German is one of the 15 or so Germanic languages, a branch of the Indo-European language family. About 130 million people in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Liechtenstein, and South Tyrol (Italy) speak German natively or as a regularly used second language. It is therefore the most widely spoken native language in the EU and one of the ten most widely spoken languages. The 2015 survey on ‘German as a foreign language worldwide’ refers to a total of 15.4 million people currently learning German as a second language. The number of people globally who actually speak German as a foreign language can be roughly estimated at about 100 million.
One reason why German’s importance is disproportionally high relative to the number of people speaking it stems from the country’s economic strength, which makes the language very desirable. This desirability is helping drive an active policy of spreading the German language: by supporting language teaching facilities in Germany and abroad, providing scholarships or making academic offers to mobile international students. It is also clear from the significantly increasing interest in German, especially in the rising powers of China, India, and Brazil as well as in other fast-growing areas of the Asian continent, where in places demand has quadrupled since 2010.
Important institutions for learning German include the 140 German schools outside Germany and the almost 2,000 schools that lay emphasis on German lessons, which are included in the Federal Foreign Office’s initiative, Schools: Partners for the Future (PASCH). In 2016, around 278,000 people took language courses at the Goethe-Institut, which offers German as a foreign language and language tests in more than 90 countries. With free e-learning programmes, videos, audio and print material, Deutsche Welle offers online German courses for beginners and advanced speakers.
By contrast, the relevance of German as a language of international scholarship is essentially declining. The global share of articles in German in scientific publications is only one percent in bibliographic databases. German enjoys greater importance as an academic language in the humanities and social sciences. Non-German-speaking scholars very rarely publish in German, whereas German-speaking scholars publish extensively in English. Yet on the Internet, German plays an important role. With regard to the most-used languages based on websites, German ranked third, far behind English, but only just behind Russian.
Globalisation is exerting pressure on all international languages, and this is serving to appreciably further strengthen the position of English as the world language. Nonetheless, German will remain an important international language.