German losing its status as a scholarly language

Sunday, February 08, 2009

"Die Kathaarse Kruis. Die Kathare word in die jaar 1209 uit die stad Carcassonne verdryf..." <-- Maybe German would stand a better chance against English if it had a grammar like that.

This isn't news but rather just an update on how the struggle against English as a scholarly language is going: not well at all. German isn't in danger of ever dying out of course, but the problem with competing with English in a domain like this is that the two languages are pretty much competing on the same field, and in order to get the upper hand against another language you need to have some sort of regional or other advantage.

Take Turkish for example: it's a language that is used not only in Turkey but also in Northern Cyprus, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are extremely similar, other Turkic languages are spread out through oil-rich Central Asia and there are a ton of areas in Russia as well that use a language very similar to Turkish. Oh, and let's not forget Iran and northern Iraq as well. Add all that up and you have a language with a fairly strong position in that part of the world.

Spanish has a huge swath of land that makes it possible to go from the southern tip of South America up into Mexico and even into the southern US without hearing almost any English at all, plus a nice foothold in Europe and a related language (Portuguese) that's pretty easy to learn that also opens up another nine countries.

Then there's Chinese. Well, Chinese goes without saying.

Back to German: German isn't spoken in nearly as many places as English, so that's strike one. Next, its grammar scares a lot of people away, so that's strike two. Finally, English is very easy for Germans to learn, so they often don't have a lot of patience for people that try to use their bad German when English would do fine. This usually means that when you're giving a presentation in German, the only audience that can understand it are those that speak it as a mother tongue or have put in a lot of effort to learn it.

Oh, and the killing of a few million Yiddish (not German, but close enough that German is the easiest language for a Yiddish speaker to learn) speakers during WWII didn't help much either.

That's why you have the following:

An increasing number of foreign academics coming to Germany for research or conference purposes add to the pressure on German scientists to present and work in English, as many visitors arrive with very basic or no German skills.

The council said that foreign guest professors coming to Germany to teach or to join research institutes were "under the impression they do not need to learn German, because English will do."

This was because a knowledge of German was not necessary in order to be able to communicate in universities and non-university research establishments with German colleagues.

Most German academics prefer to publish in English

As well as making it easier to speak with foreign colleagues, German academics also prefered English over their native language when it comes to publishing their work, the council said. It therefore called for the increased promotion of scientific publications in German.

The only thing I would suggest would be a new approach in using language with foreigners in the country. Is it really that excruciating to hear badly-spoken German that one has to switch to English right away? Every time you switch to English right away when someone tries to use German and isn't very good at it, you are basically telling them that even in Germany one should just use English to get by, and don't try using German until you are fluent, which of course will never happen unless you get to use it in your daily life, and since everyone seems pretty good at English then what's the point...

Now if Afrikaans was the language of Germany and Austria and the rest, I suspect it would still be able to mount a pretty serious challenge against English given the relative ease with which it can be learned, and that would be its one trump card against a monster like English. Ease of learning isn't just something that IALs like to promote, as it's one of the reasons why Afrikaans remains popular as a language after English in South Africa compared to languages like Zulu and Xhosa, because students generally have an easy time learning it.

That reminds me, the Afrikaans Wikipedia has a pretty interesting article on its front page right now, on Catharism. Here's one part:


Die Kathaarse leerstellings het hulle oorsprong in Oos-Europa en is langs die handelsroetes versprei. Weens die nou verwantskap met die Bogomielse geloof van Thrasië is die Kathare in die middeleeue dikwels ook Bougres ("Bulgare") genoem.

Baie min outentieke Kathaarse tekste het bewaar gebly (onder meer die Rituel Cathare de Lyon en die Nouveau Testament en Provençal), en hulle verskaf weinig inligting oor die presiese leerstellings, morele waardes en praktyke.

Die oorspronklike bronne bevestig dat die Kathare sterk gekant was teen die destydse Katolieke Kerk en sy priesters, wat as korrup afgemaak is. Die Kathaarse kerk moet dan ook as 'n soort godsdienstige protesbeweging beskou word. Daar was slegs 'n klein aantal Kathaarse teoloë wat hulle self die "goeie vroue" (bonnes femmes), "goeie mans" (bons hommes) of "goeie christene" (bons chrétiens) genoem het (die terme Cathari of Perfecti is slegs deur die Katolieke Kerk en die Inkwisisie gebruik).


Anonymous said...

The Germans don't seem to be doing much to prevent this, so they can't complain!

I kinda do wish that Afrikaans were a language spoken in Germany and Austria and then we could learn a really easy language that would also be really useful economincally.

Anonymous said...

Why go so far to search for afrikaans as the answer? Dutch is pretty much just as close by, and also more familiar to Europeans. Furthermore, if you wanted to encourage the use of afrikaans, having a good backing in dutch would mean you could easily understand afrikaans.

Unknown said...

Does this mean that German, Austrian and Swiss companies will find foreigners skilled in the German language more valuable than ever? :)

Anonymous said...

You make valid points - particularly with regards to the germans lack of patience and readiness to switch to english. It basically means you have to know german at least almost as well as the germans speak english, before being able to make use of it. Most germans see a native english speaker (or a norwegian) as a great opportunity for language practise.

As a native norwegian speaker (and thus speaking a language closely related to german), I was able to learn the language and memorize vocabulary very easily, but this doesn't apply to for example native english speakers. Even though my german is fluent, germans often switch to english in the middle of a converstion and I find myself "reminding" them that my german is better then their english (some actually take offense at this!). It's as if they cannot accept that a foreigner actually speaks their language - a quite unrewarding experience.

With regards to dutch/afrikaans or for that matter, scandinavian (which also has a simpler grammar), I think you're wrong. The points you make about germans are even more valid when it comes to these countries - since we often speak english better than germans. I know native english speakers who have lived in Norway for many years and who still speak norwegian very poorly - sometimes for lack of will or interest, sometimes because people will always adress them in english no matter how hard they try.

Personnally, I am very sensitive to this and always make an effort speaking norwegian to foreigners who try, but most fellow norwegians don't share my experience with german.

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