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Germany

Talking About Politics, auf Deutsch

While the music industry discusses introducing quotas for more local groups on radio stations, the issue of German language is making the rounds among politicians as well. Speaking English is no longer a must.

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Linguists prefer the Tower of Babel

In New York last week, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fisscher delivered a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. It wasn't the first time the statesman had done so, but until now, he's always spoken in English, without exception. This time he made his first official speech abroad in German.

Fischer spricht vor der UN

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Thursday Sept. 23, 2004.

Perhaps Fischer had heard that German language specialists had a bone to pick with him. At the recent Germanistentag in Munich, German studies experts and language researchers called upon politicians to start holding their speeches in German when abroad as a sign of confidence in their mother tongue.

"It's not about whether or not our politicians speak English well," said Konrad Ehlich, a linguist and attendee at the conference. "It simply has to do with the question of how German policies are presented, and how German politicians present themselves in an international political market, which is also a language market," he told Deutsche Welle.

Language flexibility

The German linguists demands, however, have not met with acceptance among all of the country's politicians. The German minister for economic cooperation and development, for instance, said she has no intention of letting anyone dictate what to say or how to say it.


"The language specialists can decide whatever they want for themselves. I sometimes speak German, and sometimes English, according to what the situation requires," said Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul. "I don't think there are any general rules about it," she added in perfect English.

Even though the ministers and politicians may go back and forth comfortably between the two languages, the chancellor prefers to speak in German. At international conferences and on official visits, even at press conferences with foreign journalists, Gerhard Schröder delivers his speeches in German and has an interpreter.

Government spokesman Bela Anda explained Schröder's tendency to speak in his native language. "Nuances, which are very important in politics, can be expressed better when he speaks German and lets a specialist translate."

Interpreters also prefer when politicians speak their mother tongue. "It's better that they speak German with a good interpreter than speaking English with a bad accent, and we have trouble understanding it," said Martine Bolomey, who often interprets Schröder into English.

Embarrassing Denglisch

It might not be a bad idea if the chancellor recommended that more ministers switch to German, not only abroad but at home as well. Too often, when the politicians want an issue or a new project to sound particularly with-the-times, they revert to using terms that sound a bit like English, but for native speakers are nothing of the kind.

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As in the advertising industry, where surveys have shown that commercials using English words are lost to consumers, linguists have argued that politicians should speak in a clear and broadly understood language, avoiding jargon and foreign words. Convoluted political phrases like the "Brain up" slogan coined by the education ministry to describe a program for elite universities mean nothing to the German people and only get laughs from those who understand enough English to know it makes no sense.

"We've actually observed over a length of time that a range of ministries seem to want to distinguish themselves by the use of English, new-English or new-German English," language expert Ehlich noted. "I think that in these cases, they're moving in a direction that's not very sensible in terms of future cultural developments."

More Deutsch at home

Not everyone need go as far as former US President John F. Kennedy of the "Ich bin ein Berliner" fame or even more recently French President Jacques Chirac ("Ich bin es wieder," It's me again), who charmed the chancellor with his attempt at a colloquial greeting, and incorporate the local language into their speeches. But German politicians should at least start showing that German can be used on the international stage just as readily as English or French, say the linguists.

For years, Berlin has been lobbying to increase the use of German in all European institutions, with varied success. A bit of self-confidence and more usage of the language by German politicians abroad could help those efforts.

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