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German faces stiff competition for US language students

1 Jun 2011, 07:46

Published: 01 Jun 2011 07:46 GMT+02:00

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Claudia Werner turned to the blackboard to explain one of the finer points of German grammar to her four remaining students.

Her intermediate German used to have five teens enrolled, but one left last year after his family moved away.

Werner teaches at the Gilkey International Middle School, a private school in Portland, Oregon, but her situation is not an anomaly. Some eight miles away at Wilson public high school, Rod Maack, the sole German teacher, bemoans his shrinking enrolments. A few years ago there were 50 kids in the German programme and his numbers are in the thirties now – despite the fact that one in four Oregonians has German roots.

Halfway across the country in Wisconsin – another state where many residents have German heritage – things aren’t much better.

“Practically all new programmes will be Mandarin Chinese, based on short-term economic assumptions,” a former German teacher wishing to remain anonymous to avoid jeopardizing his administrative position. “German and French are bleeding all over the country, even here in ‘German’ Wisconsin. I keep hearing from decision makers that German and French are no longer ‘valuable.’”

Despite these complaints, the news isn’t all bad. Statistics show the number of students in grades 7-12 taking German actually rose by 8.2 percent between 2005 and 2008. But sharp cuts in the number of programmes overall means enrolment gains are unevenly spread across the country.

A German complaint

“It is in our nature to complain,” said Christopher Gwin, a successful German teacher at Haddonfield High School in New Jersey. His programme has grown from five classes with a total of 35 students to eight classes with 120. But he’s still not happy.

“Teachers of German seem especially comfortable whining. I do it daily,” he said. “We have allowed ourselves to feel like victims, so we complain.”

Still, growing Hispanic immigration has made Spanish is by far the most popular foreign language in American high schools, while Chinese and Arabic are the current “in” languages. The Chinese government even provides Chinese language teachers free of charge to some school districts, but several German teachers think Chinese in high school is a fad that won’t last.

“In the 1980s the Japanese government had a similar set up,” said Julie Baird, a German teacher in Indiana. “The poor teachers didn’t survive long. They weren’t used to dealing with American teenagers.”

She said the Japanese teachers expected Japanese behaviours of respect and adoration, no talking back, no discipline issues and students who studied endlessly. “What they got were typical American high school students.”

Helene Zimmer-Loew, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of German (AATG), said students studying Chinese or Arabic often get frustrated because it takes so long to be able to converse. “After two years of German you can actually speak and somewhat converse.”

Zimmer-Loew said she’s known of cases in which students have opted for Chinese and then dropped out because it’s too hard and too frustrating, since it takes years of study to be able to speak.

Why learn German?

By far the most powerful reason for learning German appears to be the heritage factor. According to the 2000 US census, some 42 million people living in the United States said their ancestry is German.

Allie Geiman, 23, started studying German at Highlands High School in Kentucky for just those reasons.

“It was preferable over Spanish or French because of my family’s heritage,” she said, explaining her forefathers hailed from Bavaria. Her dad did a lot of research about their family’s history “so German was very present in our household, albeit not spoken.”

Story continues below…

Geiman’s high school German teacher, Linda Zins-Adams, said kids opt for German because they “want to do something different.” She admitted that in the United States German is not as useful as Spanish, “but one gets to use German differently” and it helps students push their “critical and creative skills in a different direction.”

She’s said the language can make students stand out. One of her former students said he was accepted to West Point in part because of German. “They were very impressed that he had five years of German. The fact that he had three years of Spanish was not very remarkable,” she said.

Gwin, the German teacher at Haddonfield High School in New Jersey, said despite a 10-year effort by the Chinese government to promote Chinese, enrolments are falling for American students who are not “heritage learners.”

Chinese programmes do flourish in communities with a lot of Chinese immigrants, he said. Apart from German roots, Gwin thinks kids take German because of the long-standing connections between the two countries and cultures and because of opportunities to study abroad.

William, a 14-year-old student in Werner’s class, said he’s taking German instead of Chinese because: “Chinese is fashionable for the moment, but you can only speak it in China.”

