German faces stiff competition for US language students

With Spanish dominating US language instruction and Chinese classes on the rise, are American schoolchildren still bothering to learn German? Miriam Widman reports.

German faces stiff competition for US language students
Photo: DPA

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.”

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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Travel: Germany downgrades Covid-19 risk status of USA

The United States is no longer classed as a "high incidence area" by Germany - it has returned to being a "risk area".

Travel: Germany downgrades Covid-19 risk status of USA
People walking in New York in May 2020. Photo: DPA

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) changed the risk classification of the United States on March 7th.

The US was previously classed as a “high incidence area” by the RKI. These are regions where the incidence is over 200 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 residents with a period of seven days.

However, now it’s a “risk area” – which is used by German authorities to describe a region with an increased risk of infection, usually above 50 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in seven days.

Other factors are also taken into account, such as measures in place.

It means the travel requirements for people coming from the US to Germany have changed.

However, entry from the US is only permitted in a few narrow exceptions. Proof of urgent need to travel is required, German authorities say. You can find more information in the story below.

READ MORE: When are Americans allowed to travel to Germany?

What happens if I need to travel from the US to Germany?

If you are a German resident from the US, or fall into one of the exception categories, you still face strict testing and quarantine measures.

All travellers must have a negative Covid-19 test result at the latest 48 hours after they enter Germany. It must be presented to authorities if they request it.

Some individual airlines may however still say that travellers have to present a coronavirus negative test result before boarding is allowed. You should contact your airline before travel to check.

Both PCR tests as well as rapid anitgen tests are accepted if they meet the quality standards. Testing is still mandatory even if travellers are vaccinated or have recovered from a coronavirus infection. 

People returning from “risk zones” are required to self-isolate for 10 days after they arrive.

The quarantine can usually be ended with a negative coronavirus test result taken at the earliest five days after arriving in Germany.

However, states can differ on their travel regulations so check with your local authority before travelling.

Everyone entering Germany is also required to register online.

New “high incidence areas”

In the RKI’s latest travel classification list, Sweden, Hungary and Jordan are now classed as “high incidence areas” which means stricter testing and quarantine rules apply.

Areas of “variant concern” include Austria’s Tyrol region, the UK, Brazil, Portugal and Ireland. Even stricter rules apply for these regions.

You can find out more information about travel rules in our story below.

READ MORE: What you need to know about Germany’s latest rules on foreign travel