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What role does German play internationally?

Professor Ulrich Ammon, a distinguished sociolinguist, examines the position of the German language in business, science and politics.

© picture-alliance/Robert Geiss

German usually appears on the relevant linguistic maps as a language spoken only in Europe. Its distribution as an official language is limited to seven central European countries: Germany (roughly 82 million inhabitants), Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland (4 official languages) and Luxembourg (3 official languages), as well as small areas of Belgium (a German-speaking community in the east) and Italy (the province of Bolzano in South Tyrol). Yet German is still taught as a foreign language all over the world. On the one hand, this is the result of its historical importance, primarily as a language of science. On the other, global interest in German is permanently backed up by the economic power of its mother countries, their political weight, their leading position in important technologies, their attractive education systems, and the role they play in the international exchange of information and in tourism.

/1// German is taught as a foreign language in public schools in 114 countries (2005, outside the areas where it’s the official language) – compared to only 88 countries in 1983. Learning German has therefore been spreading, even bearing in mind that the number of states in the world has grown in the meantime. The total number of people learning the language grew more slowly: from 15.1 million in 1983 to 16.7 million in 2005. A new global survey published in March 2010 shows how this trend is continuing: the number of countries offering German in schools has risen to 119, but the total number of German learners is now around 14.5 million (although the final figures from 26 countries are not yet available). Figures have risen in many developing countries, also in Brazil, China and India, but have fallen in the CIS states and in some parts of eastern central Europe and Scandinavia. What is striking is the spread to more and more countries, also in Africa – supported by new Goethe Institutes in Luanda (Angola) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania). The distribution shown on the map (based on 2005 data) still applies, however. In higher education, too, German is taught in many countries as part of German language and literature studies or as a subsidiary subject: in 97 countries in 2005, 117 in 2010. Further important institutions of German teaching are the 123 foreign German schools, as well as the approx. 1,500 schools offering intensified teaching of German as part of the “Schools: Partners for the Future” programme (PASCH). However, German is hardly the first foreign language in any school curriculum. No one knows how many people in the world are actually able to speak German as a foreign language and at what level. Rough estimates suggest 100 million. The number of native- and second-language speakers who speak German regularly is estimated at 128 million, including minorities and emigrants. This places German eleventh overall, close behind Japanese and ahead of French. Chinese is at the top of the list. The fact that Hindi and Bengali rank before German shows that the number of native- and second-language speakers is of secondary importance for a language’s international status.

/2 // The German language’s status in the world can be explained at least partly by economics. In terms of the gross national product (GNP) generated by all native speakers together, German ranks third among all languages, although Chinese looks likely to overtake it soon. All the world’s countries are included in this calculation, showing the proportion of GNP generated by the (native) speakers of each language in the population, e.g. 63.7% of Switzerland for German. German-speaking countries play a leading role in networked world trade. The appeal of a language as a foreign language depends more on economic power than on the number of speakers. This is what determines its usefulness for people who want to be involved on the world market or to cultivate scientific, di­­­p­lo­matic or cultural contacts with the mother countries. Global companies from German-speaking countries may use a lot of English, but they also cultivate German, acknowledge a command of the language as an additional qualification and offer their own German-language courses. There is a demand for a know­ledge of German in business in many places. For example, 11% of companies in the European Union complained in the 2006 ELAN study that they lost business because of a lack of German language skills. Quite often German firms use different languages for different functions. In procurement especially they try to use the customer’s language. This is in keeping with rules of courtesy: showing business partners respect by choosing their native language. After all, by using a lingua franca, usually English, you are forgoing the advantage of using your own native tongue. But with proper caution it’s also appropriate to use a foreign language that the partner speaks well and accepts.

/3// When speaking of German as a world language, people tend to think of science rather than the economy. After all, it’s not so very long ago, primarily in the first half of the 20th century, that scientists all over the world regularly read texts in German. Many also published in this language, and Japanese doctors even wrote their patient files in German. By contrast, it’s English that dominates nowadays, specifically in the sciences where German used to be most prominent. Global bibliographical databases show German-language publications as making up just about 1% of everything that is published in the natural sciences worldwide (although they are biased in favour of English). In the social sciences the figure lies at about 7%, sharing second place with French, again a long way behind English. There has not been enough research to know whether there are still niche subjects in the humanities in which German plays a sig­nificant international role. Based on varied evidence they are most likely to be the following subjects (in order of precedence): German studies, archaeology, art history, musicology, philosophy and theology, Egyptology, Indo-European studies, Jewish studies and Oriental and Slavonic studies. German retains a lasting importance as a scientific language on the strength of classic works in numerous disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, represented by such names as Kant, Marx, Freud, Max Weber and Einstein, to name just a few examples. The original texts can only be read in German.

/4// One innovation in academic teaching is the introduction of “international” degree courses with English as the language of instruction, especially in the first few semesters. This development began in Germany about ten years ago, as in other countries, even France. These degree programmes make life easier for foreign students. Many then also learn German. In the medium term, therefore, these courses could even strengthen German’s international status. However, they will certainly weaken it if the students don’t have to learn German at some point during their studies.

/5// Germany’s calamitous history between 1933 and 1945 has had an effect on the German language in the broad sphere of diplomacy and international relations. German is not one of the six official languages of the United Nations, but only (at least) a document language, so that the most important documents are translated into German. Its weak position in the United Nations has contributed to the fact that German has not achieved a prominent position at the Council of Europe either. It is only a “working language”, together with Italian and Russian; here this means a subordinate role. The “official languages” are English and French. German is one of the 23 official languages in the European Union used for communication between the institutions and the member states. German is also part of the smaller group of institutional working languages and has this status, for example, at the European Commission. However, it is not used as much as English or French. Even so, its importance within the EU stems from its having the most native speakers, the second highest number of second-language speakers after English (level with French), from being an official language in more member states than any other language, and for forming the economically strongest language community. German’s geographical position in the EU also gives it weight. It would hardly be compatible with democratic principles if German were not a permanent EU working language and, should the EU develop into a federation, one of its languages of government.

/6// The German language plays an important role on the Internet. Remarkably, it has held second place in Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, for a long time – as currently classified by the number of articles: English has more than three million, German over a million and French and Italian around half a million each. Websites are, of course, more important, but it is difficult to estimate their current total, since the dominant search engine Google has no procedure for counting them by language. According to various slightly older sources, German is also the second most popular language among websites, albeit a long way behind English, but ahead of French, Japanese and Spanish. The number of users largely depends in turn on the number of speakers. German ranks sixth here, behind English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese and Portuguese.

Conclusion: globalization is clearly putting pressure on all the international languages and consolidating English as the world language. Nevertheless, it is realistic to predict that German will remain a significant international language in the foreseeable future.//