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Europe

Slovak government to strike German as compulsory foreign language

Slovakia's education ministry looks set to realize its plans to make English the country's only compulsory foreign language; German teachers in Slovakia, where German has a rich history, feel "attacked" by the move.

Students in a classroom

Slovakian students might soon have no choice which language they learn first

In the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, teachers of German fear they could soon be obsolete.

The education ministry looks set to implement plans to establish English as the one compulsory foreign language in public schools, making German a mere "elective" language.

The Slovak cabinet appears in favor of the plans; if they are passed through parliament, students who want to learn German will be offered one lesson per week starting in the sixth grade, compared to a current full week of lessons starting in the third grade. The law will make English instruction, by contrast, compulsory for all students starting in the third grade.

A view of downtown Bratislava

Bratislava's German roots are fading, some say

German teachers in the country argue that the plans represent a move to abolish the German language from Slovakian culture - and that in a culture in which German plays, or has played, a major role.

Helena Haluniakova, a German teacher also who heads an alliance representing German linguists in Bratislava, told Deutsche Welle the move represented an "outright attack" on the German language.

"It goes against the spirit of multilingualism that is at the heart of our country and all of Europe," Haluniakova said.

"How are students supposed to learn German from a one-hour lesson once a week? And that's assuming they even decide to learn German," she added emphatically.

Hungarian, then German, then Russian, then English

German is deeply anchored in the linguistic history of Slovakia. The presence of German peoples is traceable as far back as the turn of the first millennium, and the country was part of both the Austro-Hungarian and the Nazi empires.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, before which Russian was compulsory in all schools, the significance of German has waned in Slovakia, together with the simultaneous rise in the significance of English.

Goethe Institute: the power of language

The Goethe Institute doesn't see the move as an attack on the German language

Wolfgang Franz, head of the Goethe Institute - a German governmental institution aimed at promoting the study of German abroad - in Bratislava, said it was "indisputable" that English was the most important foreign language today in Slovakia.

"It is beyond all doubt that English is number one among the foreign languages here. If you want any chance of acquiring a decent job, it is essentially imperative that you know English," he told Deutsche Welle.

As head of the Goethe Institute's Slovak headquarters, Franz rejected the notion that the government's plans to make English the only compulsory language would represent an "attack" on the German language in the country.

"Though this will mean that fewer students will begin learning German at the critical young age, which we certainly regret, this does not mean that German will vanish from our culture. I can guarantee you that people will still be interested in German even despite how the new law makes it appear."

What will becomes of the German teachers?

Franz said the Slovakian cabinet's main qualm with the proposal regarded its feasibility, namely whether the country had enough English teachers to handle the new load of instruction.

"This law is not going to change everything overnight. There's no way this would be possible; there aren't enough English teachers in our country right now for this law to be applied yet."

For German teachers like Helena Haluniakova, meanwhile, the new law thus does necessarily mean a change of profession - or that they will have to look for work elsewhere.

Many have adjusted by simply switching the language they teach to English.

Author: Kilian Kirchgessner (glb)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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