Linguistic Change and Politics

Language Policy – a Debate about the Role of the German Language

Copyright: Goethe-Institut In the official context of the EU institutions, English squeezed out German long ago. And even in Germany, more and more teenagers are copying the truncated German spoken by the Turkish migrant community ("Wo Du gehen?"). German is permeated with anglicisms (recyceln, downloaden), business English (meeting, e-government) and vogue words (loser, checken). Is the German language under threat? Should it be enshrined as a cultural asset in the German constitution, the Basic Law? What language policy do we want, and what can it achieve?

These questions were addressed at the panel discussion which concluded the symposium on German in Multilingual Europe. The panellists included two journalists, the head of the Duden Editorial Department, a Member of the German Bundestag, and representatives of the Gesellschaft für Deutsche Sprache, GfdS, (i.e. Society for the German Language) and the Verein Deutsche Sprache (i.e. German Language Association). The two-day symposium was organised by the GfdS as part of the Goethe-Institut's project The Power of Language.

A quota for German pop songs?

What role does German play in a multilingual Europe? The panellists' opinions diverged widely – from vigorous support for the adoption of a German language policy (Dr Walter Terschüren, Verein Deutsche Sprache) to the view that English is the only language that truly expresses the young generation's feelings about life in a globalised world (Armin Conrad, 3sat); German, he argued, is outdated here.

While Dr Terschüren firmly opposed English-language lectures in the natural sciences and engineering faculties at German universities and called for a quota for German-language music on the radio, Ole Schröder, a Member of the German Bundestag, rejected any kind of formal language policy at central government level, reminding the audience of the negative experience with the Government's efforts to reform German orthography.

Nikolaus Bernau (Berliner Zeitung) argued that anyone wishing to do business at global level nowadays should learn Chinese, since it is the language that has the largest number of speakers. In an international context, English has the edge, however. "This is not just about economics: English is the language of liberalism, democracy and immigration – and that's why it has become so popular around the world." In Germany, by contrast, there is a sense of alienation and a fear of other languages.

Language promotion begins at home

Dr Matthias Wermke, Head of the Duden Editorial Department, pointed out that cultivating the German language must begin at home, not in Brussels or Strasbourg. "What we need, first and foremost, is a language promotion policy which strengthens the status of the German language in Germany itself and closes the gap between Germans and migrants". He cited the example of Mannheim, home to 170 different ethnic communities which all have to communicate with each other. There is still a long way to go, said Dr Wermke, before everyone sees themselves as Mannheimers rather than Turks, Serbs or Moroccans, for example.

Matthias Wermke went a step further: "If we cannot strengthen our language in our own language area, how can we possibly promote German as a working language in the EU or as a second and third language in a multilingual Europe?"

So who should be responsible for implementing language policy? This proved to be a contentious issue. According to Rudolf Hoberg, the President of the GfdS, who chaired the discussion, this responsibility lies primarily with civil society: with his own Gesellschaft für Deutsche Sprache, the Verein Deutsche Sprache (i.e. German Language Association), the Deutscher Sprachrat (i.e. German Language Council), and the Duden Editorial Department. For example, his Society had once provided advice and support to the heute TV news team for two years. "This type of approach is more effective than a welter of formal regulations".

Matthias Wermke from the Duden Editorial Department was in favour of establishing a language policy competence at national government level. "In this case, we cannot afford a federal solution, it is simply too complicated. Responsibility for the German language must be taken at the top." The German Government must be willing to invest in the German language – it cannot simply rely on associations and academic institutions. Ole Schröder pointed out that the Bundestag's Budget Committee had substantially increased the funding available to the Goethe Institutes in order to provide more support for the promotion of German language and culture. That's all well and good, said Professor Rudolf Hoberg (GfdS), in the chair. "But if you consider that the Goethe-Institut's budget of 120 million euros would pay for the construction of just ten kilometres of motorway, you see exactly how much priority is attached to culture in Germany".

Questions in German – answers in English

Language policy is a matter for each and every one of us, especially those performing a public role. All the panellists criticised the bad habit of only speaking English at international conferences in Germany. And German politicians abroad often respond in English to questions put to them in German. Dr Terschüren earned vigorous applause from the audience when he emphasised that German is still very popular and spoken widely in Eastern Europe in particular. "So why on earth should we speak English there?" he asked.

Although they failed to agree on who should be responsible for implementing German language policy, the panellists were united in the view that this type of policy is necessary to ensure that German does not steadily lose influence in the international arena. So should German be enshrined as a cultural asset in the German constitution, the Basic Law – a demand voiced by Norbert Lammert, the President of the German Bundestag, at the very start of the symposium? The panel remained divided on this controversial issue. Journalist Nikolaus Bernau cautioned against marginalising the second most widely-spoken language in Germany – not English, but Turkish.

Volker Thomas
is a freelance journalist and director of a press and PR agency in Berlin.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

Translation: Hillary Crowe

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Dezember 2006

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