Study of the German language is in sharp decline in American classrooms. In 1997, a quarter of US high schools offered German in their language-learning programs. Today that number stands at 14%. In elementary and middle schools, German language classes are nominal at best.
The main cause of that decline is the rise of China as an economic power and Arabic as a language of importance to the American government and other interests. Parents are demanding these languages in an effort to make their students more competitive after high school.
What can Germany do?
The German government is actively trying to turn this tide.
The Goethe Institute, the government’s cultural promotion organization, has always provided lesson plans and other instructional materials to interested teachers through its Step Into German program. They’re now going one step further—exporting pieces of their culture itself.
Tonbandgerat is an indie pop band from Hamburg, the same city where the Beatles honed their craft before becoming, well, the Beatles. But the last German band to make any sort of impact on American shores was 90’s heavy metal outfit Rammstein. Tonbandgerat (“Tape Recorder”) isn’t here to sell records; they’re here to sell American students on learning German.
Tape Recorder began a 10-city American tour in March, playing packed high school auditoriums with the help of the Goethe Institute. Before the band appears, students are presented a variety of lessons and videos based around the band’s music and lyrics. By the time Tape Recorder arrives, students are singing along—in German.
Generating interest while fighting misconceptions
The Institute says that they want to fight the popular misconceptions of Germany’s culture. It’s not just beer and the Autobahn. It can actually be cool and worthwhile to learn German.
It’s an interesting strategy. With declining language learning comes declining influence on American culture. German is losing popularity, but so are French, Russian, and Japanese. Competing for the minds of American high school students might be an effective way to compete economically and internationally.
But where does this leave American schools? There is only so much time in the instructional day. Foreign language teachers have seen a decline in employment in the past ten years. Not every language can be offered.
Or can it? With advances in online and blended learning, more languages can be made available to more students—even unpopular ones like German.