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Your comments about this article

08:58 June 1, 2011 by fourwheeler77
I wish German was offered in my High School when I was in school. I had the choice to take Spanish or French only, wish I decided against. Instead, I chose to take German in college after being stationed there for two years.
09:19 June 1, 2011 by DoubleDTown
Indeed, taking German language classes seems to me a waste of time for most Americans. Unless planning to move to Germany, it's not too helpful. Germans involved in international business speak English. Spanish is far more practical in the U.S. The teacher says German pushes critical and creative skills in a different direction. Really? Like living as a hippie in Berlin? Better to learn Spanish unless planning to live in Germany.
09:20 June 1, 2011 by marimay
¦quot;Chinese is fashionable for the moment, but you can only speak it in China.¦quot;

And you can only speak german in germany. What is this kids point? lol
11:14 June 1, 2011 by trash head
There is only one reason to do that - Overhaul Wolfensteins speeches.

I mean, "Lyouftwaffel" and "Schuuutzstaffeeeel"is not bad for an outraged polish uebersoldier, but for the representation of an evil uebernazi enemy i expect ueberdeutsch. Dr. Scull ftw.
11:55 June 1, 2011 by Joshontour
are American schoolchildren bothering to learn any language. They can't even speak or write proper English. Go to any comment forum and see how often you see there, their, or they're used in the correct context. It's sad.
12:13 June 1, 2011 by ChrisRea
'Chinese is fashionable for the moment, but you can only speak it in China.'

The kid made a point, but probably not the one intended. Using a mild term, he is not extremely educated. Mandarin Chinese is spoken also in Singapore, Taiwan and parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. Probably these countries do not exist for this kid. There are also large Mandarin Chinese-speaking communities in Australia, Canada, Peru, Rusia. Altogether, there are about 845 million native speakers.

German is spoken also in Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Netherlands (about 90 million native speakers). Much less, isn't it?
12:36 June 1, 2011 by Gretl
I studied French in highschool, was an exchange student to Paraguay, where I learned Spanish, while attending an Italian highschool which also required me to take Latin. I came home, took two years of Spanish at the university and one year of Arabic. I taught English in Japan, and had to pick up some Japanese. My head is a blender of languages. American children do study languages in highschool, much too late to really learn them well. In addition, in the US, there isn't much opportunity to practice any second language, so it is really just learn and lose. As native speakers of the current lingua franca, which second language do you choose? You already speak the closest to a univeral language out there. When you travel abroad and try to use your rusty second language, the other language speakers switches to English. I think this is an issue for most English speakers, but most pronounced for Americans because we have less regular contact with speakers of other languages. That Americans speak Spanish as a second language is a testement to their willingness once a useful second language is identitfied. While German and French are widespread in Europe, French is not of much use unless moving to Quebec or cajun Louisiana and German? Not at all.
12:49 June 1, 2011 by freechoice
everybody should learn English. It's still the widely spoken language of the world. But if you are adventurous, nobody should stop you from learning other languages!!!
13:03 June 1, 2011 by Lachner
With over 20 Million Latin American immigrants living in the U.S. and having Latin America as neighbors, it makes more sense for Americans to learn first Spanish. Also, it makes more sense for Americans to learn Chinese since they are trading and doing more and more business with this huge up-and-coming market. After Spanish and Chinese, the Americans are more inclined to learn French since it is more useful for business in Canada, France and Belgium among other French speaking countries and it is more attractive. Unless an American wishes to do business with a German firm or relocate to Germany, it makes no sense for them to learn this terrible and difficult language.
14:56 June 1, 2011 by freechoice
but if you plan to stay in one place and not plan to visit any other countries, i think you are okay to be monolingual.
16:33 June 1, 2011 by finanzdoktor
Will have to disagree with you can only speak Chinese if you are going to China. In most metropolitan areas, you can find a mix of cultures, languages, and societies which offer an individual to speak the language they are learning or already know.

