We are all familiar with the mantra that Britain is a nation of complacent monoglots, which needs a workforce skilled in foreign languages in order to flourish in the global economy. In the case of German, the facts have long spoken for themselves: Germany is Europe’s largest economy, the UK’s most important trading partner, and the political powerhouse of the EU. Graduates with German-language skills are therefore consistently the most sought-after languages graduates by major UK employers.
In light of these realities, encouraging knowledge of German, the mother tongue of over 100 million Europeans, ought to be a top priority for both government and the business community. And there has been no lack of government initiatives and rhetoric emphasising the practical importance of learning modern languages. Yet there has been a steep decline in the number of students taking A-level German – down almost 40% between 2002 (6,367 entries) and 2016 (3,842).
This is no criticism of dedicated schoolteachers, who must teach to often uninspiring syllabi which tend to regard German as little more than a practical tool. The more languages are taught primarily as a useful practical skill, a process often accompanied by a downplaying of the immense personal, intellectual and emotional benefits of language-learning, the less they will appeal to students who choose subjects because they enjoy them.
German as an academic subject needs to engage the passions as well as the ambitions of the young. In John le Carré’s recent words, teachers of German need to address “this country’s most precious asset: the enlightened young, who – Brexit or no Brexit – see Europe as their natural home, Germany as their natural partner, and shared language as their natural bond”. As well as being taught the practical skills required to learn the language, students need to be awakened to – and enthused by – German as the language of some of Europe’s greatest writers, scientists, musicians and philosophers as well as of its most heinous villains. And in the process they will learn a great deal about themselves and their own language and culture. As Goethe, perhaps the greatest German writer, once observed: “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”
There are signs that Brexit may, paradoxically, strengthen the UK’s ties with its European partners, particularly Germany, in whatever new political and economic order may emerge from the negotiations. Germans are more dismayed than angry at Britain’s decision to leave the EU. The German government is determined to maintain and strengthen cultural and educational ties with the UK after Brexit, through its well-funded ‘soft power’ agencies, such as the Goethe-Institut and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Among a host of other activities, the DAAD continues to support the University of Birmingham’s Institute for German Studies, as it has done for the past 23 years. The German Embassy in London is consolidating its eleven regional networks in the UK, including the Midlands German Network, which promote the teaching of German at all levels and foster links with local and national employers.
By definition, though, cultural and educational exchange is not a one-way street. In its own vital interest, the UK must make the development of language skills and cultural exchange a policy priority in its plans for life after Brexit. In a recent paper entitled “Brexit & Languages”, an All-Party Parliamentary Group has called for “a national plan to ensure the UK produces the linguists we need to become a world leader in global free trade and on the international stage”.
By redoubling and rethinking their efforts to teach modern languages, universities and schools will have a vital role to play in this at once practical and humanising process of (re-)building economic and cultural bridges.