Language Learning Policies in Germany
Well positioned, but capable of development

To learn other languages and get to know new cultures
To learn other languages and get to know new cultures | Photo (detail): © Christian Schwier -

What role does foreign language learning play in German schools and universities? Despite some positive developments, in practice there are still some challenges to be overcome.

“Good moorning, teacher” – this is more or less how pupils greet their English teachers in German classrooms every day. At grammar schools and other secondary schools, English and French lessons have been on the timetable for decades. At vocational schools, the focus is on the promotion of foreign language skills which are required as part of the training for the students’ future professions. And for quite some time it has been common practice in all of Germany’s federal states that primary school children are confronted with the sounds and structures of a new language at the latest from the third grade upwards.

Strategies of language learning policy

Since 2001, the Council of Europe's Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) has provided a tool for documenting the level of language competence, which enables language skills to be compared on an international level. This reference framework is also used at universities, where the traditionally diverse range of general and specialist language learning options has become increasingly important as a result of increasing internationalisation and the establishment of the European Higher Education Area.

Germany is well positioned when it comes to language learning policy. The declared political goal is to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and to prepare students for the international working world. “Due to Germany's position at the centre of Europe, we are reliant on learning other languages. That is why we invest a relatively large amount of money in the training of teachers, the development of teaching materials and the didactics and philological research of foreign language learning. However, we are still trying to preserve our national language as a language of science, more so than the smaller European countries, such as the Netherlands or Norway,” says Christoph Schroeder, professor of German as a foreign language and second language at the University of Potsdam.

In preparation for the multilingual approach in education, study and professional life, schools are now offering bilingual modules or specialist courses, also called “Content and Language Integrated Learning” (CLIL). Certain subjects, such as mathematics or history, are taught not only in the first language, but also in a foreign language (mostly English). In addition, exchange programs, competitions, international qualifications and certificates have been designed to help pupils and students, as well as teachers and university staff, to learn other languages and get to know new cultures.

Multilingualism in schools and universities

Nevertheless Germany is still lagging behind the European Council’s goal of every European citizen being able to speak at least two foreign languages. The Hamburg Agreement concluded by the 1964 Kultusministerkonferenz (Conference of German Ministers of Education) still applies even today. The agreement states that only those students are required to study two foreign languages who attend a school where the Abitur (German qualification for university entrance exam) can be taken. In contrast to other European countries, Latin is counted as a foreign language. A second foreign language can be taken at the other types of school, but as an optional subject.

Marcus Baer, Professor of Didactics for Spanish at the University of Wuppertal, calls for two foreign languages to be taught at all types of schools. He has, however, observed developments that are moving in the wrong direction. “The headteachers in the schools are timetabling second or third foreign language lessons at less attractive peripheral times, even though the students are faced already with almost irresponsibly planned schedules that put them under a lot of stress. Some federal states are even discussing limiting the obligation to learn two foreign languages to grammar schools only.”

English, the “lingua franca”, is of course widely taught nationwide as the first foreign language, meaning for the second foreign language there has to be a versatile spectrum of options. That is why French, Spanish and Co are vying for dominance in many schools. This is to be counteracted by the introduction of cross-language multilingualism, which is already foreseen in the curricula of some federal states, but has still not been implemented enough. “There are already numerous successful projects. However, on the whole, the individual foreign languages in schools often have very little to do with each other in terms of content and personnel,” Marcus Baer complains.

Integrating first language skills

In the wake of migration processes, the promotion of so-called “Herkunftssprachen” (languages of origin) has also moved into the focus of foreign language learning in schools. In North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, instruction in languages of origin is provided at primary-school level, if there are at least fifteen students to attend the course. At the secondary level, the language of origin can replace a second or third foreign language. In the context of lifelong learning, the Conference of German Ministers of Education also calls for first-language skills to be integrated into the other foreign language learning options, which in practice still entails some challenges.

“For a long time, monolingualism was the preferred approach in Germany. And since the Kommunikative Wende (Communication Turnaround) was introduced in didactics in the 1970s, translation-oriented instruction has gained a bad reputation. In addition, many teachers are not aware of the diversity of languages ​​and the existing degrees of linguistic relation,” emphasises Claudia Finkbeiner, professor of research into foreign language teaching and learning at the University of Kassel. “For this reason and also for fear of losing  control, many teachers are afraid to offer pupils different languages ​​in certain phases of their school careers; afraid to draw comparisons and to encourage students to reflect – although children from non-German-speaking families would most definitely benefit from this."