7. The status of German today
According to a survey published in February 2006, 32% of European Union citizens said that they could speak German, which means that German ranks ahead of French (26%), Italian (16%) and Spanish (15%), and only comes behind English (51%) in terms of numbers of speakers. After Spanish and French, German is the third most taught modern language worldwide. German is particularly commonly studied and used in the Benelux countries, in Scandinavia and in the newer EU member states. It is one of the official languages of the European Union and German (alongside English and French) is one of the three languages in which the European Commission conducts its internal business.
In practice however, this does not mean that German is heavily used in European Union business. A mere 3% of documents sent by the European Commission to member states are written in German. In May 2008, Markus Söder, the Bavarian Minister for Europe, demanded that the German language should play an increased role within the European Union. "We expect from the next President of the European Commission that should concern himself with the German language in the European Union in the same way that he concerns himself with CO2 emissions", Söder said. "Putting German at a disadvantage means quite concrete economic disadvantages for German companies, as contracts are often only put out to tender in English and French. There has to be an equality of opportunities."
The non-presence of German at major cultural and sporting events also diminishes the prestige and attractiveness of the German language. It is English and French (and not German!) that are spoken at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games and at NATO press conferences.
The "political power" of a language also affects its attractiveness. Thus Russian and Chinese are deemed to be languages spoken by superpowers, whereas German is not. German is not even recognized as an official language of the United Nations and its organisations, and in comparison with French and particularly English, it plays a limited role as a conference and organisational language in the academic fields.
The economic strength of German
Perhaps the most attractive aspect of the German language at the moment is related to the economic strength of German-speaking countries. German is, after English and Japanese, the language of the economically most powerful business community. Switzerland and Luxembourg are, per capita, the wealthiest countries in Europe. Both tourism, which is a major industry in Austria, Switzerland and parts of Germany, and the need to provide for free-spending German tourists in other countries have also promoted the German language.
There is however a tendency for German businesses to communicate with other countries in foreign languages, notably English and French, although many German firms have recently decided to reinstate German - alongside English - when conducting multinational business transactions. This is particularly the case when trading with some nations in eastern Europe where German may be more widely used than English.
Yet after a promising start in eastern Europe immediately after the upheavals, there are signs that German is losing out to English in the business world in this area. A regional director of a personnel advisory firm based in Middle Europe summarised the situation as follows: "Whereas in Hungary and Slovakia, Germany was stronger after reunification for traditional reasons, English is winning out nowadays more and more in the business world. […] English has even become the dominant foreign language in the Czech Republic in recent years. Whereas a few years ago, companies from the German linguistic area preferred local workers with a knowledge of German, they now ccept more and more English-speaking employees."
German scientific language
At one point in time, peaking around 1920, the German-speaking countries were at the forefront of scientific disciplines. German was thus the major scientific language, rivalled only by English. The key position of German in the scientific language was often cited as a key reason for the founding of Germanic institutions and Germanic-language publications in non-German speaking countries. Thus the Jewish Institute for Technical Education, founded in 1913 in Haifa, decided on German as its only teaching language. Neither Hebrew nor English were even considered.
The slump of German in this area has been dramatic. Whereas 30% of scientific publications were written in German at the start of the century, this figure has now shrunk to less than 5%. This can certainly be linked to the decline of German-speaking countries in the scientific disciplines. Whereas once almost 40% of Nobel Prize winners spoken German as their native language, this figure is now less than 10%.
Although there is substantial reception of German-language scientific publicationsin Central and Eastern Europe, German trails both English and French in many humanitites and social sciences. Even in the universities of German-language countries, German has been overtaken by English in many such disciplines, still leading only in Law, Literature, Classics, History and Theology.
This has certainly had a knock-on effect on the status of German in the Far East. Whereas German was once the second-most popular language in Japan, it has now slumped to fourth position behind English, Chinese and French. When a DAAD-Lektor asked why a new technical university in Hong Kong did not teach German as a separate subject, he was asked in turn whether the German-speaking countries were still able to make serious contributions to the development of science and technology.
This question is not as flippant as it may seem. When the former president of the German Chamber of Trade and Industry listed the high-tech possessions of the typical German teenager in 1995, he found that most of them (watch, camcorder, TV, video etc.) would have come from the Far East.
The German cultural image
The negative image of German scientific achievements can be attached to German culture as a whole. When asked in 1987 why they showed so little interest in the German language, US students cited a negative evaluation of German culture (film, music, fashion, literature etc.) as being their key reason. English, French, Italian and Spanish culture was rated much higher.
8. Why don't Britons learn languages?
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