Languages and globalization “German no longer stands alone”.

Karl-Heinz Göttert
© Südpol-Redaktionsbüro/T. Köster

In his latest book, entitled “Abschied von Mutter Sprache” (i.e. Saying Goodbye to Mother Tongue), German language and literature expert Karl-Heinz Göttert looks at how German needs to position itself in a globalized world. Goethe.de talked to him about German and the world, the power of the English language – and the benefits of being a monk in the Middle Ages.

Mr Göttert, in your new book “Abschied von Mutter Sprache” you quote Kevin Kuranyi, who plays football for Germany and whose children are growing up speaking not only German, but also Croatian, Spanish and Russian. Do we have to give up German as a “mother tongue” if we are at home in a multilingual environment?

No. But German no longer stands alone, and this is something we will clearly have to accept once and for all. What is now important is to react with creativity to the diversity that globalization has brought us. There are an estimated 130 or so languages spoken in Germany. Those who speak them will doubtless make an effort to learn German, as otherwise they will not get very far in Germany. At the same time, however, it will be important to build bridges and meet them halfway.

The thesis I put forward in my book is not that we must say goodbye to German as a native language, but as our “Mother Tongue”: it would be wrong to imbue German with a kind of mysticism capable of putting its speakers in a special or indeed superior position.

Humboldt’s idea no longer applies

Does that mean that Humboldt’s idea of a country’s identity being rooted in its native tongue no longer applies in today’s Germany?

Correct. That is how things were in the nineteenth century. Before the German Empire was established in 1871, a common language was thought to be the best way to tie the nation together. This put a great deal of pressure on the German language in terms of its quality and purity. We now know that this was the wrong approach. There is no such thing as pure language, nor is such a state desirable.

There is no doubt that Humboldt was a great philosopher of language, but that was the language philosophy of the nineteenth century and it simply no longer fits the way we live today.

Building Europe without German?

What role if any can German play in today’s world?

Its influence has declined steadily. Until 1920, German was most definitely a world language, and some people still remember this today. But that is in the past – even in eastern countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, where German was long used as a bridging language, this role has been lost. Even there, German has become a secondary language alongside English.

And what about in Brussels, where Europe is supposed to be constructed?

As compared with the other official languages of French and English, German has played a declining role right from the start in Brussels. It is quite clear that English is also the dominant language there now.

Though we may find this regrettable, we also have to understand it. On a working language level – and I’m not talking here about the official languages that are binding for each office – the overriding concern is facilitation. This does not mean that I am in favour of Europe becoming English-speaking, however.

Language support from the Internet

One of the major fields in which English unequivocally dominates discourse even in Germany is science and scholarship …

That is of course a problem: not in scholarship in general, but in areas such as the natural sciences or medicine. An outstanding doctor who does not speak English very well will not find himself or herself in a very good starting position. But what is one supposed to do? Scholarship gives rise to dialogue, and academics are very interested in exchanging their views and ideas as quickly as possible.

A much bigger problem is the fact that scholarly works are listed in bibliographies that are increasingly English. It is thus almost impossible to apply for chairs abroad if one has published in German. This is an area in which the Internet could offer a quick and inexpensive solution.

In Germany there are also more and more degree courses offered in English that have an international orientation …

Here too, it is important to look more closely at the figures – and in fact such courses account for a mere five percent of the total. We must also assume that Germany is keen to attract students, which not least constitutes an economic factor.

“Language police is not what is needed”

German itself appears to be becoming increasingly English. Do we need measures to protect German as an “endangered species”?

I don’t think so. A language naturally undergoes such transitions – which tend to be associated with cultural dominance – when it comes into contact with other languages. As far as English is concerned, the obvious areas to mention would be popular and IT culture. It might be tempting to think about having the state regulate the influence of English …

… the “French approach”…

… which the French have now definitively abandoned! There are no language laws in France any more – on the contrary, there is a tendency to move away from such ideas, which are now regarded as wrong.

The kind of language police that some people are calling for in Germany is not what is needed, in my view. That cannot work. One has to leave it up to the people who are affected, and then most of the excesses will sort themselves out. Anyone who is keen to make themselves laughable in this area is free to do so – and will normally be punished as a result. For my part, I advise strongly against using laws to preserve linguistic purity, something which is problematic in any case.

Speaking in one tongue or in many?

Are there still good reasons to learn German as a foreign language?

But of course! For example, for anyone wishing to study or work in Germany. They should – and must! – learn German. What is more, Germany is a strong nation. We are in an outstanding economic position. According to calculations, our language is still perhaps the tenth-strongest language in the world, so it is very much worthwhile learning German. This is also why German contacts abroad are so important.

What does the globalized world need more urgently, a single lingua franca or linguistic diversity?

A globalized world needs both. The EU, for instance, advocates a trilingual approach: one’s own mother tongue, plus the language of one’s neighbour and a lingua franca. I believe it is very sensible to pursue both of these. After all, multilingualism is of the utmost importance even in a globalized world. And we need a lingua franca in order to act globally and to prepare ourselves to overcome international challenges.

As a German studies scholar, I cannot in any case live with only one language, as I would then encounter barriers when I start looking towards Italy, France and England – barriers I am keen to overcome when undertaking comparative studies. And in two weeks I’m travelling to China, where I can only hope that the taxi driver speaks English.

These days, English is our lingua franca, while French played this role in the past, and Latin did even longer ago. The monks of the Middle Ages were able to travel from Scotland to Sicily thanks to this lingua franca! I would also like to travel from Scotland to Sicily and always be able to book a hotel room en route without any difficulty. Of course, I’d even rather be able to do it in the national language, but that is by no means a contradiction.