The Big Slump German was once the most popular foreign language in the U.S. These days, others have taken over - By Katja Ridderbusch
If it hadn't been for one single vote, America today would be a German-speaking nation. As the legend goes, a proposal by German settlers in 1828 to make German the second official language was turned down by just one vote. The fact is, there is no proof this vote ever took place. Still, those with German heritage make up the largest group in the U.S., with one-fourth of the population.
Yet those numbers do not reflect the state of German language in the U.S. today. The percentage of Americans studying German ranges between 2 and 3 percent. Spanish, on the contrary, amounts to more than 30 percent.
German used to be the most popular foreign language spoken in the U.S. The big slump came after World War I, when enrollments dropped from 24.4 percent to 0.6 percent and never really recovered, says Helene Zimmer-Loew, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of German (AATG).
Yet German heritage has left its mark. Many German words have made their way into American dictionaries. Most of them originate either in World War II vocabulary: blitzkrieg, anschluss, lebensraum; regarding dog breeds such as rottweiler, doberman, dachshund; in relation to food, for example, delicatessen, bratwurst, sauerkraut, schnitzel and schnapps; or describing a condition like angst, zeitgeist, weltschmerz, kitsch and gemütlichkeit.
The trend toward studying German in the U.S. varies according to the geographic region as well as to certain landmark events. Also, the motivation to learn German is rather diverse, says Uwe Rau, deputy director of the Goethe Institute in New York. "One reason is that students want to learn the language of their ancestors," he said.
As a result, more students sign up for German classes in Pennsylvania and in the Midwest, where a large proportion of the population has German roots. Others, especially at the university level, are inspired by fields in which German plays an important role: for example, classical music, philosophy or engineering. Some students are motivated after participating in the German American Partnership Program, the biggest government-funded exchange program for German and American high school students. Others are just ambitious and want to pick up a language they consider more challenging than Spanish.
Helene Zimmer-Loew, whose parents fled from Nazi Germany to New York in the 1930s, points out that enrollment in German language studies follows certain political, economic or socio-economic patterns and is triggered by certain events. "But these kinds of booms are usually short term," she said. For example, German reunification marked a boost in enrollment and contributed significantly to the increase of 5.1 percent in the early 1990s. "Americans at that time were fascinated with eastern Germany," said Wolfgang Krüger, director of the Goethe Center in Atlanta, formerly the Goethe Institute. "For them, that was the 'wild East,' the new frontier and they wanted to go there and be part of it."
The economic boom in Germany after the mid-1990s led to another slight increase. "There was a strong trend in colleges at that time to offer classes in business German," said Rau. "Everyone was hooked on the economic boom." The boom ebbed away, though, and with it the interest. Additionally, explains Rau, many larger German companies, eagerly trying to be global, have since introduced English as their internal lingua franca. This is a trend anxiously monitored by the Goethe Institutes because it might impact their role in providing German language classes to adult learners. "About 80 percent of our students come here because they want to learn German for their careers," said Krüger.
The main reason for the poor showing of German as a foreign language is the fact that the interest in America in a foreign language, any foreign language, is traditionally extremely low, says Rau. As opposed to most EU countries, learning a foreign language is not always mandatory in American high schools and colleges. About 45 percent of all American high school students sign up for a foreign language class and only 10,000 public high schools out of about 26,000 in the U.S. offer German classes at all. Meanwhile, only 9 percent of university students study a foreign language.
In the aftermath of September 11 and the ensuing global fight against terrorism, the U.S. government rediscovered the value of foreign languages. But German does not benefit from this latest political trend. That is because it's the so-called critical languages − Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Farsi and Korean − that receive government funding and are promoted for success in business, intelligence or counter-terrorism. Secondly, contrary to political promises, federal funding for foreign languages has been cut in the past few years. Thirdly, due to shortfalls in budgets and a general shift of school curricula toward natural sciences, "schools never add a language, they replace one with another," said Zimmer-Loew. Chinese, which is heavily funded, has often replaced classic European languages in recent years.
Furthermore, funding from the German government is limited. It goes mostly to the Goethe Institutes, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and the German schools abroad, which are operated according to German educational guidelines. In order to promote French classes, France each year sends off about 80 teachers to work in American public and private high schools, mostly in Florida and Louisiana. "This is an idea we should look further into," said Rau.
Those who fight for the German language remain realistic. "German in the U.S. will always be a niche language," said Rau. But there is a glimpse of hope: The new critical languages, be it Chinese, Arabic or Farsi, are extremely difficult to learn and the dropout-rates are high. "It is a matter of time," said Zimmer-Loew with a smile. "We will just keep waiting and, I am sure, German will be back on the radar one day."
- Katja Ridderbusch is a freelance journalist and writer based in Atlanta.