Do Americans need more than one language?

Animations by Power-Tuns

Nearly half a million students attending schools, colleges, and universities in the United States are learning German as a foreign language. While this might sound like a lot, this figure is actually dropping even though it should be on the rise. Dr. Christoph Veldhues, Director of Language Programs for the Goethe-Institut in North America, explains the problems German faces as a subject and what is being done to strengthen its position.

In the United States, an estimated 400,000 school students and roughly 100,000 students at colleges and universities are currently learning German as a foreign language (GFL). This is only an estimate because there is no nationwide system for collecting data on student enrollment in foreign language classes. In addition, very few of the departments of education in the 50 states publish statistics about this on their websites. Even though German still comes in third behind Spanish and French from a quantitative standpoint, the information available shows that there has been a notable decline in absolute terms in the number of students learning German in US public schools in recent years. This decline is even greater when expressed as a percentage of the total school-age population, which has grown overall.

Whereas the widespread transition from German Literature and Language to German Studies (namely a reduction in German language requirements) at colleges and universities provides at least some explanation for this development at the post-secondary level, the reasons why fewer students are learning German at school are more complicated.

Animations by Power-Tuns In assessing the GLF situation at schools in the United States, the different fates of German programs provide much more insight than the mere number of students. On the one hand, many programs are being shut down – in some cases quite spontaneously – while others are seeing significant growth. This means that although there might not be many German programs in schools throughout the United States as a whole, there are often many students learning German in one place. German programs in schools near the plants or US offices of German companies (e.g., in California, the Southeast, and the South) and in regions with a large population of German descent (e.g., Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, the Midwest) are generally more stable, though it should be noted that only 1% of all students admit to learning German because of their German heritage.

All too often, it simply comes down to personal factors that determine the fate of a German program: e.g., its visibility for parents and students, which can be significantly impacted by attractive extracurricular activities (exchange programs, etc.), and support from the school’s administrators, who are not always influenced by objective factors, but also by their intuitive stance towards foreign languages in general and German in particular. Of course the commitment and – on a related note – popularity of individual German teachers always play a role as well. These personal ties can also mean that the existence of many German programs with only one teacher can be at risk as soon as that teacher is up for retirement and no suitable replacement can be found immediately. Hence the urgent need for a new generation of German teachers in the United States, including professional development offerings for these new teachers.

What is particularly problematic for the success of school-based German programs is the fact that students in the United States rarely learn more than one foreign language while in school. This in turn leads to less diverse language offerings at schools and thus greater competition between the languages actually offered. If students take a foreign language for all four years of high school, they can reach the equivalent of the B1+ level under the Common European Framework for Languages (CEF) – and even higher if they take especially intense, college-level AP courses. Of course, this is only true as long as students do not change their language requirements – changes that do not promote either the quality of language learning or the stability of language programs. Another structural disadvantage is that foreign language instruction generally begins far too late, usually only once students get to high school.

Foreign languages in the American consciousness – pragmatic disinterest

Overall, the situation of German as a foreign language, beyond the statistics, cannot be brought down to a common “US denominator”: there are significant regional and local differences. The reason for this initially lies in the highly decentralized US education system, including inconsistent regulations governing how to deal with language programs, which vary from state to state. Nevertheless, this is further evidence that foreign languages – unlike other subjects – are not a priority in systematic US education policies. If we shift from the state to the societal perspective, in the American consciousness multilingualism is not valued as relevant educational content in the same way that it is in Europe.

This is not surprising. Every American almost anywhere can at least get their point across in their native language of English and thus does not rely on foreign language skills to be part of the global community. The question asked at a symposium organized by the Goethe-Institut in New York (September 2014) was: Do Americans need more than one language?” The simple answer would have to be no. What was so significant about this discussion was that it had less to do with foreign languages as an international means of communication (and more). Instead, it dealt with how to handle minority languages in the US, particularly the inclusion of Spanish in schools as the country’s unofficial second language and its implications on national language policies. Spanish enjoys absolute dominance among foreign languages offered in schools primarily because of its practical uses within the US (apart from this perspective, the need to learn foreign languages also regularly comes up in America’s educational discourse when it is attributed to having a direct benefit for foreign policy agendas – Asian languages such as Chinese for a focus on the Asian-Pacific region, Arabic for the “War on Terror,” etc.).

