Challenging the European Language Elite | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 07.04.2004
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Challenging the European Language Elite

The German government is pushing for the German language to be accepted as an official European Union tongue as expansion nears and the number of German-speaking citizens in the EU is set to grow.


Odd man out: Gerhard Schröder tunes into Chirac and Blair's unwillingness to speak German.

The American writer Mark Twain once wrote that a gifted person could learn English in 30 hours, French in 30 days and German in 30 years. "If it is to remain as it is," Twain wrote about the German language, "it ought to be gently and reverently set aside amongst the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it."

The government in Berlin does not agree. With the European Union set to expand by a further 10 nations at the beginning of May, Germany's leaders see an opportunity to spread the word that German is a spoken language worthy of the second spot behind English as the EU's lingua franca.

The federal government is preparing to make a very strong case for German to be one of the European "super-tongues" with an impressive array of statistics and the support of committed linguists to shore up the bid for recognition at EU level.

In a resolution last Thursday, the Bundestag or the lower house of parliament called on the government to push for German as a third principal EU language. A similar resolution was passed in the Bundesrat or upper house last month.

Expansion brings more Germans speakers to the EU

German is the world's 12th most widely spoken language and the most prevalent in Europe after Russian, with some 100 million native speakers. When the EU expands to 25 states in May, the new members will bring many more German-speaking citizens into the fold. In the ten accession countries joining the EU on May 1, German is spoken by twice as many people as French. However, English remains the second language of the majority of those joining.

Within the existing 15-member bloc, German is the native language of nearly one in four people, eclipsing English, French and Italian, which are spoken by only 16 percent each.

However, the task of convincing the European Union to upgrade German to the status of official EU language will be a difficult one. German has long been dogged by an image problem due to the complexity of its structure, the seemingly tough grammar and the harsh sounds of its words. German is also far from being used, like English, at the workplace worldwide.

Bloc legislators favor English and French

For some in Germany it is clear that the European Union is settled on English and French as the main languages in the bloc despite the evidence that shows the surprising reach of German among the new states.

Olav Gutting, a legislator who campaigns for his native tongue, has lamented that only three percent of the bloc's external communications is published in German, despite Germans comprising the biggest group in the European parliament.

Professor Rudolf Horberg, chairman of the Society for the German Language, agreed it was no good trying to beat English but German could position itself as a second foreign language of choice, especially in new EU countries. "We're living in a globalized world, we need a common language and English is it," he told the AFP news agency. "In France they have an illusion that it could be French, but that time has long gone."

He said his main concern for German was in science. "If a scientist thinks he's discovered something, or wants to say something, he does it in English, otherwise it wouldn't even be read."

However a spokesperson for the German foreign ministry was quick to stifle any talk of a language battle at the EU. "We don't see German to be in competition with English," the spokesperson told AFP. "Learning a language is a way toward mutual understanding of two worlds, two cultures."

But it seems that those Germans who are willing to promote their language on an EU level are prepared to put up a good fight and have a growing army of supporters elsewhere in the world. A recent government study shows that 20 million people abroad are currently learning German, a sign that there are people who are willing to take up the language challenge.

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