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Language politics

November 21, 2009

Wolfgang Boernsen is a member of the German parliament and in favor of declaring German as Germany's official language in the country's constitution. He also wants the EU to treat German better.

A young woman reads a German dictionary
Someworry about the future of the German languageImage: picture alliance/dpa

Deutsche Welle: Mr Boernsen, if you could send an SMS in German, would you finish it off with "hdgdl" (acronym for "I like you a lot" in German) and find it "cool"?

Wolfgang Boernsen: Although I like the German language a lot, I find it decidedly "uncool" to send declarations of love via messaging systems. I am old-fashioned in this regard.

There are plans to make the German language official in the country's constitution, the Basic Law. Should this status apply equally to the language of Goethe as well as local dialects?

German is a living language in a state of constant development. It has a great ability to absorb Anglicisms and other foreign words, as well as dialects and SMS jargon. It doesn't make sense to pitch Goethe's poetry against modern everyday speech or "youth talk." The constitutional status that I advocate acknowledges our fascinating, multifaceted, dynamic cultural treasure - the German language - as a whole.

Wolfgang Boernsen
Wolfgang Boernsen is not ashamed of his native dialectImage: Wolfgang Börnsen

In the future, will German parliament members, for example, be banned from giving speeches if they use too many Anglicisms?

No, a freely elected member of the German parliament may speak the way they grew up speaking. Parliamentary speeches are one of the most important means of communication between politicians and their voters. For this reason, a politician thinks very carefully about how to reach their audience. And we can see that Anglicisms are not quite as common as it may seem - they make up only a fraction of our language.

Language is an important part of cultural identity. It is therefore an integral part of Germany’s image, which institutions like Deutsche Welle and the Goethe Institute convey to the world. What role should politics play here?

The promotion of the German language is an integral part of our foreign cultural policy and educational policy. This is why around the world there are German courses as Goethe Institutes and German-language shows on Deutsche Welle, which have regular listeners in places like South America. The goal here is to maintain this trend. Since 2005, since the German government has been led by the Christian Democrats, investment into foreign culture and education policies has increased. The cultivation of the language is also legally regulated - for example, as the task of Deutsche Welle.

Germany is a country of exports. Is it also in our economic interest to promote German as a foreign language?

Of course. After all, trade and the economy can't function without communication. For this reason, it's crucial to have a common language. It's also important for us Germans to learn other languages. It's nuisance for us that the EU has a cold relationship with the German language and translates many documents into English and French, but not German. The European Commission should finally change this, especially since German is the most widely spoken native language of the EU. 150 million people around the world speak German, which makes our language one of the five most-commonly spoken languages.

Wolfgang Boernsen has been a member of the German parliament and the Christian Democratic Union since 1987. A bricklayer by trade, he comes from Flensburg in northern Germany and studied in the city of Kiel. He spent one semester as an exchange student in the USA and assisted with development aid in India. He is a high school teacher and an assistant lecturer who enjoys cultivating his northern German dialect and has written a book about it. He is the vice-chairman of the Deutsche Welle broadcasting commission.

Interview: Berthold Stevens (ew)
Editor: Kyle James