Given these conditions, promoting German as a foreign language in the United States must pursue a dual strategy:

  • To promote multilingualism in general and German in particular
  • To support the individual and institutional “decision-makers on German” on the ground by taking action that corresponds to their interests
Promoting multilingualism – including German

On the one hand, the goal is to emphasize how language skills serve more than just an instrumental function as a means of communication. In this sense, every GFL advertising campaign is always embedded into an argument in favor of multilingualism and the fundamental (personal, social) value of foreign language education. Based on this, the campaigns should highlight particular reasons for learning German as opposed to other languages, which often overlaps with promoting a general fondness for Germany.

In the United States this can tie into the general public’s largely positive, even if somewhat vague perception of Germany, which is associated with traits such as quality, efficiency, and innovation. Very often these associations have been conveyed by German products that are already well established in the US or spin-offs that have come from the direct involvement of German companies. Making proactive use of these traditional ideas, supplementing them with more modern aspects of Germany’s image (active environmentalism, creative energy in the arts, alternative lifestyles), and turning German peculiarities – at least from a US perspective – into a striking profile in a self-deprecating way are all possibilities for reaching a broad audience and sparking interest in and fostering appreciation for a country whose language is certainly the best possible way to tap into its culture.

Only then is it possible to quickly point to the specific advantages of knowing German. The 2014 advertising campaign „Just Add German“, for example, narrowed down these advantages into five succinct slogans that summarize the reasons for learning German in the United States based on different themes:
  • Thinking about the future? Just add German. (German stands for the future, innovation, careers, opportunities…)
  • Passionate about culture and history? Just add German. (German stands for history, tradition, Europe, education…)
  • Ready for a warm welcome? Just add German. (German stands for sincerity, emotion, familiarity, security…)
  • Want to stand out from the crowd? Just add German. (German stands for standards, challenges, independence, individuality…)
  • Feeling adventurous? Just add German. (German stands for versatility, openness, multiculturalism, surprise…)
These arguments were propagated throughout the United States during the 2014 campaign year using a number of different products (mailing of 1,100 “Teacher Kits” with information, classroom decorations, and flyers; promotional trainings/webinars for over 200 German teachers; creation of around 30 GFL video clips for distribution via social media and the website) and promotions (concert tour by the band “Tonbandgerät” in March 2014, the travelling exhibition “Germany Unwrapped” / “Deutschland im Koffer” since September 2014, Career Days in Chicago, Atlanta, and San Francisco, several online contests...). All of this unfolds on the GFL web portal by the same name „Just Add German“, where starting in the spring of 2015 students, parents, school administrators, guidance counselors as well as German teachers (in their role as PR agents for GFL) will find a marketplace of current country-specific arguments and materials for promoting German as a foreign language in the United States.

Whom to support and how? Four approaches for language programs

These types of promotional activities aim to bring about a change in consciousness in society (with the hope that it will have consequences for the public education system) and will take a long time. We do not expect the number of GFL students to increase overnight. For this reason, these activities must be complemented by sustainable and visible offerings to promote GFL that will cause students to specifically choose German. Based on the considerations above, the lack of a central decision-making body for educational policies and the high priority given to local and regional initiatives to keep or possibly start/expand German programs in schools mean that the many individual decision makers throughout the country must be convinced of the value of German and be won over by German through measures geared towards the specific target group. This concerns both students and their parents as the most important individuals (and influencers) making decisions for or against German as well as structural decision makers such as school administrators and guidance counselors, who have organizational responsibility for the foreign languages offered at their institutions and help students choose which language(s) to study. At the same time, this support must also be particularly aimed at German teachers, who play a decisive role in the success of a German program both through their classes as well as their extracurricular commitment.