As for learning German, I was born there, but none of the schools I attended as a "kinder" offered it. Now, I am well into the 50's and will start classes next week. I can use it here, not only in talking to fellow Germans, but also in watching German television. Who knows, maybe I will get to take my family there, too.
17:45 June 1, 2011 by donniaahumanoid
I wish my high school taught German--we only have French and Spanish. I hate it! There's one French teacher and FOUR Spanish ones, why is that needed? I'm taking French because learning Spanish is ridiculously overrated--especially because I want to live in Europe, perferably Germany. I would be so happy if my school bothered to offer German classes, but they don't. So I have to teach myself.
19:06 June 1, 2011 by MJMH
In America everybody has German blood. Even some Mexicans who come up here to work have German last names and claim to be German. Learning German is in our blood and our roots, that's why we do it and not because of economic reasons. We should however demand German be offered in all schools since the majority of Americans have German roots and other cultures get their month or day recognized.
21:47 June 1, 2011 by harcourt
11.55 joshontour makes a good point. - I'm English and I occasionally work at an International School. Half the time I genuinely cannot understand what the American students there are saying. If you watch old American movies of the 1940s and 50s the actors and actresses speak with quite a clear english with an american accent, whereas nowadays in american films, to my ear, it has evolved into an almost separate language, the accent is so strong.
21:59 June 1, 2011 by endru
I¦#39;m a German teacher in the U.S. and I believe there are some very strong reasons for learning German as a foreign language. The single strongest reason is that learning German will improve your English skills in all areas ­ writing, speaking, grammar, everything. Spanish and Chinese do as well to some extent, but no other foreign language commonly offered is as close to English as German. You also take a language class to learn history, social studies, and even music. Saying that you only need to learn a foreign language if you¦#39;re going to move to that country is like saying you only need to play basketball if you¦#39;re going to be in the NBA. Even if it¦#39;s not explained well, the idea of ¦quot;critical and creative skills¦quot; mentioned in the article is spot on. Learning German enhances your problem solving and rational thinking skills, which come in handy in mathematics. I could go on and on, but I think it¦#39;s enough to say that it¦#39;s not the Sauerkraut and Lederhosen that has stakeholders convinced that we need to keep German programs in our schools. While I think German is the most logical choice, I¦#39;m not opposed to Chinese or Spanish. I think kids should take multiple foreign languages whenever possible.
22:30 June 1, 2011 by finanzdoktor
@endru: Can not agree more to your last comment. My kids are learning Korean from their friends (and my wife), even though I am learning German (since I was born there). They have also took a couple of semesters of German in high school. Imagine how much of an advantage it will be for them culturally and socially (not to mention professionally) to know English, Korean, and German.
22:55 June 1, 2011 by catjones
Took 2 years of Spanish in H.S. and 4 in college. Went to Barcelona and thought 'here's my chance to finally use those skills'. Went to a restaurant and began ordering in Spanish....the waiter (in English) ' My English is better than your Spanish...what would you like?'

español gracias!
13:33 June 2, 2011 by powerfrauusa
I am the teacher of the student of West point and the above comment about my student is so ignorant! He applied to one school only and got into prestigious West Point and is a proud student of this institution and wants to serve his country. He is one of the most polite, respectful students that I have ever experienced - AND he is extremely intelligent. All I have to say is: ¦quot;If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.¦quot; - Ludwig Wittgenstein I dream of a society that can accept ALL languages and NOT pit one against the OTHER! I am passionate about language learning especially German. My son takes Japanese and of course, German, my daughter is learning German and Spanish. I have multiple success stories as a teacher of German. Lastly, if we close the door to learning languages like German, French, etc. - we narrow our perspective of the world. Somehow, America has to find a good balance to allow children to learn multiple languages. I wish we could open Spanish up to elementary and demand children take a second language in middle school through high school - two years seat time is not enough. The statements about German being hard and too difficult to learn - it demands on the teacher and their knowledge as to how to teach a language for communicative gains and exposure to another culture - NOT how to conjugate a verb and teach history - but make the right connections using authentic materials and get kids SPEAKING - hence enhancing the their critical, creative skills. Most German teachers in America are phenomenal at employing the latest technology and teaching methods!
23:23 June 2, 2011 by Vermaldeehide
My daughter is learning German and loves it. Not sure if she'll ever use it, but it's a fun language structure to absorb. I'm more partial to Swedish, they don't teach that anywhere that I've seen in the public schools. Probably in Wisconsin.

By the way, odd way to begin a sentence.

"are American schoolchildren bothering to learn any language."

