Foreign Cultural Relations and Educational Policy
Learning German at One Thousand and One Schools

Promoting the German language is an integral part of German foreign policy
PASCH-school in Cairo | © Goethe-Institut/Kai-Uwe Oesterhelweg

Promoting the German language is an inherent part of the cultural relations work supported by the German state abroad. But what do German teaching abroad and German as a foreign language have to do with foreign cultural policy? And what does German (foreign) policy expect to achieve by promoting the teaching of German worldwide?

For more than a century an independent domain of German foreign policy has existed which nowadays is known as foreign cultural relations and educational policy. Under this banner, various organizations both in Germany and abroad pursue activities aimed at promoting trust and friendship for Germany, while at the same time sending news home about social and cultural developments. The Goethe-Institut with its 157 institutes and offices in 94 countries is involved in these joint state and societal activities, as are Deutsche Welle (Germany’s international broadcaster), the German Academic Exchange Service (international mobility in higher education), the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations in Stuttgart (art exchange and dialogue in civil societies), the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung (exchange in science and research) as well as a number of other non-governmental actors.

The public perception of foreign cultural relations and educational policy, which is regarded as the “third pillar” of governmental foreign policy, is that it is subordinate to economic and security policy. Nonetheless, no-one these days would deny that civil society and cultural relations between states and communities tend to have a longer-term and more lasting impact than the ups and downs of everyday political activities.

Such engagement also entails costs: somewhat more than a fifth of the Federal Foreign Office budget approved by the Bundestag (Germany’s parliament) for 2013, that is to say around 800 million euros, was spent on cultivating cultural relations abroad. Unlike a business investment with readily quantifiable returns, investments in cultural exchange generally reap indirect rewards which often become apparent only in the longer term.


Besides promoting exchange in such diverse fields as art, music, dance and theatre, science and research, archaeology and preservation of cultural heritage (e.g. UNESCO world heritage), language work constitutes a central element of cultural relations work abroad. Funding is provided for a variety of initiatives, such as the “Schools: Partners for the Future (PASCH)” programme, international school exchanges, the network of more than 140 German schools abroad, not to mention German teaching and German studies programmes at universities abroad. In addition, there are the contributions made by Germany’s individual federal states, such as the funding of school twinning programmes abroad and of international teaching and research at universities, not to mention projects run by municipalities and private organizations.
PASCH-school in Cairo PASCH-school in Cairo | © Goethe-Institut/Kai-Uwe Oesterhelweg The promotion of the German language abroad is thus an acknowledged instrument of German foreign (cultural) policy (cf. Ammon 2015, among others), for: “A person who knows and can speak German will also contribute to communicating a comprehensive and realistic picture of Germany” (Witte 1991). Taking this idea a step further, we can easily imagine that he or she will buy German products, collaborate with German companies, send his or her children to university in Germany and take holidays in Germany. Overall, then, the investments made in education and cultural exchange would pay off in other areas such as foreign trade and tourism. Engagement in different parts of the world and with various partner countries makes sense not only on a “global” and international policy level but also for specific geopolitical and strategic reasons, as the following examples illustrate.

“German at one thousand schools” – German teaching in India

A bilateral agreement in which the Goethe-Institut was involved as a cooperation partner and which aimed to introduce German lessons at one thousand schools in India by 2017 initially appeared to be a milestone on the path towards deeper education policy cooperation with India and thus an opportunity for the export-oriented German economy to gain better access to a key future market. After more than 70,000 pupils at the “Kendriya Vidyalay” schools had begun their German lessons, however, it emerged that the language classes were possibly in violation of a national law which dictates that only one additional Indian language after Hindi and English can be included in the curriculum of Indian schools. On the other hand, 2014 saw the German department at the University of Mumbai celebrating one hundred years of German studies in the West Indian metropolis, and young Indians continue to exhibit considerable interest in learning and studying German.
Event celebrating “100 years of German teaching in India” Event celebrating “100 years of German teaching in India” | © Roberto Michel/Goethe-Institut German schools abroad

German schools abroad teach not only German children, but also and above all the children of expatriate business, military, diplomatic and civil society professionals. German lessons follow an “exported” syllabus and also prepare students for the German Abitur (higher education entrance qualification). This makes it easier for returning pupils to find their way back into the German education system and labour market. For the employees of international companies and organizations, German schools therefore make a major contribution to helping them reconcile family life with the need to work abroad. German schools abroad and the bilingual “contact schools” also accept children from non-German families, thereby giving them access to the German education system and labour market. A command of the German language coupled with an education conforming to German standards can thus pave the way for a career in government organizations, civil society or international business.

Promoting language abroad as part of Germany’s “soft power”

Given that economic and political situations can often change at short notice, for example during a national crisis or when there is a change of government, language and education work abroad plays a particularly important role in stabilizing intergovernmental and international relations. Language and education work has a lasting impact in the most positive sense. It is an instrument of German foreign-policy interests and, together with foreign cultural relations activities and cultural representation abroad, forms part of Germany’s “soft power”. It draws its legitimation from Germany’s reputation in the world. In return, it further contributes to painting a positive image of Germany and to furthering international understanding of German social discourse and its underlying values. Last but not least, it underpins Germany’s political credibility as a partner in bilateral and international relations.

Is learning german still relevant in today’s “globalized” world?

With at least 90 million people speakers, German is the most commonly spoken native language in the EU. German is learnt as a foreign language around the world – even increasingly in some countries – often with the goal of embarking on a course of study in the German-speaking area, working for a German company or gaining a professional foothold in this attractive economic region.

Promotion of German as a foreign language is thus closely linked to demographic changes and to the skilled labour shortage in Germany, which necessitates a considerable degree of migration of skilled and unskilled workers from abroad. Promotion of the German language offers opportunities for multilingualism and for a pluralistic world. For this reason, the German language will in future continue to have a firm place as a language of science, business, technology and politics, and above all as the language of a partner of international renown.


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