Reasons to Learn German

Reading how many or better put how few British students took their A levels in German this year, I thought I’d start a series of posts giving some good reasons why studying German might be useful and to do away with some popular but false stereotypes such as German is fairly complicated and difficult to learn.

So today, let’s talk about numbers!

Reasons to learn German #1: 200 million people worldwide speak or understand German

A pretty well-known fact is that German is the native languages of the so called DACH countries which are Deutschland / Germany (D), Österreich / Austria (A) and die Schweiz / Switzerland (CH).

A little less known is that German is also spoken either as a mother tongue or as a minority language across Europe. This includes Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Denmark, Eastern Belgium, Eastern France (namely Elsass, Lothringen) and South Tyrol / Südtirol (northern Italy).

It is also spoken in former parts of Germany that were lost after the second World War and are now parts of  Eastern European countries, most notably Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Other countries include Romania, Hungary, Kazakhstan and Russia. The same is true for Namibia, a former colony, where German is a so called national language.

All of which makes it the most spoken mother tongue in the European Union and one of the 10 most important languages in the world. I think, the order has changed since the reasearch was carried out.

Numbers diverge quite a bit, but it is estimated that around 90 to 120 million people worldwide call German their mother tongue. Another 80 million learn German as a foreign language, 55 million of which in the EU alone according to Wikipedia.

And if you’re living on the American continent you will know how many people refer to their family as being German still to that day. In the census that took place in the year 2000, 42.5 million U.S. citizens reported to have German ancestors which was about 15% of the U.S. population that date.

The same is true for South America to which many Germans immigrated over time. In Brazil 5 million people speak German, in Argentina 500.000, in Mexico 200.000.

If you want to dive into the number and are really interested in the topic of how German spread over the centuries and why we have such a multitude of dialects, you should read this article on the German Wikipedia (good level of German is required). For everybody else there is of course still the English Wikipedia version.

German is Spoken Everywhere

would like to go into more detail and talk about some countries where speaking German might be particularly helpful either to live or to do business with.

Germans abroad – Auslandsdeutsche

The German term for all German citizens living abroad is Auslandsdeutsche. I’m not speaking of German emigrants from previous generations, but people with a German passport who permanently or temporarily decided to live abroad, like myself.

In general, but not always, they like to form German communities to help each other getting along in their new home country. So, if you are interested in getting in touch with these groups or even do business with them, then speaking German will grant you way easier access and opportunities.

Large groups of Germans also live in Australia (106,000 in 2006) and the Russian Federation (almost 600,000 in 2002), the UK (92,000 in 2008) and France (75,000 in 1999) and of course the United States although it is hard to give their exact numbers as they’re not required to register with the German Embassy which is also true for the EU as we have the right to move anywhere we want within the member states without registration.

German in Europe

German is the second most known foreign language in the EU, due to its wider use in the “new” EU countries. It is the third most popular foreign language to learn, after English and Russian. If you travel Europe you’ll find that about 70% of the Dutch population speak German, it’s also strong in Scandinavia, Russia and the Baltic countries, Poland, Hungary and Croatia. In these countries between 20 and 55% of the population have learnt German as a foreign language. In France about 4 million people master German as a foreign language. This sums up to roughly 14% or every seventh European who speaks German.

German outside of Europe

German is the third most taught foreign language worldwide. Outside of Europe, German is popular in Japan and the US, in the latter numbers are that around 7.5 million or 10% of Americans spoke German in 2001. There is however the trend that German is losing ground as Spanish is getting more relevant and more popular.

German on the Internet

German is an important language on the Internet. Of course, English is the dominant language (and I’m writing this article in English, too) but depending on the study you take German lands between 2nd and 4th. Some studies see Japanese and Chinese now stronger, but it is estimated that websites in German make between 4% and 5.9% of all websites.

German in International Organisations

German is one of the 23 official languages in the European Union. It is also a so called working language together with English and French. It is still the most spoken mother tongue in the EU and the second most spoken language (mother tongue and foreign language together).

Doing Business with Germans

To make sure that we are all on the same page, let me say that certainly, most Germans speak decent or even good English and to a lesser degree other foreign languages. However, this doesn’t necessarily has an effect on their willingness to do business in another language.

I think the following quote by former German chancellor Willy Brandt still holds true to a great extend: “If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. If I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.”

When you take part in some of the big German trade fairs that attract a large international audience, of which the CeBIT, Berlin’s IFA consumer electronics show and the Hannover Messe (Hannover Industry Trade Fair) are probably the most prominent examples. Many of Germany’s premier products are launched at one of the trade fairs.

This is even more true when you want to do business with German companies in Germany. I didn’t realize it was such an important part in negotiations before moving to France. I had thought that conversation or negotiations could easily take part in a language other than German, but I had to learn that this is not really the case. A bit astounded I learnt from French companies that having a German (born) or at least German-speaking team member opens them doors that would otherwise remain closed.

Now I can confirm, this is not a cliché, it’s the truth!

So don’t rely much on your German counterparts switch to English, some are likely to do that at a later stage but in the beginning it’s almost inevitable to talk in German.

To sum this up: You will leave a better impression and business becomes more likely. I would also emphasize on the cultural aspect. How do Germans do business: educate yourself on points such as being on time, handshake or not, Du or Sie and business hours among other.

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