Preserving Germany′s Linguistic Heritage | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 16.02.2006
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Preserving Germany's Linguistic Heritage

For years, UNESCO has been appealing to nations across the globe to promote their indigenous languages by filling classrooms with their multi-colored vernacular. One German state has decided to heed the call.


There's more to being Bavarian than dressing the part

Bavaria makes no bones about the importance of its cultural identity, in which local language plays a particularly important role. It should, therefore, come as little surprise that the sprawling southern state should be the first to launch a targeted initiative to reignite regional passions for its spoken heritage now deemed to be threatened by extinction.

Earlier this month, the Bavarian culture ministry presented a grand plan to help prevent its dialects from falling prey to linguistic evolution and the long arm of globalization. The idea is to provide schools, both primary and secondary, with teaching material which would facilitate the integration of local dialects into regular classes.

Deutschunterricht an einer Schule

Linguistic snobbery should become a thing of the past

Harald Niedermair, a spokesman for the culture ministry, said one of the main aims of the project is to stamp out the stigma which is still attached to being a dialect speaker. "Even today, there are people who view local dialects as an inferior means of communication. We want to prevent a situation in which pupils are excluded simply because of the way they speak."

Dialect no deficit

Niedermair said the proposed model, which could incorporate local dialects into subjects as diverse as theater, geography, music and math, promotes the virtue in being able to speak a second language, even if one of them is restricted to a relatively small geographical area. "We want to support children's ability for bilingualism, to show that it is something positive rather than a deficit."

Bube beim Trachten-und Schuetzenzug des Oktoberfestes in München 2003

How Bavarian are they once they start to speak?

Dialectologist Bernhard Stör agreed it was important to encourage children to speak in dialect, but said the culture ministry's proposals don't get to the root of the problem. "As long as the general public views local dialect as a negative thing, the ministerial guidelines for teachers are nothing short of ridiculous."

He said that schools can't be expected to influence the situation unless 50 percent of teaching is conducted in dialect.

Too much too soon

Stör said dialects have been fighting a losing battle since the 1960s, when it became fashionable for children to tone down their indigenous tongues to remove any obstructions along the path to learning the purer "high German" considered the key to a successful future.

"The general idea back then was that if children were having to learn both their dialect and German, they were being exposed to unnecessary confusion," Stör said. But that belief has now been proven untrue. "New research, however, shows that the sooner they start, the easier it is for children to absorb other languages in the future."

München Rathaus und Liebfrauenkirche

Munich skyline

That said, demographic evolution in Bavaria has been such over the past decades that there are simply fewer dialect speakers to spread the word. From the postwar era to the present day, the population of the Bavarian capital, Munich, has grown from half a million to almost 2.5 million inhabitants, but far from all of them can speak a local dialect.

"Only four percent of greater Munich residents under the age of 25 have so much as a passive understanding of the old Bavarian dialect," Stör said. Although further out of town the numbers are a little higher, unless something is done to reverse the trend, it is only a matter of time before the city mentality reaches the countryside, he said.

Too uncool for words

"Cities are always the linguistic frontrunners," Stör said, adding that the feeling among youngsters in Munich is that dialect is simply uncool. "Children have absorbed the mentality of their parents, and often equate dialects with being dumb. They think that if they want to get anywhere in their professional lives, they cannot be seen to be speaking anything other than high German.

Edmund Stoiber bayrisch

Mr Bavarian, Edmund Stoiber?

And therein lies the catch. For, as things stand, it is easier to get a job in numerous branches, including tourism and media, if you don't bring a thick accent along to the interview.

Stör said the responsibility for changing that lies with those in the public eye. He cited Franz Beckenbauer and Edmund Stoiber as personalities who could, simply by using their mother tongue, convince Bavarians that they don't have to give up on their linguistic heritage to stand a chance of leading a successful professional life inside or outside Bavaria's borders.

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