Keynote speech to the 2014 German Teacher Award ceremony held at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office
3 July 2014
Your Excellency, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am truly delighted to be here today. Sometimes when I’m debating with colleagues over the road there about the importance of learning and speaking modern languages, I feel as if I’m on a very uphill journey. It’s often quite hard to get people past the point of thinking that English is enough. So it’s always a pleasure to be amongst like-minded people like you, who understand and value the pleasure as well as the importance of speaking other languages too.
I did German O-level nearly half a century ago, but then went on to do my degree in French and Spanish, having dropped the German when I went into the sixth form. I have to say that this wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy German, but because at the time I had my future career mapped out in my head as an interpreter for the United Nations, and German wasn’t – and still isn’t – one of the UN’s official languages, so I turned to Spanish instead. Of course, if I’d had a crystal ball and foreseen the European Union, I might have had just as many career options as a linguist with my German too.
I have had great fun recently, though, playing a word game with Stefano Weinberger of the German Embassy, seeing how many German words we can come up with that are in common usage in English. There are words which everyone on the proverbial Clapham omnibus would recognise as German, of course, like zeitgeist, realpolitik and kitsch and kindergarten. But then there are loads more which are so commonly used that I think some people would be surprised to realise they were actually speaking German. For example – and I realise this is a high risk exercise here, surrounded by German teachers! – perhaps we go to the delicatessen, to buy frankfurters and hamburgers. If we have more of a wanderlust, we might pack our rucksacks and put diesel into our car, bought because of the great strapline Vorsprung durch Technik. And at the end of the day, if we feel a bit kranky, then we might benefit from a bit of gestalt therapy.
This might be a good game to play with Year 9 students who are considering their option choices for GCSE and have written German off as too difficult or irrelevant before thinking it through properly.
The ironic truth of the matter is that the more German has declined as a choice for GCSE, A level and degree course in British universities, the more consistently it has remained in demand by some of the very people who have the future job opportunities for the young people you teach. Year after year, business surveys by the CBI and others puts German as well as French as the top of employers’ wish list.
A good example was showcased in the British Academy’s State of the Nation report on languages last year and I think it bears repeating in detail. The company is Bosch, a global engineering company with its headquarters in Stuttgart, but which employs over 4000 people in the UK at 36 locations including Denham, Worcester, St Neots, Stowmarket and Glenrothes. The Bosch Group comprises subsidiaries in 60 countries and its company language is officially English. However, staff who have dealings with the company head office, including many senior managers, require German – this may be up to a quarter of staff employed in the UK. As day to day contact with head office increases, so the need for competence in German is growing – mainly among engineers and sales staff but also in HR and IT functions. TheHead of Training and Personnel Development there says that the need for German becomes evident when e-mails are forwarded – although the request to the individual is formulated in English (‘Can you deal with this?’) the emailtrail below is in German.As a result, around 150 UK staff are currently undertaking training in German, and the company recognises that people who have learnt German at school are better-placed to pick up the language quickly through the training they provide.
So what’s happening at school? Given the audience here, I’m afraid this might be teaching grandmothers to suck eggs. But it’s worth being clear about the curious patterns that are emerging. GCSE take-up in German has actually increased significantly as a result of the EBacc, with a 10% rise last year – not as much as French or Spanish but nevertheless very encouraging.
But A-level German is in freefall, at a record low. Take-up has halved since 2000 and there was an 11% drop last year alone.
One interesting feature, though, which I’d be very keen to hear teachers’ views on, is that German GCSE has a better gender balance than other languages, with 48% boys and 52% girls. I don’t know whether that says something about the image of German, or the type of schools that are still offering it, or what. But intriguing…..
The decline at A-level has a knock-on effect, of course, on the numbers of applicants to read German at university. Last year German suffered the highest drop in UCAS acceptances of one-third. And as universities are being forced into operating more and more on the basis of market forces, German degrees themselves are vulnerable to being scrapped. Only a few weeks ago, Westminster University announced that it would no longer be offering German courses. And that came hard on the heels of Salford University’s quite alarming decision to scrap all language degree courses altogether, including post-graduate courses in interpreting and translation. In the year 2000 there were 105 British universities offering language degrees. That’s now down to 60 – a pretty dramatic decline.
It’s not just bad for business, economic growth and the employability of our young people, who are increasingly losing out in a global labour market to their peers from other EU countries or elsewhere. Language skills are also vital for diplomacy, defence and national security purposes. And in that regard there is some good news to report alongside all the depressing stuff. The Foreign Office recently reopened its Language School, which is an excellent resource and indicates the increasing importance being attached to language skills by the government, or at least some parts of it. Similarly, the Defence Academy for Language and Culture has also recently opened and, as its name suggests, acknowledges that along with language skills comes the cultural knowledge and understanding, which can often make all the difference to a security investigation, a military operation, or sealing a business deal.
As the former German Chancellor Willi Brandt put it, ‘If I’m selling to you, I speak your language, but if I’m buying, dann mussen sie deutsch sprechen’.
I think all the teachers and schools represented here, along with the German Embassy and the Goethe Institute, deserve enormous credit and gratitude for keeping interest in learning German alive and kicking. There is a worrying tendency by some, including the Prime Minister in a recent speech, to sideline German (and French) and encourage students to look to Mandarin instead as the language of the future. I think this is incredibly shortsighted. It shouldn’t be a question of either/or, but of adding languages like Mandarin, Arabic and others for which there is undoubtedly a serious and growing call, to the baseline of the traditional western European languages taught in our schools of French, Spanish and German. If our capacity in German disappears, so will untold opportunities, whether in exports or in cultural appreciation. Just look at the recent demand there’s been for German speaking researchers in the media for the production of all the films, TV programmes and publications there have been around the First World War commemorations.
So thank you and congratulations to everyone here, whether you are prizewinner today or not. All teachers of German are doing a great service to the young people they teach and to the UK as a whole. In the 21st century, I believe that speaking only English is as much of disadvantage as speaking no English. And German is a great and important second language to have in your head, your heart and your CV.