German as a Foreign Language
“We’ve reversed the trend”

Learners of German in Japan: “Germany as a location for business and studies is more appealing than ever”
Learners of German in Japan: “Germany as a location for business and studies is more appealing than ever” | Photo: Anja Schwab

Interest in German as a foreign language remains very high according to a new study. There is even an upward trend in China, India and Brazil. Johannes Ebert, the secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut, and Heike Uhlig, director of the Language Department, explain why.

Mr Ebert, every five years the Netzwerk Deutsch surveys how many people around the world are learning German. Now the latest figures are available. What are the main findings?

Johannes Ebert, secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut Johannes Ebert, secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut | Photo: Loredana La Rocca Ebert: We are extremely gratified that the demand for German has grown in about 60 percent of all surveyed countries. This applies in particular to countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa. All in all, the number has remained constant worldwide at 15.4 million, which means that the drop in German learners recorded since 2000 has come to a halt. This is not something to take for granted and reveals that the instruments used to promote German as a foreign language are having some effects and that Germany as a location for business and studies is more appealing than ever. The German language also profits from this. Most learners of German continue to be in Europe and most of them – approximately 13 million – learn German at school.

Ms Uhlig, how is such an extensive study conducted? 15.4 million learners of German worldwide, more than one third of them outside of Europe. How are such huge quantities of data recorded?

Uhlig: The Goethe-Institut, DAAD, the Central Agency for Schools Abroad (ZfA) and the German Foreign Office work very closely together in the Netzwerk Deutsch. First a questionnaire is drawn up jointly and sent to the diplomatic missions abroad. Then the real work begins at the local Netzwerk Deutsch: all mediator organizations compile official statistics together and investigate data about the school, university and adult education systems. Everyone involved deserves appreciation for this. It is not easy in very many countries to get these statistics. In many cases they do not even exist so we are forced to use substantiated estimations. This is also cited in this present study.

And what role exactly did the Goethe-Institut play in drawing up the study?

Heike Uhlig, director of the Language Department Heike Uhlig, director of the Language Department | Photo: Loredana La Rocca Uhlig: Since these surveys began, the threads have all come together at the Goethe-Institut. In the local network, the colleagues at the Goethe-Instituts are the ones who transfer the compiled data to the questionnaire, then send these to the head office and respond to follow up inquiries. Then, all the data comes together at the head office, we process them, compare them with the surveys from previous years and then analyze the results together in the Netzwerk Deutsch.

The survey has been conducted since 1985. What has changed since then? Are there recognizable trends?

Ebert: There was a huge increase in the numbers of German learners between 1995 and 2000. This was related to the euphoric mood following the fall of the Iron Curtain and the accompanying western orientation in the former Eastern Bloc. Then, since 2000, we observed a constant decline there, which now seems to have come to a halt. We’ve reversed the trend. But the fall of the Iron Curtain also led to huge growth for English in many countries of central and eastern Europe, so today almost everywhere German is learned as the second or third foreign language and only comparatively few schools offer German as the first foreign language. In all of the years, the numbers of learners were greatest in schools and this has not changed. Often, the foreign languages offered at schools have changed; it has become more diverse and therefore the German language has more competition.

How do you explain the rise in numbers of learners, for example in Asia?

Ebert: This partly is related to the appeal of Germany as a location for study and business, as we mentioned earlier, but also has to do with the impact of the initiative Schools: Partners for the Future. The 1,800 PASCH schools are a worldwide network. More than 500 of them are consulted by the Goethe-Institut, the German schools abroad and the schools that offer the German Language Certificate of the Education Ministers Conference, by the Central Agency for Schools Abroad. It has been possible to spread the stimulus that the PASCH schools emit particularly in China and India. In other countries, German was introduced for the first time by PASCH. Let’s focus on China: 123 schools there now offer German classes; school directors in particular are increasingly interested in internationalizing their schools, so adding German to the subjects offered fits well, of course. In India, the increase in learners of German at schools was also triggered by two PASCH schools, which have since created the impulse to introduce German in more than 700 schools. After the 2014 parliamentary elections in India this successful project experienced a setback. The Goethe-Institut and the Foreign Office are in intensive discussions with the Indian government to tie back in with the successes already attained.

The rising numbers in countries such as China, India, Brazil, Turkey and ASEAN countries is contrasted by another drop in the numbers of German learners in the Russian Federation and the countries of the former Soviet Union. What is the cause for this?

Ebert: First, we have to say that 1.5 million German learners in Russia is quite a large number and that three million people are learning German in the Commonwealth of Independent States. There are many causes for the decline and they cannot always be influenced: demographic factors, educational reforms, urbanization processes that lead to the closure of rural schools, diversification of foreign languages at schools.

Uhlig: In Russia, German has the rather undisputed status of second foreign language in schools and we have been able to expand it in recent years. This has a lot to do with constant language policy persuasion; the two-year “Learn German” project played a major role in this. The numbers of learners at the Goethe-Instituts and Language Learning Centres have also risen in recent years.

The frontrunner is Poland with 2.3 million German learners. What is the Goethe-Institut doing there to make an impact?

Uhlig: There is a long tradition of learning German in Poland. The reforms of the Polish school system anchored a mandatory second foreign language and German profited from this in particular. In Poland, the promise of professional opportunities is most decisive in the choice of a foreign language. There are also many exchange programmes between Poland and Germany. The Goethe-Institut is presently focusing its efforts on teacher training and innovative curriculum projects to improve the quality of German skills.