the Dragonfly journal

And the winner is… German! How are we faring as a nation of linguists?

By Peter Dawes @P_Dawes

How are we faring as a nation of linguists?

A 2009 survey had us tied with Hungary and Ireland at the bottom of a European table, for number of languages studied at school. Ever wondered how many pupils achieve “the level of an independent user” in at least one other language upon leaving school? 82% in Sweden, apparently. But fear not, we’re close behind with 9%.

Depressingly familiar stuff, even if the disaster of making MFL optional back in 2004 has been more recently tempered by the introduction of the English Bac.

So what is the answer? I will tell you, my linguistically knowledgeable friend.


My line of work takes me all over the world (Dragonfly Training) and whenever I’m training predominantly with a group of language teachers, which is frequently, I run a straw poll to see who teaches what. Broadly speaking the trend confirms the official figures – the vast majority are French speakers, Spanish is continuing on the up, and German….. languishes.

I could cope with this fact better if there were some reason or justification for it. It seems to me that the decline of German teaching is as a direct result of deliberate neglect, prejudice and ignorance. Not that it’s time has passed, or there’s no longer “any call for it”. In fact, I’m arguing that it’s time is right now, and it should even be logically preferred to other languages.

“Well, it’s such a harsh language, isn’t it? Not like the mellifluous tones of that romantic French, eh?”
Leaving aside that we’re not in the business of encouraging smoochy lessons, I’d have to say beauty is in the eye of the beholder here. I ran a hugely successful ‘Wort der Woche’ with my classes, who quickly saw the appeal of such gems as: Wackelpudding (jelly), Schlumpf (smurf), Dingsbums (thingy) or Schnuckiputz (sweetie-pie). Romantic, no. Delightful, yes.
German also has a richness of language to offer. Schadenfreude and Zeitgeist are well-known examples of that group of words which defy instant translation. I’d suggest adding Morgenmuffel (someone who is really bad at getting going in the morning). The recent coinage ‘ear-worm’ for a song you can’t get out of your head, comes from the German ‘Ohrwurm’ which I first heard at least 20 years ago.

And anyway, why always French? Its de facto number one status in schools is as much to do with tradition and history as anything else. I’m not so convinced that it’s due to our nations’ affinity…..whereas both culturally and temperamentally we are far closer to Germany. Possibly more than we may want to admit, which is half the problem, of course. The medium-sized North Somerset village I live in has a thriving exchange with its equivalent in Bavaria. It thrives due to a mutual love of beer, football and no nonsense food mainly. It also continually surprises new exchangers, in that their hosts sometimes have a sense of humour and don’t seem to mind if you mention the war. The warmth and friendship generated all round proves a revelation: but they’re Germans – and we have so much in common!?

As to the language itself, yes, the grammar can be challenging. But is sending a verb to the end of a sentence so radically different or harder to grasp than putting adjectives after nouns, as in French/Spanish?
Where German wins out is in logic.
Pronunciation is almost 100% phonetic. Learn a rule – say, the vowel combination ‘ie’, which is pronounced ‘ee’ – and it stays learnt. No exceptions. Show me any new German word and I will confidently pronounce it. I used to live near the Kentish village of Hougham. Any guesses? “Huff ‘em”, as it happens, but it might have been any of 6 other pronunciations.
Several pupils have told me how easy they have found German compared to English, where it comes to spelling and pronunciation.
What about French? Words ending in d,g,l,n,x,z, -ent (I could go on) don’t pronounce the last consonant. Except when they do. The list son/sang/sans/sens/sent/cent all sound virtually identical.
Boasting a huge list of cognates, many of which helpfully appear in KS2/3 syllabuses, is another strong reason for favouring German. Getting pupils off to a confidence-boosting start is, relatively speaking, easier in German than other languages.

And if all this fey nonsense is too much for any government ministers reading this, how about an economic consideration at this point? Hands up those who need reminding which country is most likely to be Europe’s trading powerhouse for the foreseeable future.

My final point is the absolute clincher. Let me take you back to my own school days for a moment. I really enjoyed learning both French and German. But I only liked speaking German. Attempting to speak French with a proper accent, for a teenage boy, is the equivalent of discussing the Graham Norton posters you have above your My Little Pony annuals in your bedroom.

So do the smart thing. Start re-employing the dwindling stock of German teachers before it’s too late. It’s an easier language to learn for beginners, it’s more logical and adolescent boys don’t feel like a ponce speaking it.