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 European Union and the eleventh most widely spoken language worldwide. The 2020 survey on ‘German as a foreign language worldwide’ refers to a total of 15.5 million people currently learning German as a second language.
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: through support for language teaching facilities in Germany and abroad, provision of scholarships, or academic offerings made available remotely to international students. It is also evident in the significantly increasing interest in German, especially in Asia, most specifically China.
In Africa, too, demand is rising fast: Here, there has been around a 50-percent increase in German language-learners since the previous study in 2015. At the same time, there is a shortage of German language teachers in many places. The Federal Foreign Office is therefore working to train and qualify more teachers through targeted programs with intermediary organizations, such as “Dhoch3” run by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) or “Deutsch Lehren Lernen” run by the Goethe-Institut.
Growing interest in digital language courses
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). According to the current survey, around 309,000 people took language courses at the Goethe-Institut, which offers German as a foreign language and language tests in more than 90 countries. This represents an increase of around 73,000 on five years ago. Those responsible for the study put this increase down to the growing importance of language knowledge among skilled professions. Since the Skilled Immigration Act came into force in 2020, making it easier for qualified professionals from non-EU countries to come and work in Germany, a further increase is expected.
The demand for digital language learning has also grown, and the Corona pandemic has only furthered this development. The learning platform offered by the Goethe-Institut, for example, recorded around 1.2 million visits in May 2020. During the same month of the previous year that figure was just 326,000. Use of online courses provided by Deutsche Welle also doubled over the same period to 4.2 million hits.
German in scholarship
Meanwhile, 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, particularly in the sciences.
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.