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.”