What is the best way to involve these groups of people, who are relevant for the foreign languages offered at schools? In addition to the aforementioned promotional approach, the language work done by the Goethe-Institut in the United States focuses on four action areas:
  • Motivating students
  • (Further) qualifying teachers
  • Informing institutions
  • Collaborating with language partners
Motivating students

Attractive virtual and real-life “German(y) Experiences” can be used particularly to appeal to students on an emotional level and get them involved. The goal is to direct their attention to German as an interesting language option so that they will want to learn it (beginner motivation) or make those who are already learning GFL committed to the subject of German (continuing motivation).

Tonbandgerättour 2014 – Konzert in Boston (c) Mark Römisch Tonbandgerättour 2014 – Konzert in Boston (c) Mark Römisch With this in mind, any activity that makes it possible for students to experience German youth culture directly with their own senses can have a motivating effect. Examples include exhibitions that connect Germany with a topic that is relevant for students (e.g., “Deutschland im Koffer” / “Germany Unwrapped”2014; “Umdenken: von der Natur lernen” / “Rethinking: Learning from Nature” 2015; “Mathematik zum Anfassen” / “Math: Hands On” 2016), concert tours by German bands (e.g., Tonbandgerät“ 2014, “Einshochsechs” 2015), readings by appealing authors of books for young readers, and creative festivals put on for and by students (e.g., the student film festival as part of the "Berlin & Beyond Film Festival” at the GI in San Francisco).

This also includes activities that allow young people to network with one another and encourage exchange and interaction such as student conferences, youth camps, class partnerships, language competitions (e.g., the 2015 preliminary rounds in the US for the International German Olympics in 2016), etc. The experience that 40 students from five countries in North America had in 2014 at the PASCH-Summer Camp in Portland, Oregon, can also be fundamental since German was the one unifying element in their collaborative project work. Spending several weeks in Germany is, of course, another key experience that is particularly motivating and has a long-lasting impact. Each year approx. 3,500 American students from 800 schools in the US have this opportunity thanks to the successful GAPP („German American Partnership Program“) exchange program.

Last, but not least, a positive attitude towards GFL is fostered in students by using various types of virtual offers: digital, interactive, and mobile German. A particularly noteworthy example is the Goethe-Institut’s completely redesigned youth portal „Step into German“, which provides digital content on topics that appeal to young people and is geared towards students learning German in Canada, Mexico, Central America, and the United States. The site provides theme-based GFL teaching materials for German teachers as well as offers contests and other activities to engage students. In 2015 the focus will be on a soccer-themed class contest in partnership with FC Bayern Munich. In general, all of the web-supported creative and knowledge contests (e.g., the „Award of Excellence“) and all of the communications via social media (e.g., the GFL community „Deutsch für Dich“) are excellent ways to get students motivated about GFL.

Particularly when it comes to the motivational aspect, associating German with the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is a trendsetting way to promote GFL. In this context, the two aforementioned exhibitions on nature and math will be touring the United States in 2015 and 2016. Since 2008, the connection between GFL and STEM has also played a key role in selecting the nine PASCH schools currently supported by the Goethe-Institut in the United States (excellence project: “Schools: Partners for the Future”). These schools not only have a proven track record in the STEM subjects, but also offer basic German as an “add-on” to supplement the core offerings. The „Transatlantic Outreach Program“ (TOP) for social studies teachers is also being expanded to include a STEM component in 2015.

It is possible to acquire a disposition for learning foreign languages if you begin at an early age – in elementary school at the latest, though preschool and kindergarten are even better because this has less to do with formal instruction and more with initial exposure to a foreign language. If this foundation is properly laid, there is less need to worry about children being motivated to learn a foreign language (such as German) later during their schooling. “Early Foreign Language Learning” (“Frühes Fremdsprachenlernen” FFL), or developing German skills “from the bottom up,” is a long-term, yet certainly worthwhile undertaking in which the Goethe-Institut will become more involved in the future, particularly when it comes to qualifying preschool teachers and educators and collaborating with the extremely active immersion schools in the United States.

