Wednesday 14 October 2015

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About Die Deutsch Sprache)

The conversation could not have been more normal. Two work colleagues talking about their children and their first GCSE year. The only difference was that the novel I am about to finish now, Die Mansarde, was lying on the table in the staffroom and my colleague queried the title.

It is German for The Loft, I said. Oh, that’s a coincidence, my son is doing German GCSE, she replied. And so, modern foreign languages entered our amiable chat.

It is welcoming news that people’s perceptions of Germany are finally changing. More important is the fact that the language is becoming popular once again. Attached to this is the economic success of recent years. Linguistically, native German-speakers might lie in a distant tenth place, well behind the Chinese, Anglophones and Hispanics. Yet, they actually rank fourth in the world when you take into account their economic output (put Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein together and you will see. In fact, squeeze part of Belgium into the equation if you still have some space left).

Wie sagt man "power" auf Deutsch?

There is another factor in this upward trend. German language advocates do not seem to engage future learners aggressively but adopt a rather laisez-faire attitude to the acquisition of their lexicon. Where the Academy of the French Language would probably put its foot down and tut-tut at Anglicisms, German-speakers (from this outsider’s perspective) assimilate them.

A few days ago I praised on this blog the efforts of Angela Merkel during the current refugee crisis and how her attitude contrasted with that of our Prime Minister. Merkel, more than anyone else, understands that if a country is to become a magnet for investors, it needs an influx of young blood. One of the ways to attract this kind of attention is to stand out. That is exactly what she has been doing since she came to power, in a rather inconspicuous way some would say. By the way there is no sycophancy in my words. Politically speaking Frau Merkel’s domestic agenda is not one I would follow and her party is not one I would vote for. Yet I have to admit that she has placed Germany and by default, German-speaking nations in an advantageous position. When news channel prefer to use subtitles instead of dubbing her speeches, you know something is going on.

What this means in practical terms is that newcomers to the language forget how difficult it is and focus more on the benefits of either living in Germany, Austria or Switzerland  or working there temporarily.

As for me, my reply to my colleague was, your son is very clever. Not only is he thinking of his academic future, but also his professional one.

© 2015

Next Post: “Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 17th October at 6pm (GMT)


  1. I kneel at the feet of people who learn other languages. The world is open to you.

  2. I wonder how my German born father would feel watching from afar.
    Thank you - another thought provoking post.

  3. Creo que para ti están hechas las lenguas, es estupendo que tengas tantas y buenas corrientemente, es un saber que te abre las puertas al mundo.
    Un abrazo.

  4. I had a friend who spoke German, went way over my head lol

  5. Like your other commentors, I'm in awe of anyone who speaks more than one language. I barely manage English.

  6. I am fluent in French, even though my mother tongue is English. I can write French, read it and speak it very well, and carry on a great conversation, too. I consider it a blessing to be able to communicate in two languages (and sort of understand a little Italian as well).

  7. Your multi-language fluency never ceases to impress me. Americans are terrible about learning foreign languages. Part of the issue for me (and for most American kids) was that none of my French teachers were French or from Francophone nations. My French didn't improve until a French exchange. My daughter is WWOOFing (volunteer labor on an organic farm for room and board) in France to improve her fluency (during her gap term before uni.) I labored an hour to write her a simple letter in French. Soon I will try to learn a bit of Japanese for when I accompany my husband on his sabbatical.

    I found it fascinating that the Syrian emigrants all wanted to go to Germany. Part of it was indeed their pro immigration policy, but it's also a sign of a strong economy and a brilliant leader. Hats off to Merkel for seeing the value in immigrants. My nation was built on immigration, and I'm appalled by Trump's racist anti-immigration rhetoric. I was pleased to hear pro immigration stances from all of the Democratic candidates, a point that Hillary Clinton highlighted, at last night's CNN Democrat debate. Interestly, the most common ethnic derivation in the USA is German or at least it was the last time I checked. At a distance, I've always been struck by how much it sounds like English.

  8. As for the German government, time will reveal if its economic decisions and its refugee plans reflect an age of wisdom or an age of foolishness .... hmmmm .... paraphrased plagiarism for a point.

    As for the German language, I could use a translator to tell me the contents of some letters between one set of my great-grandparents. Then again, perhaps it is best I do not know the contents.

  9. some interesting thoughts - as to "angie" how we tenderly call her - i'm a fan - honestly - she always thinks one step ahead and i think she's one of the best bundeskanzlers we ever had. we have lots of people from other countries in the company i work for and they get german lessons in the company - and the language def. has its challenges ...smiles

  10. She is quite a lady and leader!



  11. Hi ACIL - also the German language is the technical language ... I wonder where we'll be in 100 years time and what languages we'll be speaking. I'd have loved to have spoken another language ... now I regret I didn't push ... but I have no need now - still I take a cursory interest and look at etymology as I read and think ... but certainly couldn't get by in another country. We live in interesting times - the next few years will unlock a few changes ... cheers Hilary

  12. For the sake of my son's first wife I tried to learn how to speak German. I didn't get very far and gave up when she disappeared from our lives. However, I was able to get by when I went to Germany for a visit.

  13. My daughter has been studying German on her own and wants to go there for college!

  14. I don't know enough about german politics to have a strong opinion on Angela Merkel -- only to say she seems thoughtful though I'm not sure the German approach to Greece has been so great. I love the german labguage though-- know only a little-- should study it just to read Rilke! Thanks for the thoughtful post-- I agree with others-- so impressed by your language prowess. K.

  15. Absolutely...I am impressed with your language skills too!
    I think I may have mentioned before that I am hopeless at learning languages - unfortunately, it just doesn't seem to come naturally to spite of having attempted to learn Welsh, Arabic and French, each of which I have only managed to retain the odd phrase or two. :/
    As for German politics...hmm...well...not really sure whether Angela Merkel has made the right decision. The situation is so complex.
    I guess only time will all politics there is an element of uncertainty in which it falls to a country's leader to (hopefully) make the "right" decision.
    Really grateful I'll never be that person...the stress must be phenomenal.

    Have a great weekend.:))

  16. Our kids took German when they were in high school, but I probably remember more of it than they did, because I helped them study, and actually thought it was interesting, They merely took it because it was a requirement. I took five years of French when I was in school, and once upon a time, I was very comfortable in both speaking and reading the language. Now, there are so many Spanish-speaking people in our area, I really wish I'd taken Spanish instead. It would have been much more useful. Oh well, never too late, right?

  17. Other languages sound to romantic to me...but alas I can't speak French or German.

  18. I studied German, but far prefer the sound of Spanish or Italian.

  19. I've got a cpoy of Die Mansarde somewhere, I need to get round to reading it.

    German is a challenging language to learn, specially as its structure is so different to English (and even more different to French, Spanish or Italian) and there always seems to be so much of it (longer words, longer sentences!)



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