We need to speak up for the value of German

6th March 2015 at 00:00

A few weeks ago, I was asked to take part in an event that is best described as "languages speed-dating".

It involved what seemed like hundreds of S3 students at a Glasgow high school splitting into groups of four or five and getting a few minutes each with a variety of people, from all walks of life, who speak a foreign language at work.

I shared my experiences of being a native German speaker who uses English to write for TESS, and was joined by professionals including the school chaplain and a graphic designer for Glasgow council.

The young people were tasked with finding out what we did for a living, how that involved the use of foreign languages and what our "top tip" was for their language learning.

After three hours of constantly changing groups of young people asking me how to spell "journalist", I was ready for some chocolate cake and a nap. But it was nevertheless a hugely inspiring experience. The learners were interested, engaged and clearly attuned to the usefulness of languages - thanks in large part to their enthusiastic teachers (the head of department even ushered us into the hall with a loud and impressively bilingual "vamos the noo").

I was also inspired, however, to think about the way the students reacted to my "German-ness" - and how this could be linked to the worrying drop in German being studied in Scottish schools (pages 16-18).

It was flattering when one of the boys accused me of "pure lying" and being "so not German" because I hadn't shouted. It was also symptomatic of the sorts of things the young people said to me.

They asked plenty of questions about football. But almost every group also asked about the Second World War, Auschwitz and my apparent inability to march or sound angry. The students weren't being rude or offensive - they were merely interested. And who can blame them?

Many young people do not associate Germany with economic success, or see it as a fascinating country and a possible holiday destination, or the home of musical greats such as Beethoven, Bach or the lesser-known Ulrich Roever and Michael Korb, who gave Scotland that iconic anthem Highland Cathedral. They don't associate it with the gummy sweets they eat or the cars their parents drive.

It is understandable. But it also makes the task of language teachers so much harder. How do we inspire young people to want to learn German? How do we make them see that it is not only a beautiful language, but also one that can benefit them greatly?

If we want German to survive in Scottish classrooms, we need that to change. We need to show young people why learning German, and getting to know the Germany of 2015, could be eye-opening and fun - never mind the fact that it makes perfect economic sense. Because it only takes one look at the links between Scotland and Germany to see what a devastating loss it would be if we failed.


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