Germany is the economic engine of Europe, and the political driver of the European Union. Our commercial relationship with the country is undoubted: in 2012, the UK overtook France as Germany’s biggest global trade partner and, as The Telegraph newspaper put it, ‘British suppliers and manufacturers are deeply integrated into the German industrial machine and enjoy the follow-through benefits of German exports to the rest of the world’.
What comes with all this? Jobs. And what makes those jobs easier to get and easier to do: being able to speak the same language as our trading partners. Of course, Germans are notoriously good at speaking English, but to succeed in building real and useful relationships with one’s partners, at least a modicum of German language would be a help.
Has anyone pointed this out to schools? The most noticeable trend in the August 2014 GCSE and A Level results was the continuing, crashing decline of the popularity of modern languages. Just under 63,000 students sat German GCSE in 2014, nearly 5% down on the previous year. German A level entrants were down by 1.3%, not as bad as French which fell by 7.4%, but part of a trend at this level which has seen the number of students across all modern languages down by nearly a fifth since 2008. Universities are also complaining that A Levels are not equipping students well enough to go into studying at degree level.
In 2013, the exam boards commissioned a study on why this decline in the popularity of languages was happening. Their research found that pupils perceived languages to be difficult to study, and, in particular, that they were difficult subjects in which to gain high grades.
One element which may account for the decline is that popular culture in the UK largely ignores our European partners and is now completely dominated by the USA: and Americans speak English (and indeed, our own language is constantly changing to adopt Americanisms). It is easy for young students to feel that all they will need in our US-dominated world is the same language. Interestingly, the one modern language that did grow in numbers of GCSE entrants in 2014 was Spanish. It is perceived to be an easier language to learn than German, but it is also the second language spoken by American TV cops and there is a strong Hispanic influence in US pop music.
Reversing the decline
Schools have to do something to reverse the decline in the study of languages. It is not only about jobs and trade, it is about being able to appreciate another culture at first- instead of second-hand. And it is about acknowledging our powerful links with nearer neighbours than America. Whatever one feels about former Education Secretary Mr Gove’s reforms, his changes may help to reverse the decline by including a language in the five subject areas which will be assessed in English schools for the EBacc measure of performance at GCSE level. It is to be hoped that schools can more effectively sell the idea of German as a useful language for future employment and a key to understanding a culture which has been at the heart of European development for a thousand years.