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„Europa. Deine Sprachen“
The German Language in Europe

Klaus-Dieter Lehman gives the keynote to launch the conference.
Klaus-Dieter Lehman gives the keynote to launch the conference. | Photo (detail): © Goethe-Institut, Bernhard Ludewig

On 8 October in Berlin, the president of the Goethe-Institut Klaus-Dieter Lehmann opened a conference series of the Goethe-Institut’s Europanetzwerk Deutsch on the topic of multilingualism.

By Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, President of the Goethe-Institut

Our disparities and our commonalities in the European cultural region are subject to a tension that requires constant rebalancing. Especially in these times of migration, globalisation, digitisation as well as growing populism, European communication of uniform European values ​​is more important than ever. And communication begins with mutual understanding.

This, of course, includes our languages. Language is more than a tool for communication. It is embedded in a respective cultural context; it is a cultural medium. This is particularly evident in the literatures of the respective languages, but also in the way we think and speak.

German is not the world language – we won’t dispute the position of English as the lingua franca. But German is without a doubt one of the most important cultural languages. We need English as a lingua franca but it is first and foremost used in global communication as a tool and not as a cultural medium. The restriction to a lingua franca always means a cognitive restriction and also the exclusion of people. Only a widely used and useable language is also an appealing language, not only for native speakers, but also for those who have to choose a foreign language.

Around 100 million people in the world speak German as their mother tongue and just as many as a foreign language. Almost 16 million people are presently learning German. Generally, we can say that there has been constant or increasing interest in the German language in most countries over the past five years. At the almost 160 Goethe-Instituts alone, there has been a 20 per cent annual increase in course participants and a 30 per cent annual increase in exams over the last five years. In Germany, an additional factor in the increase in German learners will be triggered by the Skilled Workers Immigration Act. Whenever the technical and professional benefits of a language are recognisable or when cultural interest can be focused on certain developments, this affects the interest in learning languages. Added to this is the interaction between home and abroad due to immigration, whereby German is the key to integration. But the German language is not a sure-fire success, it requires investments and the pursuit of an active language policy. This is just as true for the other European languages.

Europe’s multilingualism is an asset

The educational system should recognise, use and systematically advance multilingualism much more as a potential. Since its founding almost 70 years ago, the Goethe-Institut has championed a multilingual Europe and pursued an open-minded language policy. Abroad, we work together with the Zentralstelle für das Auslandsschulwesen and the DAAD for new modes of access to the German language abroad. In addition to the German schools abroad, the Schools – Partners for the Future (PASCH) programme has been a global success story since 2008. In the now 2,000 PASCH schools, German language sections are being set up, teachers are being trained and the schools are being equipped with teaching and learning materials.

In Barcelona in 2002, the EU set itself an ambitious goal: Every citizen of the EU should be able to communicate not only in their native tongue, but also in two European foreign languages. This was postulated again in a comprehensive concept in 2019. It is the right approach, but there is a lack of commitment in the school systems. Sadly, at present this foreign language concept only exists on paper in Europe. According to Eurostat, almost half of all Europeans say they are unable to converse in a second language. Only one in five respondents can speak two other languages ​​in addition to their own language. English is the most widely spoken foreign language in the EU, with around 98 per cent of pupils learning it. French holds second place with 33 per cent, followed by German with 23 per cent and Spanish with 17 per cent.

Integration is unthinkable without linguistic diversity

The European states are presently drifting apart due to the different life experiences in Eastern and Western Europe and their non-simultaneity in development, but also due to tendencies towards isolation and manipulation of opinion due to the coronavirus pandemic. Cohesion can only be achieved if these different developmental aspects are better taken into account. This means shared responsibility for a European cultural region and strengthening relationships through an active language policy in the promotion of multilingualism. Such a language policy is less a firework display of diverse funding measures, but should serve the overarching goal of a closer union. It would make sense to concentrate both on programmes in favour of the official European languages and on programmes in favour of the languages ​​of each country’s immediate neighbourhood. Dialogue is especially vibrant in the border regions and the chances there are good that language skills will be used for immediate career and life planning. This is where approaches of a European public, for which the borders of national media spaces are no longer relevant, are most likely to become visible. That would be a sensible strategy for Germany with its nine neighbouring countries. Successful examples exist in the Saarland with Lorraine for German-French promotion of neighbouring languages and in Saxony there are also interesting approaches for German-Polish and German-Czech kindergartens. But so far there has been no overall strategy.

The Europanetzwerk Deutsch, which also organises the conference series Europa. Deine Sprachen, is a special funding programme aimed at strengthening German foreign cultural and language policy. It targets present and future decision-makers in Europe, in particular employees in EU institutions, but also officials from European ministries. Its aim is to strengthen the German language as a working and procedural language and to promote understanding of German positions in Europe. In the past 26 years – since the programme was launched, funded by the Federal Foreign Office – almost 3,000 scholarship holders have attended its programmes in Germany. It is a platform that could motivate other Member States to undertake similar programmes. Language acquisition for these target groups remains important, despite the increasing use of artificial intelligence and machine translation programs.

Multilingualism not only helps us in Europe understand each other, but also helps us communicate. Multilingualism promotes mobility and mutual knowledge. Integration is unthinkable without linguistic diversity. And not least importantly, German as a foreign language can only have a real future in Europe if the principle of multilingualism is taken seriously.  

The Goethe-Institut is pleased to use the EU Council Presidency to express its commitment to the creative diversity of Europe in numerous European projects, language policy being one of them.

On diversity and commonality, Blaise Pascal wrote, “Diversity that cannot be reduced to unity is confusion; unity that ignores diversity is tyranny.”
(Abridged version)