Since my return to London as German Ambassador, the GCSE and A-level results published in August have always been a moment of disappointment for me, as the number of students taking German has kept falling. The relentless decline of modern language teaching and learning across the UK remains both a saddening and troubling trend.
When the author David Cornwell, better known as John le Carré, spoke at the annual German Teacher Awards ceremony at my Residence in June, he said these powerful words:
“The decision to learn a foreign language is to me an act of friendship. It is indeed a holding out of the hand. It’s not just a route to negotiation. It’s also to get to know you better, to draw closer to you and your culture, your social manners and your way of thinking.”
While I recognise the importance and global role of English, I firmly believe that language skills are more vital than ever in the 21st century.
The UK rightly intends to play an even greater role in a globalised world after Brexit. This, I believe, will not be possible unless young Britons are encouraged to be outward-looking from an early age. Learning a foreign language will be key, and German, which is mother tongue to more people in Europe than any other language, would be an ideal choice.
In my conversations with German language teachers I hear about the many challenges they face in their classrooms today. Against all odds, some of these teachers have bravely succeeded in putting German back onto the map. Some have managed to reintroduce German at schools where head teachers had already abandoned language teaching altogether.
I stand in awe of any teacher who manages to buck the trend of dropping German and other languages from the school curriculum. These inspiring teachers are a credit to their profession and need our support.
I also appreciate the commitment of the Department for Education to language teaching in the UK. However, the investment of children starting off with German will only ever pay off if they can later reap the reward as proficient communicators. If pupils begin to learn German they need the assurance that they will be able to continue with their chosen language all the way to A-level (and beyond), if they so wish.
The number of German Departments across the UK higher education landscape is dwindling – and thus also the number of teachers of German at UK schools. This vicious circle needs to be broken.
To be able to speak German is a huge asset for any young Briton. Germany is the UK’s largest goods trading partner, so British companies continue to search for employees with German language skills. A recent World Economic Forum survey showed that German is the language most often required in UK job advertisements.
And British students who choose to study at one of the many internationally respected universities in Germany, which do not charge tuition fees, have a head-start if they have already learned the language at school.
I believe that, against the backdrop of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, it will become more and more important for Germany and the UK to reinforce their bilateral relations, not only at government level, but also and above all by building strong people-to-people ties.
To keep holding out our hands in friendship, to borrow le Carré’s image, will be key to this process.
The “act of friendship” he describes is also why so many dedicated UK teachers of German fight so passionately for their subject across the country. They firmly believe that learning a language throws open a door to another culture, another world.
This is also why Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel recently announced a substantial increase in funding for the German-British youth exchange initiative UK-German Connection on the occasion of the Royal Visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to Germany this July. In their joint declaration they highlighted the vital link between exchange and language learning.
Foreign Ministers Gabriel and Johnson announce increase in funding for German-British youth exchange initiative
In this spirit, we at the German Embassy will continue to support endeavours to promote German across the UK, for instance through the growing Think German Networks initiative and its eleven regional hubs.
Learning each other’s language will not only bring us greater prosperity. It will help make our friendship stronger.