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Learning German Payoff
March 24, 2010 - By: - In: Language - 10 comments

What’s the idea? The German Language is the idea.

“German is the language at the heart of Europe,” says German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle.Westerwelle has stressed the beauty of German repeatedly ever since a press conference in late September, when a BBC reporter asked him if, possibly, the foreign minister  would answer a question in English. Westerwelle, who can speak English fluently, rebuffed the request saying, “Just like it goes without saying that English is spoken in Great Britain, it is customary to speak German in Germany.” That’s an interesting exchange, because that obviously wasn’t the custom of the BBC reporter.

So Westerwelle offered to meet the reporter for tea and speak English there, but added that “this is Germany.” It appears English in the privacy of one’s own home is acceptable, in the spirit of consenting adults, etc., but not in public (well, not for public business anyways).

I guess this is the Westerwelle corollary to the Willie Brandt proviso,  If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. If I’m buying, dann mussen Sie Deutsch sprechen.

So a few weeks ago, Westerwelle announced his official mission to promote German as the “Language of Ideas.”

“It is the key to more than 350 German universities and colleges, to Europe’s largest economy,” Westerwelle said. “It grants access to German literature, music, philosophy, and science, to the wealth of great European cultural traditions and, not least, it is the key to realizing one’s own goals and ideas.”

A hundred million people, economic engine of Europe, and they do it all in German. You wouldn’t think they have much to worry about language-preservation-wise, but I guess the idea is to make sure Germany maintains its cultural clout.

This year, 14.5 million people outside the country are studying the language. That number is down, however, from about 17 million only three years ago, and Berlin is noting ― with some alarm ― the increasing importance of English, as well as efforts by Spain and China to promote their respective languages.

The idea behind the “Language of Ideas” involves the expenditure of about 400 million dollars a year. So if I was a German taxpayer (and man, do those guys pay taxes), I’d want to know what I get out of it.  If Germany is losing a million language students to other languages each year, the measure of success should be how many of these lost lambs are brought back to the German fold, and how they might help with the tax burden themselves through economic activity. So what’s an extra non-native speaker of German worth to the German taxpayer? Who knows? In the meantime, I’ll make up my own valuation:

How much you have to pay someone to learn a language that they wouldn’t learn otherwise if you didn’t put money into it? $10,000 per speaker.

Annual economic benefit to economy of each second language speaker? $500 per speaker per year.

National dignity and linguistic prestige? Priceless.

See, the math works! Resisting the linguistic onslaught of Shakespeare’s language (or the version used by Lady Gaga and her ilk) is a global phenomenon, and a great way to make political hay. Languages make nations and are of keen interest to elites interested in spreading their wings. Back in the good old days, language education initiatives were usually advanced by sword and pike, but nowadays, soft power is the usual method.

So I provided those made-up figures, but I wonder what kind of value a second-language speaker brings to the economy of the country where that language is most widely spoken. It seems self-evident that the power of English globally has augmented the economic might of the United States (or perhaps it’s the other way around?).  Can a government spend its way to achieve the same result? Does it pay to do so?

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