Studying in Britain – for Shanti Behari Seth it would have been an obvious choice, as for many young, educated Indians. He was connected to the country through a cultural network based on family ties. And because of its colonial ties to India, he would have had an easy time with the language.
Seth’s family were not poor, but they were not rich enough to fund his preferred choice of studying in England. The young man opted instead for Berlin, although he could not speak a word of German and had been told the Germans were a harsh and not altogether welcoming people.
On his first night in the German capital he got hopelessly lost, mixing up Charlottenburg and Friedrichstraße train stations. But a passerby helped the confused young man and explained to him “in perfect English” where he needed to go. A good start in the strange city.
The story played out in 1931 and is taken from Vikram Seth’s epic double biography “Two Lives,” about his Indian great-uncle and his German-Jewish wife.
What offers itself as a model of great literature, because dramatic historical and personal developments are told through these two characters, could – and should – finally become an everyday occurrence in Berlin: Immigration from parts of the world traditionally connected with 20th century European colonial powers, whose people still prefer to move to big cities in their own countries.
And despite complaints over rising rents and gentrification, life in Berlin today is still much cheaper than in London. That could be one argument for families from those countries’ growing middle classes to send their children over here to study rather than to the UK.
Berlin’s hype alone is not enough
Germany needs more immigration, more people to work as skilled employees in companies, more people who start their own businesses, more people to pay into the country’s pension fund.
With its global attractiveness and high living standards, Berlin above everywhere else in Germany is best placed in the fight for the world’s brightest brains. It is not enough for Berlin to attract artists and creatives. The city needs technicians and business types if it is going to progress economically.
The main obstacle is probably the language. German is not a world language and never will be. The incentive worldwide to learn German is quite small. If we accept this as a fact without any cultural arrogance, it would be a smart next step for Berlin to switch over one of its three large universities strictly to English, the lingua franca of our time. Not even Chinese or Spanish is unlikely to unseat English any time soon.
All lectures and seminars could be offered in English. If this language barrier were removed, not only more students, but also more foreign researchers and lecturers would choose to come to Berlin.
Despite the global hype surrounding the city, the German capital is still not the international metropolis it could be two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“The city is full of students,” wrote American Clayton McCleskey in the Taggesspiegel when he was living in Berlin on a Fullbright Journalism scholarship. “But have you ever looked into the university canteen in the FU [Free University]? The students are practically all white. It can’t go on like this.”
Just how widespread this provincial attitudes towards outsiders in our supposedly hip 21st-century Berlin was described by the journalist Hani Yousuf in her blog under the headline: “Why I left Berlin for Karachi.”
As an educated and professional Pakistani woman, Yousuf said she had been mostly treated as an exotic foreigner and had cut a strange figure in “arty-bourgeois Berlin” in the almost exclusively white areas of the city in which she lived.
“Sometimes, I want to cover myself with a burqa,” she wrote, referring to how people would turn around to look at her.
An English university would be a first step toward making others like her a bit less exotic in Berlin.