Learning German is just the job for savvy millennials

Growing numbers of under-30s are attracted to the language to better their career options

Learning European languages may no longer have much cachet among schoolchildren, but for millennials eyeing the job market, German appears to be more attractive than ever. Growing numbers of young adults aged between 18 and 30 in Britain are learning the language of Friedrich Schiller, Christa Wolf and Thomas Mann, according to the Goethe-Institut, with more than 3,000 people signing up for courses run by the cultural institution.

About the same number of students took a German A-level this year, a 16% drop compared with last year that has caused further angst among education professionals who are concerned that Britain is sliding further into monolingualism as it prepares for a future outside the European Union. Research by the British Council shows that 34,300 students took A-levels in French, German or Spanish in 1997, compared with 19,200 this year and just 17,505 applications for next year.

Yet there is some optimism from Angela Kaya, the director of the Goethe-Institut in London. “We see at the moment a decline of our European students, who maybe aren’t coming to the UK at the moment because they don’t know what Brexit will bring,” she said. “But we are seeing an increase of British students who might think they haven’t learned German as a foreign language so far and it makes sense to do it now, as a young professional. They are mostly aged between 18 or 19 to about 30.”

Learning a foreign language is not simply a way to communicate with others, it also helps people understand the world better, Kaya said. Untranslatable words such as gemütlichkeit, jugaad, hygge and sobremesa require an understanding of the culture they come from, and machine translation has many potential pitfalls. It was reported last month that people using Google Translate to turn a sign’s slogan – “Blasting in Progress” – into Welsh were given “gweithwyr yn ffrwydro”, which means “workers exploding”.

Apps such as Memrise, Babbel and Duolingo, which claims 120 million users, have made learning languages more convenient, and digital and online group courses are expanding. Julia Gross, the chargé d’affaires at the German embassy in London, said the fall in numbers of British pupils doing German at A-level was disappointing and might not bode well for their future educational and professional options.

“This year’s further decline in the number of A-level students studying modern European languages, and German in particular, is both saddening and troubling,” Gross said. “German is not just a smart choice for a multitude of career paths, [it] also opens doors to German universities, which are very popular, not least because they do not charge tuition fees.”

Last year the writer John le Carré extolled the joys of learning German in a speech published in the Observer. He said: “You’ve probably heard the Mark Twain gag: ‘Some German words are so long they have a perspective.’ You can make up crazy adjectives like my-recently-by-my-parents-thrown-out-of-the-windowPlayStation.

“And when you’re tired of floundering with nouns and participles strung together in a compound, you can turn for relief to the pristine poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, or Goethe, or Heinrich Heine, and remind yourself that the German language can attain heights of simplicity and beauty that make it, for many of us, a language of the gods.”


James Tapper

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Can you say Squid Game in Korean? TV show fuels demand for east Asian language learning
Japanese and Korean are in top five choices in UK this year at online platform Duolingo

James Tapper

04, Dec, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Port Talbot steel plant could be rescued by German company
Steelworks’ owner Tata could revive idea of buyout by ThyssenKrupp if UK government offers financial backing

Graham Ruddick

02, Apr, 2016 @8:35 PM

Article image
Student mentors help pupils say ‘si’ to GCSE languages
Undergraduates help secondary schools to reverse the decline in exam entries

Anna Bawden

18, May, 2019 @3:00 PM

Article image
Britons rushing to take Spanish exams so they can keep EU citizenship
Brexit and a deadline for people whose Jewish ancestors were expelled from Spain are behind a surge to take language diploma

James Tapper

26, May, 2019 @4:59 AM

Article image
Sports-starved British fans tune into German football as it restarts
It wasn’t the Premier League and the stands were empty. But it was a live match – at last

James Tapper

16, May, 2020 @7:16 PM

Article image
Stalking bestseller that split German opinion arrives in UK
Dirk Kurbjuweit’s fact-based bestselling novel asks if violence can be justified in self-defence

Sarah Hughes

14, Jan, 2018 @8:54 AM

Article image
German industry warns UK not to expect help in Brexit negotiations
Bosses say the priority is to protect the single market, dashing hopes that exporters will put pressure on Merkel for a favourable trade deal

Michael Savage

09, Jul, 2017 @8:51 AM

Article image
German politicians suffer higher degree of embarrassment from plagiarism than from sex scandals
Third minister in Angela Merkel’s administration falls foul of the country’s fixation on academic credentials

Philip Oltermann in Berlin

22, May, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Brexit brings call for change: has UK ignited battle for new EU?
Germany is pushing to lead talks, but efforts to reshape bloc complicated further by upcoming elections across EU

Patrick Wintour

02, Jul, 2016 @7:44 PM

Article image
Marine Le Pen, Beppe Grillo, Geert Wilders, Frauke Petry: has their big moment arrived?
With elections due across Europe and a referendum in Italy, the establishment fears political tremors

Toby Helm Observer political editor

12, Nov, 2016 @9:16 PM