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English Language use Gets a Boost in Germany

From courts to classrooms to politics, Germany is embracing the English language. It’s a bid to make the country more attractive globally, but the linguistic jump comes at a price.

Gone are the days when German politicians refused to speak English. In 2009, then Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle made headlines for rebuffing a BBC reporter’s request to answer a question in English. 

“In Germany, obviously, we speak German,” Westerwelle said in German. 

But now, many top officials are ready to brandish their linguistic credentials. Defense Minister Boris Pistorius and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock often do so when on official business abroad, and Finance Minister Christian Lindner has appeared on Bloomberg TV to debate the state of the German economy. 

Former Chancellor Angela Merkel herself almost never spoke English, even when it came to a 2019 commencement address at Harvard or a CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour. When her successor, Olaf Scholz, has appeared on the same US broadcaster, however, he has held his own in his second language. 

And when a British journalist asked him for an answer in English at a post-election news conference, he didn’t answer with a Westerwellian smirk but in Scholzian earnestness — delivered as dryly in English as he often comes across in his native German tongue. 

But today, it is the party Westerwelle once led — the business-first Free Democrats (FDP)— which is pushing for more English in official state matters. 

Economy and judiciary

Given the size of Germany’s economy, which is export-dependent and home to major global companies, English is the language of choice in the business context.

Inevitably, cross-border commercial disputes can “frequently arise” and require “rapid and professional resolution,” Christiane Hoffmann, the government’s deputy spokesperson, told reporters at a news conference last week. So earlier this month, the cabinet approved a bill put forward by the FDP’s Justice Minister Marco Buschmann to expand commercial courts in Germany, which could also handle cases in English. 

An aim of the bill, which will need parliamentary approval to come into force, is to “strengthen Germany’s attractiveness as a judicial and business location,” Hoffmann said. 

One commercial court that can handle matters in English was set up in Frankfurt, Germany’s financial capital, in 2018. It is part of a growing number of commercial courts around the European Union, which member states have established in the aftermath of Brexit. With the United Kingdom out of the bloc, Germany, France and the Netherlands are among those looking to serve as an alternative to the British legal system. 

But this transition may take years, as a “generational divide” affects Germany’s courts, Michael Weigel, a practicing commercial lawyer and German Federal Bar Association member, told DW. 

“Just like it is with any kind of specialization, people need the time to master these skills. That costs money,” Weigel said. 

The skepticism echoes sentiments in other areas marked for anglicization. Last year, the FDP announced its interest in introducing English as an official second language in public administration.

The recently passed Skilled Workers Act aims to make it easier for foreigners to find work in Germany, including having their non-German qualifications more speedily recognized.

But Germany’s legal code states German as the sole official language: Applications and documents submitted to an authority in a foreign language must come with a translation.

The inclusion of English as a second official language would have to be approved by the federal and state governments — but so far, only the FDP has advocated such a change.

Companies are expected “to be open to English-speaking applicants,” FDP Secretary General Bijan Djir-Sarai told newspapers in February 2023. “Then you can also expect our authorities and administrations to be able to offer these people full service in English.”

Ulrich Silberbach, the head of the German Civil Service Association (DBB), claims that English is already widely spoken in government offices. “Language competence in administration is primarily a question of money,” he told the tabloid Bild, adding that many customers speak French, Arabic or Farsi rather than English. “We need training, translation tools and language mediators, but these are all investments in personnel,” he said. “A blanket English requirement won’t help us,” Silberbach added.

English in the educational system and everyday life

Since 2005, English has been taught at all German elementary schools, with the French border regions the only exception. Around 10% of higher-education degree programs in Germany are now offered in English, according to a database maintained by the German Academic Exchange Service. Most of these are graduate programs, and the results include private institutions that operate outside the public system, which is largely tuition-free. 

Despite hosting a large expat population, Germany frequently performs poorly on so-called expat surveys. Language was a key factor affecting Germany’s low rank in the 2023 Expat Insider survey, conducted by InterNations, a Munich-based expat network. 

Berlin stands out: In 2017, then Health Minister Jens Spahn famously complained that it is impossible to get by with German only in the capital: “It bothers me that in some Berlin restaurants, the waitresses only speak English. I’m sure that wouldn’t happen in Paris,” he said.

Indeed, it has become perfectly okay for young expats to work in Berlin’s hip stores without any knowledge of German, while their parents were denied access to the German labor market — despite good English — because they didn’t speak German well enough.

With the modernization of immigration laws, this is now likely to change.

Source : DW

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