SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

BREXIT

How the German language might benefit from Brits after Brexit

With the UK leaving the EU, more Brits are enrolling in German classes or moving to Germany. Could German, too, become a classic working language in the EU thanks to their efforts?

How the German language might benefit from Brits after Brexit
Photo: depositphotos

“Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers”: if you’re a native English speaker, you’ll almost certainly have tripped over this phrase before. If you’re not, good luck trying to say it aloud.

Like most languages, English has its fair share of what we call “tongue-twisters”; phrases so difficult to pronounce that they’re designed to catch out even the most eloquent of native speakers.

Unsurprisingly, the phenomenon takes on a whole new dimension when it comes to German, a language notorious for its difficulty. Amusingly, even “Zungenbrecher”, the closest equivalent to “tongue twister”, reflects this fact: in German, your tongue (Zunge) doesn’t just twist, but actually breaks (Brecher) when attempting hard-to-pronounce parts of the language.

It’s no wonder that a frustrated Mark Twain wrote of German that “there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp”.

Its complexity, in fact, has made some in recent years speculate that the language is slowly dying out, subsumed by the ever-increasing influence of English on Europe and the wider world. But with the Brexit deadline looming just around the corner, Britain could, along with its language, be set to lose its sway over the EU. And if it does, is it possible that German might rush to fill the gap?

Many English speakers who’ve tried German from scratch would hope not. It’s a language with three different grammatical genders, four noun case endings and word order so complicated that last week I confidently told the cashier who asked for ID that I was born in 1969 instead of ‘96 and have now embarrassed myself out of a local supermarket.

Worst of all, however, are the infamously long compounds. Whether the German reputation for being ruthlessly logical was borne out of the language or created by it is a chicken-and-egg question, but long German compounds are certainly a good example.

To create new nouns in German, all one needs to do is tack other words alongside it, which is how you end up with monstrosities like “Ringdfleischeitkeittierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz”, a word that meant “the law concerning the delegation of duties for the supervision of cattle marking and the labelling of beef” until it was dropped in 2013. In English, there are few singular words alone that you could consider tongue-twisters. In German, there are literally hundreds.

This complexity is perhaps one of the driving forces behind the increasing adoption of “Denglish” (German/English hybrid words) amongst younger Germans. It’s a phenomenon which led to Deutsche Bahn introducing a Denglish-German dictionary in 2013 to encourage use of the latter, as well as fuelling worries about the survival of the language.

A new working language?

It is English and French, after all, that have traditionally been the most dominant working languages in the EU, in spite of German being the most widely spoken native language across the continent.

In 2013, perhaps echoing the panic of the Deutsche Bahn, Chancellor Angela Merkel called for more German to be spoken in the EU both generally and for official business. The British, of course, have always been able to get away without French or German skills, a habit that, according to a recent survey, natives of both countries find highly irritating.

But with Brexit looming just around the corner, Brits might soon find that laziness is no longer a viable option. In a bold statement made at a conference last year, Jean-Claude Juncker told the audience that “English is losing its importance in Europe”. The comment may have been hyperbole, but in a technical sense he was right: once Britain leaves the EU there will be no country in the union with English as an official language, with Ireland and Malta having respectively chosen Irish and Maltese when they became members.

Linguist Dr. Anatol Stefanowitsch of Free University Berlin told us that English is a “a world-wide Lingua Franca” which, in private life, “will definitely remain the language, in which mobile young (and old) people throughout Europe will communicate most of the time. But the question of English in public life is uncertain.

Dr. Stefanowitsch asserts that “it will remain an important working language in the EU”, but other researchers have disagreed, suggesting that “Preserving English as an official language of the EU will be problematic if Brexit takes place”.

If the latter is true, public life may eventually sway the habits of private lives in Europe, causing use of English to wane over time.

This possibility hasn't gone unnoticed by Brits, who, since the referendum, have clocked that European languages offer a way out in the case of a disastrous deal (or no-deal, as is looking increasingly likely).

And it seems to be German they're placing their bets on. The Goethe institute in London has noted a sharp increase in the number of adult learners taking up German, while thousands of Brits have upped sticks and move to Germany since 2016. Huge numbers of British businesses, too, have moved their operations to the country, fearing instability at home.

Already, close to 100,000 people worldwide speak German. If current trends are anything to go by, Brexit could see English wane and German gain a boost from extra learners fleeing Britain and a boosted influence in official spheres. Mark Twain once wrote that “the German language needs reforming”, but soon more people than ever might find themselves struggling over a German Zungenbrecher. Besides, for us Brits it might offer a good chance for us to crack our monoglot reputation.

