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Is German a "rare" language in France?

Cooperation between France and Germany is at its peak, however the teaching of German in France has gone rapidly downhill. Indeed, French students could not care less about Goethe’s language and focus on learning English (of course) and Spanish. Here is a small analysis of a not terribly encouraging linguistic phenomenon.

Over time, the number of future German speakers in France has continually declined. Nowadays, only 15% of French students (both at school and university) study German, as opposed to 36% in the 1970’s, which represents a terrifying fall. So why is there such a lack of interest? Unfortunately, German suffers from a few fatal prejudices: “German sounds ugly”, “German is hard to learn”, “German is useless” (three statements I hear far too often among my fellow students). Here are the facts: the classes are deserted when they are not cancelled and French people that can speak German are on their way to extinction. German, it seems, really is about to become a “rare” language in France!

This obvious lack of interest in German is, however, far from logical. Let’s take a look at the first statement – “German sounds ugly”: Germany is somewhat of a blur to most French teenagers who continue to think that all Germans speak like angry Nazis. German is definitely a language of character, but not “uglier” than another. Let’s now address the second statement – “German is hard to learn”. Well, aren’t all languages? It is well known that German is a very logical and mathematical language and it is true that learning German could drive you crazy, but every language has its own difficulties. Finally, let’s evaluate the third statement – “German is useless”, which is undoubtedly the stupidest one. Indeed, German is the first language in Europe: one in five Europeans speaks German, against 15% for French and 14% for English. Moreover, German is slowly becoming more important with more and more Eastern European countries joining the European Union. In these countries, German is the first language taught in school. In addition, German closely follows English regarding the commercial activity of France and for a very good reason – Germany is one of its main economic partners. If 30% of French exports are handled in German and only 15% of students are learning it there is a problem! This brings me to my last point: German is unquestionably an asset on your resume! Too many students wrestle for Spanish-related jobs, whereas no one is willing to take the German-related ones…

Nevertheless, there is still hope. Figures for the new academic year show a small increase in students learning German as a second language, which has reversed the tendency. Perhaps it is due to a sudden spark of interest in German from young people due to the success in France of German bands like Rammstein or Tokio Hotel (even if only one of them is any good, the other one can at least be congratulated for making young girls interested in German).

Because of the increasing quality of educational cooperation between France and Germany, it is now easy to get in touch with the partner country’s language thanks to numerous cultural and academic exchanges. Moreover, the “dialogue” between France and Germany requires stronger mutual understanding; thus it is necessary to reinforce German teaching in France, but also the other way round.

German may be on its way to extinction in France, but the most courageous French can improve their knowledge of the language thanks to this French-German dictionary.

[Français]

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  1. L’appetit vient en mangeant. If people can just get started in a language it soon becomes attractive. I suspect that the way German is taught is a major obstacle. It is only I stopped trying to nail down the case endings, and just focused on listening and reading and enjoying things of interest to me, that my German started to take off. Focus on input first. You cannot make mistakes when just listening or reading. If the odd section is a little unclear, and even if you get some things wrong, it does not really matter. So, I also avoid any questions testing my comprehension. My comprehension is my business. One should just try to enjoy the language, build up familiarity with the language, increase one’s vocabulary, and soon enough one wants to speak.

    As in much language learning, I suspect it is the teachers who kill the fun.

  2. You are absolutely right. We have a huge problem in France regarding language teaching, and not only for German. The fact is the way languages are taught lacks of enthusiasm, and languages, especially German in this case, are not promoted enough. Teachers just do not bother to give us tricks about language learning or encourage us to work as you do, that is to say in an efficient way. You must live a language to learn it, and not be bored to death when it comes to study it. As a result, students just do not get interested. As for German, as I said, teachers just do not seem to care about promoting the language in schools, and classes are just about irregular verbs, so students obviously find it boring… Actually, schools do not put an emphasis on languages, so students just do not care and prefer to study languages such as Spanish or Italian, because they are told these languages are very similar to French and they won’t have too many difficulties to learn them!

  3. I can attest to this – I teach English at the university level in French and all of our students must have a second foreign language. This year, only 8 out of 120 students chose German. Last year it was slightly higher, but it was still very low compared to Spanish and Italian. I do think it’s partly because of the way languages are taught in France (too much focus on grammar and literature) and also because of the stereotype that German is somehow much harder and so students won’t have to do as much work if they take Spanish or Italian instead.

    Our students are learning languages so they can work for large corporations or perhaps do translating. Considering that more Europeans speak German than English, I always thought German would have a higher enrollment, but for some reason a large majority of the students choose Spanish instead.

  4. Hello Jennie! I took a look at your website and I think I remember you as a lab English teacher. Are you teaching in the Université de Savoie? Or did you use to teach there? If I am right, I definitely had you as a teacher 🙂 Anyway what you say is true. In my last year at the university, we were 30 students in Spanish class, and there were only 3 students for German… We had to do an internship abroad and absolutely no one chose Germany except myself. When I was in middle school and I had to choose a second language, I wanted to choose German but the German class was canceled since I was the only one willing to do so… I still do not understand why German is so unpopular, but some people told me “they only speak German in one or 2 countries, whereas Spanish is spoken all over Latin America”. They obviously seem to forget that Germany is a great European power, and that France is deeply linked to that country. As I said in my article, Germany is our main partner regarding international trade… To sum it up, I guess French students are not really open minded when it comes to languages.

  5. 1. There is (was) a US Department of Defense web page ranking the difficulty of languages, based on the students’ time to study to achieve a certain level. German is easier than Chinese and Arabic and more difficult than French and Spanish. (I don’t remember the URL.)
    2. More students shift from German to Spanish with globalization, which makes access to Spanish-speaking countries easier and German-speaking countries less relevant, comparatively speaking.

  6. I am not convinced that German is the most widely spoken language in the European Union, Jennie!! It may have the most speakers as a Mother Tongue – but I am pretty sure that there is more English spoken “globally” in the EU than there is German. In fact there are Stats to support my instinctive reaction!!

    English is the language most widely spoken in the EU. It is the mother tongue for 16% of the EU. A further 31% of the EU speak it well enough to hold a conversation.
    The ranking of languages closely follows the ranking by numbers of inhabitants – except for English.
    German is the mother tongue for 24% of the EU It is spoken well enough as a “second” language by 8% of the EU.
    French is spoken by 28% of the EU. Half of them are native speakers.

    These are statistics provided by http://www.promotics.net

    I am not suggesting that students shouldn’t learn German, or that the teaching of Foreign Languages couldn’t be improved. But basic facts have to be accurate!

  7. A few years ago I tried to study German, but desisted. I really hate this language. But I like german citizens, they are very friendly.

  8. Oh, I forggot. I’m a spaniard but speak native English as I have Australian nationality also. I love English, far more than Spanish though. Incredible but certain.

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