Language and Knowledge

German as a Language of Science and Scholarship: Once a World Language, Now One of Many “Niche Languages”

Prof. Dr. phil. Ulrich Ammon. Copyright: Universität Duisburg-Essen In the nineteenth century, German was one of the most important languages of the science and scholarship, and scholars and scientists all over the world learned German. Today, on the other hand, German has disappeared from the realm of international communication, particularly in the sciences. Even as the language of instruction at German universities, the monopoly of German has been broken. By Ulrich Ammon

In the course of the nineteenth century (and as a consequence, among other things, of the development of the German university), German advanced to become one of the most important languages of science and scholarship, and at the beginning of the twentieth century ranked above English and French, especially in the sciences. In order to keep abreast of the latest developments, scientists and scholars all over the world learned German, a circumstance that contributed to German’s becoming one of the most widespread foreign languages. With the end of the First World War, the “primal catastrophe” of the twentieth century, a reverse tendency arose. Germany and Austria had been economically ruined by the war and were in no position to invest in research and knowledge to the same degree as before. France was in a similar plight.

The United States, on the contrary, emerged from the war as a world power, possessing the necessary resources for a scientific and scholarly build-up. English became the most frequently used language of science and scholarship. In the years following the war, the development of German was further hindered by an Allied boycott against it in international conferences and publications (as punishment for the pro-war posture of German scientists and scholars). Then came the mass murder and expulsion of German scientists and scholars, particularly Jews, under the Nazis, the repeated economic ruin after the Second World War, and the continuing brain-drain from Germany in the direction of America.

The continued existence of “niche subjects” is questionable

Excavations of the Roman theatre at Mainz. Is classical archaeology still a German-speaking field of study? Copyright: ML Preiss BonnToday German has disappeared from international communication, particularly in the natural sciences. In the social sciences, the language also hardly plays an international role any longer. This is true both of publications and their review as of conferences. Knowledge of English, above all English terminology has therefore become indispensable for German scientists and scholars. In many subjects even a parallel development of a German terminology may be impractical because the use of two sets of terms is too laborious. Texts written in German with English terms are today common and probably unavoidable in the future.

Only those non-German scientists and scholars who are seriously interested in the history of their subject need a reading knowledge of German if they want to study the sometimes epoch-making classical works (by Albert Einstein, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud and many others) in the original. “Niche subjects” (Nischenfächer, a term coined by Harald Weinrich), where German continues to serve for international communication, are still thought to exist in the social sciences (for example, classical archaeology, musicology and various philological disciplines), but the evidence for this is not very cogent. Naturally, German philology constitutes a special case.

Whoever wants to read epoch-making classical works in the original language needs to know German. From left to right: Max Weber (1894), Sigmund Freud (circa 1900), Albert Einstein (photo: Ferdinand Schmutzer, 1921). Copyright: Public Domain.

No longer a monopoly even in teaching at German-speaking universities

For German scientists and scholars, however, the German language remains indispensable, for they must communicate with their own society. Yet even in the area of university teaching the monopoly of German has been broken. The winter semester of 1997/98 saw the first so-called “international courses of study” taught in English at German universities, especially in the natural sciences and technical subjects, but also in the social and economic sciences. In view of the preponderantly English specialist literature in these subjects, this development was reasonable and is intended to facilitate the access to German universities for foreign students, scientists and scholars with insufficient knowledge of German.

Naturally, the majority of courses at German universities continue to be taught in German. Moreover, warnings from the departments of German Linguistics and German as a foreign language have worked to prevent German from being completely banned in the international courses. German is generally introduced in these courses after a beginning in English, so that in most cases the students also eventually have to take courses taught in the language. Otherwise there are good reasons to suppose that the international courses could undermine the learning of German abroad. The discussion about the international courses has contributed to spreading the awareness that the learning of German as a foreign language is important for Germany, because it brings about foreign contacts and friendships that are of incalculable value for the country.

All other languages are faring the same as German, except English

Students in a lecture hall. Copyright: ColourboxOther former international languages of science and scholarship are faring no better than is German. In France of the 1980s, when the three Annales (the journals of the renowned Institut Pasteur in Paris) switched entirely to English, the complaint could be heard that “le français scientific en chute libre” (i.e., French as a language of science is in free fall). By 2008, there were more than 600 English-language courses of study at French universities, and a similar number in Germany. But perhaps France is more consistent and systematic than Germany in introducing foreign students to the language of the country once they have been begun their studies in English. For the conjecture that languages such as Chinese or Japanese may someday outstrip English there is no convincing evidence.


Ammon, Ulrich (1998) Ist Deutsch noch internationale Wissenschaftssprache? Englisch auch für die Lehre an den deutschsprachigen Hochschulen (Berlin/ New York: de Gruyter).

Ammon, Ulrich (2008) “Deutsch als Wissenschaftssprache. Wie lange noch?”, Gnutzmann, Claus (eds.) English in Academia. Catalyst or Barrier? (Tübingen: Narr), pp. 25-43.

Ammon, Ulrich/ McConnell, Grant (2002) English as an Academic Language in Europe. A Survey of its Use in Teaching (Frankfurt a. M.: Lang).

Debus, Friedhelm/ Kollmann, Franz Gustav, Pörksen, Uwe (2000) (eds.) Deutsch als Wissenschaftssprache im 20. Jahrhundert. Vorträge des Internationalen Symposions vom 18./ 19. Januar 2000 (Stuttgart: Steiner).

Motz, Markus (ed.) (2005) Englisch oder Deutsch in Internationalen Studiengängen? (Frankfurt a. M.: Lang).

Reinbothe, Roswitha (2006) Deutsch als internationale Wissenschaftssprache und der Boykott nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg (Frankfurt a.M.: Lang).

Ulrich Ammon
The author is emeritus Professor for German Linguistics with special emphasis upon social linguistics at the University of Duisburg-Essen.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion

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November 2008

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