Member comments

  1. I think even Canada, where I’m from, has more than 100,000 people who can speak German. Surely Europe has more?

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

LEARNING GERMAN

The best podcasts for learning and perfecting your German

Once you've learned the basics of German, listening to podcasts is one of the best ways of increasing vocabulary and speeding up comprehension. Here are some of the best podcasts out there for German learners.

The best podcasts for learning and perfecting your German

STARTING OUT

Coffee Break German

Coffee Break German aims to take you through the basics of German in a casual lesson-like format. It is extremely easy to listen to. Each 20-minute episode acts as a mini-lesson, where German native Thomas teaches Mark Pendleton, the founder and CEO of Coffee Break Languages, the basics.

All phrases are broken down into individual words. After new phrases are introduced the listeners are encouraged to repeat them back to practise pronunciation.

The advantage of listening to this podcast is that the learner, Mark, begins at the same level as you. He is also a former high school French and Spanish teacher. He often asks for clarification of certain phrases, and it can feel as if he is asking the very questions you want answered.

You can also stream the podcast directly from the provider’s website, where they sell a supplementary package from the Coffee Break German Academy, which offers additional audio content, video flashcards and comprehensive lesson notes

German Pod 101

German Pod 101 aims to teach you all about the German language, from the basics in conversations and comprehension to the intricacies of German culture. German Pod 101 offers various levels for your German learning and starts with Absolute Beginner.

The hosts are made up of one German native and one American expat living in Germany, in order to provide you with true authentic language, but also explanations about the comparisons and contrasts with English. This podcast will, hopefully, get you speaking German from day one.

Their website offers more information and the option to create an account to access more learning materials.

Learn German by Podcast

This is a great podcast if you don’t have any previous knowledge of German. The hosts guide you through a series of scenarios in each episode and introduce you to new vocabulary based on the role-plays. Within just a few episodes, you will learn how to talk about your family, order something in a restaurant and discuss evening plans. Each phrase is uttered clearly and repeated several times, along with translations.

READ ALSO:

Learn German by Podcast provides the podcasts for free but any accompanying lesson guides must be purchased from their website. These guides include episode transcripts and some grammar tips. 

DEVELOPING YOUR GERMAN

Easy German

This podcast takes the form of a casual conversation between hosts Manuel and Cari, who chat in a fairly free-form manner about aspects of their daily lives. Sometimes they invite guests onto the podcast, and they often talk about issues particularly interesting to expats, such as: “How do Germans see themselves?”. Targeted at young adults, the podcasters bring out a new episode very three or four days.

News in Slow German

This is a fantastic podcast to improve your German listening skills. What’s more, it helps you stay informed about the news in several different levels of fluency.

The speakers are extremely clear and aim to make the podcast enjoyable to listen to. For the first part of each episode the hosts talk about a current big news story, then the second part usually features a socially relevant topic. 

A new episode comes out once a week and subscriptions are available which unlock new learning tools.

SBS German

This podcast is somewhat interesting as it is run by an Australian broadcaster for the German-speaking community down under. Perhaps because ethnic Germans in Australia have become somewhat rusty in their mother tongue, the language is relatively simple but still has a completely natural feel.

There is a lot of news here, with regular pieces on German current affairs but also quite a bit of content looking at what ties Germany and Australia together. This lies somewhere between intermediate and advanced.

A woman puts on headphones in Gadebusch, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Photo: dpa | Jens Büttner

PERFECTING YOUR GERMAN

Auf Deutsche gesagt

This is another great podcast for people who have a high level of German. The host, Robin Meinert, talks in a completely natural way but still manages to keep it clear and comprehensible.

This podcast also explores a whole range of topics that are interesting to internationals in Germany, such as a recent episode on whether the band Rammstein are xenophobic. In other words, the podcast doesn’t just help you learn the language, it also gives you really good insights into what Germans think about a wide range of topics.

Sozusagen

Bayern 2 present their podcast Sozusagen! for all those who are interested in the German language. This isn’t specifically directed at language learners and is likely to be just as interesting to Germans and foreigners because it talks about changes in the language like the debate over gender-sensitive nouns. Each episode explores a different linguistic question, from a discussion on German dialects to an analysis of political linguistics in Germany.

SHOW COMMENTS