(Further) qualifying teachers

Besides German learners, German teachers are the most important target group for the Goethe-Institut’s language work, with professional development (and support for training institutions as needed) being the central approach to providing assistance. This is based on the assumption that well qualified teachers offer attractive German classes, which in turn boosts student performance and makes students more interested in learning German as a foreign language.

Animations by Power-Tuns Given the urgent need for a new generation of German teachers in the United States, there must be a clear emphasis on supporting the next generation, particularly through professional development offerings for teachers with less than four years of experience. Over the next few years the content will focus on topics that are especially relevant for the future such as “The digitization of German lessons” (using digital teaching media and formats in schools), “GFL and STEM” (e.g., the continuing education project for STEM students offered by the GI in Chicago), and “Promoting German” (GFL promotional training courses). These professional qualification measures will be accompanied by opportunities for German teachers to participate in advanced language training courses in the United States and Germany.

In terms of formats, the Goethe-Institut will offer two complementary professional development options for German teachers starting in 2015. The first option consists of seminars and workshops held by GFL disseminators, i.e., experts certified by the Goethe-Institut as part of the Trainer Network USA who conduct local training workshops for German teachers around the country mainly in a face-to-face format. This also includes the newly established Goethe Summer School for new teachers on the topic of GFL and STEM, which will take place in Denver, Colorado, in July 2015. Starting in the fall of 2015, the platform-supported professional development courses “Deutsch Lehren Lernen (DLL)” (“Learn to teach German”) will also be offered in a blended learning format that will include tutored online and face-to-face phases with clear practical relevance. This will kick-off in July 2015 with a DLL Summer School hosted by the Goethe-Institut in the United States and Canada. German teachers in the United States can also apply for scholarships to participate in professional development courses at summer schools in the United States or at a Goethe-Institut in Germany.

Informing institutions

Whoever decides or shares in the decision about German programs at institutions – from the level of the individual school (principal, guidance counselor) all the way up to local and regional educational authorities (school districts, departments of education) – should be well informed about the opportunities associated with German. This has to do with professional advising for schools and, more broadly, proper lobbying for German as a foreign language, which should be prepared and conducted in close coordination with the responsible German intermediary organizations (the Goethe-Institut and the Zentralstelle für das Auslandsschulwesen – ZfA / Central Office of German Schools Abroad) and their partner institutions in the US, primarily the AATG („American Association of Teachers of German“).

Since 2014, the nine German Language Advisors for Teaching German (Berater für Deutschunterricht, BDU) dispatched by the ZfA and the Goethe-Institut play a special role in this regard since they serve as regional consultants for schools and educational authorities in their assigned states. With support from local liaison teachers, they take on the function of providing information about GFL throughout the country. Establishing this advisory network was one of the core points in the “Strategy Paper” for promoting German as a foreign language in the United States, which was jointly drafted by German and American GFL stakeholders (the embassy, intermediary organizations, the American Association of Teachers of German, etc.) in 2011/2012. Another measure proposed in the paper involves sending German students studying to become teachers to American schools as foreign language assistants. The first group of language ambassadors served during the 2013/14 school year and there are now plans to continue and expand the program in the 2015/16 school year.

Information is also at the heart of the „Transatlantic Outreach Programs“ (TOP), a genuine educational project that transcends the field of foreign language education and perfectly implements the idea of the “public-private partnership” (implemented by the Goethe-Institut, financed by German companies and the German Federal Foreign Office). The program aims to interest American social studies teachers in “Modern Germany” as a potential topic to cover in their classes by providing materials, workshops, and study trips. It can have the desirable side effect of positively impacting the German programs at TOP schools since they become more visible to students, parents, and administrators and can lead to opportunities for social studies and German teachers to work together.

