Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

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German is useful for lots of things: ordering currywurst for example

It so happens that I do.  Just a little bit.  Which means not to any extent that might actually useful besides ordering food and reading signs.  However, I am currently learning in a slow but fairly determined way.

I studied German for five years in high school, and though quite a diligent student I wasn’t really very adept at languages.  We had textbooks which dated from before the fall of the Berlin Wall, which even then (I started high school in 2000) seemed like a bad footing.  The exercises would refer to prices Deutsch Marks and Ostmarks, and we were still using these dated books when Germany switched to the Euro in 2002 . . . and still using this set of books when I took my German GCSE in 2005!

To me Germany as a country was wrapped up in those well-thumbed pages, old fashioned, boring.  At the time when I took my GCSEs it was compulsory to take a language (this was subsequently dropped – at least for a while – not sure what the stance is now).  As I had only studied French for two years and had studied German for three, I figured that Deutsch was the better option.  I had never been to Germany or met any German people besides our assistant exchange tutors.  German to me meant vocabulary tests on a Monday morning, genders I could never remember and crackling tapes of people talking about the Ost.  No wonder I didn’t take German at A-Level.

Skip to seven years later and I’m in a punk bar in old East Berlin on a Friday night, and it’s fair to say I’ve had a glass or two of Riesling.  I’m sitting in the middle of a group of native Germans, four of whom happen to be in a band – a band on the eve of their first record launch.  All of a sudden German is useful, interesting, necessary, urgent, a good investment of time.  It’s embarrassing to be another English person who only speaks English: how uncool.

In the past I would have argued that languages should be taught in schools from reception age, but now I think it needs to go further than that.  In an increasingly globalized society our education should encourage an interest and awareness of other countries, cultures and languages from a young age (what would be wrong with a classroom extension of Dora the Explorer?)  Why would I want to learn the language of a country I know nothing about?  It is true that English is widely spoken (360 million native speakers, up to 750 million have English as a second language), but this is no excuse for laziness.  English people fall behind Europeans who can speak at least two languages, and this is to our detriment both socially and career wise.

However, there are many potential pitfalls with this plan.  The most glaring problem I can see is that the majority of teachers, unless they studied a language at degree level, would be teaching themselves along with the children.  I went to university in Ireland and discovered that even though Irish is compulsory from a young age very few people spoke it fluently by age 18.  A lot of my Irish friends complained that Irish was badly taught, and many didn’t put in a lot of effort because they didn’t think Irish was useful or relevant.  Clearly establishing a second language at primary school level is only the half battle; but at least it would be a start.

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