German – A Language Learned all over the World, but Firmly Rooted in Europe

German is the second foreign language in the European Union (EU) and when it comes to the 90 million people whose mother tongue is German, it is actually in first place. It is also officially recognised as a minority language in eight countries

Does this then mean we should not worry about the status of the German language in Europe? The answer unfortunately is - yes, we should be concerned, as the German language plays only a minor role in the institutions of the EU. German as a working language (one that is really used) has to be more staunchly advocated, if one day it is to become one of the languages of government in a community that is growing together all the time. This is of the utmost importance, if it is to maintain its attraction as a foreign language.

Deutsche Sprache Enlarge image (© dpa/ picture alliance) German is both taught and learned at schools and universities in over 100 countries all over the world – an inestimable resource for German-speaking countries when trying to establish international contacts. The decision whether this is to remain the case has to be made above all in Europe – the centre of gravity of the German language. In the European Union, with its (since 1st January 2007) 27 member states, German surpasses all the other languages when it comes to the number of people with German as their mother tongue (about 90 million - on a global level 120 million). It is also the most widespread official language (in seven countries) and is the second most popular foreign language, after English but ahead of French.

The problem is however that that the EU is gearing its language policy above all to the minor languages that are even being promoted as foreign languages to be learned. Take the example of the EU recommending EU citizens to learn a “personal, adopted language”, if possible one of the minor languages. This strategic approach takes its toll on the major languages that are the traditional languages learned as a second language, German in particular. English is the only one not affected by this. On the contrary – it is considered to be indispensable and is more and more in demand as a common language – particularly in view of the EU policy on linguistic fragmentation.

A minority language in some EU member states

Marktplatz mit barocken Bürgerhäusern in Opole Enlarge image (© dpa/ picture alliance) German is also an officially recognised minority language in several member states of the EU, for example, in eastern Belgium and in South Tyrol (Italy) where it also one of the regional official languages, not to mention Denmark (North Schleswig), Poland (Opole, Silesia), Rumania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. The rights of linguistic minorities are defined in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages that was drawn up by the Council of Europe and is backed by the EU. It is actually only a recommendation to the member states that are autonomist when it comes to language policy.

Karl-Heinz Lambertz Enlarge image (© dpa/ picture alliance) France amended its constitution in such a way that the charter is no longer compatible with it (recognition of French). As a result the German-speaking minorities in Alsace and Lorraine are now denied the full range of rights (according to Article 2, at least 35 rights from an extensive list are not being granted); on the other hand bilingual schools using German are allowed. The preservation of German as a minority language is also important for the future of the German language. It can only be assumed that many a German-speaking minority still has not been discovered by the Charter as being eligible for support at least in limited form – maybe in Finland.

Author: Ulrich Ammon

Translation: Paul McCarthy

First published on
Adapted by the Internetdivision
Reprint courtesy of the Goethe-Institute

German – A Language Learned all over the World

Deutsch lernen