is a revival in the works?

  1. Su Jones

    Thanks for posting the introduction. Could you point us to the complete paper?

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