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.”

Contributor

James Tapper

The GuardianTramp

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