Collaborating with language partners

The aforementioned “Strategy Paper” particularly recommends better networking and closer collaboration between all GFL partners in the United States. This means better networking among the German intermediary organizations and with the American associations for teachers of German, most notably the AATG. It also means working together with providers of German language courses outside of schools and companies with ties to Germany (as presented on the “Career Pages” on the Goethe-Institut’s promotional portal for GFL).

The specially funded PASCH, TOP, and GAPP programs are three important collaboration tools for the language work of the Goethe-Institut. The overarching goal of the “Schools: Partners for the Future” (PASCH) initiative launched by the German Federal Foreign Office, is to establish a global network of highly committed schools as centers of excellence for German language instruction. Collaboration, not just between students and teachers, but also at the institutional level, is a key part of the project. Potential ways to network through PASCH include collaborating with other PASCH schools at the national, regional, or global level (e.g., via or at PASCH summer camps); working with other GFL schools near the PASCH school in ways that will include them in PASCH activities and thus involve them (in a “beacon” function); and working with PASCH school administrators and the relevant educational authorities, which should be regularly informed and involved in new developments (annual meetings, visitations, etc.). The „Transatlantic Outreach Program“ (TOP), as described above, also relies on personal and institutional networking, not just between the participating social studies teachers, but also with teachers from other subjects (keyword STEM) and German. Since 2014, a project phase has been added before the exchange trips to Germany organized by the GAPP („German American Partnership Program“) so that the many GAPP schools in the United States now prepare a topic to work on at the German partner school.

Last but not least, GFL collaboration takes place between the Goethe-Institut (as a provider of language courses and exams) and American German institutions outside the six GI locations in the United States. German students can earn the globally recognized Goethe Certificates at approx. 30 American universities that are accredited as official exam partners of the Goethe-Institut and whose examiners are regularly certified. In 2015 the Goethe-Institut plans to expand its collaboration with independent cultural organizations and private language schools, which base their GFL courses on the Goethe-Institut’s quality standards and receive support from the Goethe-Institut (consulting on language course management, support with promotional activities, language training and professional development for teachers, etc.). Commercially minded, i.e., financially independent and thus “for profit” language schools can benefit from this type of collaboration on language courses. By being able to advertise their partnership with the Goethe-Institut, they can enhance their image. At the same time, the Goethe-Institut fulfils its language policy mandate by ensuring high-quality German language offerings, particularly for adults, in places where it is not possible to have a separate GI location. After all, the number of locations is limited in large countries like the United States.

These types of partnerships as well as their involvement in activities to promote German in the areas of motivating students and qualifying teachers proves that language courses and examinations not only allow the Goethe-Institut to fulfil an economic function, but also to serve as a center of expertise and an experimental lab for German as a foreign language. The Goethe-Institut not only teaches classes for all target groups (adults, young people, companies) at all CEF levels (A1-C2) and in all formats (face-to-face, blended learning, online) using state of the art media, but also experiments and shares the GFL experience it ultimately gathers around the globe. The number of people who enroll in classes and sign up for exams at the Goethe-Institut ultimately shows that there is certainly a relevant demand for German. To a certain extent, these private offerings are substituting for the fact that German has been cut from many public schools and universities – at least in the short term. Yet from the long-term perspective of language policies, it is precisely there where we need to ensure that German has its rightful place as a foreign language.

All of the language programs offered by the Goethe-Institut in the United States can be found on this website under “Teaching German”. You can also contact one of the Goethe-Institut locations in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Washington or the Goethe-Zentrum in Atlanta.

Read more articles about German as a foreign language in the United States over the next few weeks. We will feature interviews with young German teachers, options for digitizing German classes, an advance publication about the lecture series “Language and” (“Sprache und”) (to be held at the Goethe-Institut in New York starting in April 2015), and a tour of the youth portal “Step into German.”