Last year when I studied abroad in the Netherlands, learning a few Dutch phrases became necessary for survival. (How can you buy cookies at the local supermarket without being able to thank the cashier with a dank u wel?) What I didn’t expect to learn was that German held a stake in the origins of not only the Dutch language, but English as well. I knew nothing (nichts!) about German’s influence on my own language, and even less about German itself.
But in the past few years, high school students have held an attitude similar to mine; the US Department of Education found in 2008 that only 14 percent of American high schools offered German as a part of their curriculum. This decline in interest in the German language has increased over the past several years, beginning after a surge of popularity born from the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.
Why, since then, has interest in learning German decreased? The German government hired two men, Dr. Michael Legutke and Dr. Daniel S. Hamilton, to discover the answer and aid the country in establishing German as a relevant language in the United States. The researchers came to a common conclusion: The United States is now a more multicultural society. Typically, German is spoken by white males—Drs. Legutke and Hamilton found that of 1,424 interviewed German teachers, 96% were white, and 40% were over the age of 50. This influences the rate of learning because students learn best when they can relate to their teachers. The going thought among students seems to be: Why learn a language only spoken by Germans and older people who are perceived to not represent their interests?
In terms of utility, the disinterest makes sense. As our world seems to be getting smaller and smaller, inching its way towards a global community, which languages will be primarily spoken? Already we can see the use for certain languages—English, of course, but Spanish can also be heard nearly anywhere; French is more widespread than German; and American classrooms are following a trend of teaching Mandarin due to China’s close economic ties and influence upon the United States. Somewhere in the process, German has taken a backseat.
The goal of the German government is clear: to increase the amount of people, particularly Americans, who speak their language. Social interest cannot be forced, so how can they do it? Perhaps trips to Germany to provide a closer look at the culture? Personally, I find the most appeal in the nostalgia angle. Latin is now a “dead” language in terms of speech, so let’s trace another one of our roots. After all, if it weren’t for German’s influence on the English language, what on Earth would we call a hamburger?