08:18 June 3, 2011 by harcourt
Vermaldeehide - I fail to to see any major error in the sentence you quote. Sure it should have started with capital A this could be a typo error and american doesn't necessarily require a capital this also could be a typo error. You could of course dislike the content but thats another matter.
15:39 June 3, 2011 by Vermaldeehide
America always deserves a capital A.
17:57 June 3, 2011 by harcourt
Whether it deserves it or not is a matter of opinion !!
18:24 June 3, 2011 by Jack Kerouac
German is as good as (or better than) any other language offered in school. I took German and our classes had more in-depth discussions about culture and political differences; we even had some comradery because German was the "different" choice. It was nice to learn with others equally motivated.

So, why should I take Spanish, and how will this help me? Sure, a lot of U.S. immigrants speak Spanish, but that doesn't mean it will be useful. I am not planning to move to Mexico, S. America, or Spain and get a job. Those places are not exactly known as 'lands of opportunity' anyhow. What about foreign relations, government jobs, technical careers, computer jobs, banking, finance? German is potentially more useful in those fields than Spanish. There aren't that many high-paying jobs I can think of where Spanish is required (translators make a living, but that's it). In my opinion, Spanish is not very useful in the ways that matter. I enjoyed learning German, and these American kids will too. (*note - this comment is ONLY about the language, not the people)
01:30 June 4, 2011 by XxSora-HikarixX
It's a shame...I for one am very proud of my German class and plan to take it even when I leave high school. Our classes are small but those who are in it absolutly love the language and culture. If only more people could see the beauty of Germany.
17:36 June 7, 2011 by LecteurX
Endru, the German language teacher, saying in the comments "The single strongest reason is that learning German will improve your English skills in all areas ­ writing, speaking, grammar, everything", really sounds like the Latin teachers in France saying "learn Latin, you'll improve your French skills!"

Although learning languages close to your own somehow make you reflect on your mother tongue and analyse it (if you want it), I'd say the best way to improve your English skill is, er, to learn more English, and the best way to improve your French skills is to learn, erm, more French!

For me, learning languages is a priceless aim in itself, and if I didn't have the chance to speak English daily at work, I'd still be very glad just because I can read English-language literature without relying on translations. But nowadays, every single thing in life has to be "useful" for "business". How sad.
21:42 June 8, 2011 by endru
@LecteurX - I agree with you that learning languages is a priceless aim in itself. I certainly didn't start taking German classes to improve my English grade in school, but I did fall in love with the language early on. That's what has kept me going with it all these years. I will clarify though that my comment was geared more towards differentiating German from other foreign language offerings. I have found that even those students who don't have a passion for languages will indeed benefit from improved English through their German studies. It's more of a universal benefit.

In regards to improving one's English by simply learning more English, I would just say that we all play a role in the overall education of a child. I'm not advocating that students drop English classes and replace them with German, but any student who either wants to hone their English skills or does not do well in English class can find great benefit from learning German.
22:53 June 8, 2011 by rsrobbins
The Amish still speak German. Wir sprechen immer noch die Muttersprache.
21:12 June 9, 2011 by kotapzero
Fair play to the Amish!

German is the most spoken language in Europe which a lot of people tend to forget.

I hear that people that are good mathematically learn it easier,

since the grammar is very strict ( no exceptions to rules like in french )

I find it a great language to precisely define what you want to express, it leaves little

room for misunderstanding and is advanced to english when you look at scientific description, yet the sound is not as fluid and elegant as french.
16:17 June 10, 2011 by armchairshrink
Jack Kerouac - You clearly haven't lived anywhere in the U.S. with a high Latin@ population. In California, I was automatically disqualified from a ton of good paying, white-collar jobs, particularly jobs for the city or county, because my Spanish is not fluent. Being able to speak Spanish in California is highly beneficial in numerous different professions and fields. It's just silly to think that "translator" is the only option. Healthcare, city and county services, office management, social services, many non-profits - in California you either must know Spanish to work in many of these fields or if you do know it you will be preferred to other candidates.

Actually the same thing goes for Mandarin Chinese in the SF Bay Area and Los Angeles area as well. But that's a lot tougher for native English speakers to learn.

It's silly, quite frankly, to take a language other than Spanish or Chinese in high school, if you care at all about future job prospects and live in areas with high Latin@ and Chinese populations. You're just shooting yourself in the foot.
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