The Importance of Learning Languages in Today's World

Neville Osborne Lecture at Bristol University on 25 November 2003

by Thomas Matussek, German Ambassador in London; for further inquiries, please contact Matthias Klause, Culture Department, German Embassy in London; 020 - 7824 1376; ku2@lond.diplo.de

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I'm delighted to have this opportunity to join you to discuss a subject in which I personally have a great interest: the learning of foreign languages - and I hope you won't mind if the German Ambassador also says something about the importance of German as a foreign language in Britain.

Some of you will perhaps know that I have often publicly expressed my opinions on the subject of Germany's image and the teaching of German and also of history in this country. I'm quite sure that the language learning issue also has a political dimension with implications for our bilateral relationship and for Germany's image in Britain.

I. We need and want Britain as a strong partner in the EU

During this last year, political relations between our two countries have undergone a test - for reasons I'm sure I don't need to go into here. Our governments have had different views, but thanks to the good personal relationship between Prime Minister Blair and Chancellor Schröder, these differences have remained well in perspective. I don't now want to discuss the last few months, but the future.

What are the tasks that face us? At the global level, obviously since 9/11 the problem of terrorism stands out, alongside major themes such as maintaining peace, international trade, energy supply, environmental protection and human rights. In all these and more, Europe must become an effective player on the world stage and a strong and significant partner for the US.

For this, Britain is - to put it quite simply - indispensable. Britain has a quite special historical and political experience, a healthy scepticism and a helpful instinct for pragmatic solutions. We therefore believe that Britain must be an integral part of a successful Europe, and try to ensure that it is involved in every area. That is not always easy. Too often, a healthy scepticism is equated with euroscepticism. To me, euroscepticism is a contradiction in itself, as Britain is a part of Europe and embodies some of the best European qualities. A key question for the British government is whether it can best deploy its political weight inside or on the margins of the EU.

II. British educational and foreign language policy

"English is not enough"; "Young people from the UK are at a growing disadvantage in the recruitment market", "The UK desperately needs more language teachers".

Those, Ladies and Gentlemen, are not my own statements. They are in fact the conclusions of the Nuffield Languages Inquiry of the year 2000 under the chairmanship of Sir Trevor MacDonald and Sir John Boyd. It is a regrettable fact that for many years, after a strong period in the 1980s, the major foreign languages, French and German, have been in continuous and sometimes dramatic decline in British schools and universities.

Britain faces the great task of changing this trend. It is absolutely in this country's interest that British young people, now and in the future, should be competent in foreign languages. In January 2002 the House of Lords debated the value of foreign language learning. All the speakers agreed that in a globalised world characterised by international links and intercultural connections, linguistic skills and international experience are crucial for employment and career. International skills should have a major part in every young person's school curriculum.

In the meantime the Government has responded. In 2002, it presented its Language Strategy, which sets out the framework for reforms in language teaching. Secretary of State Charles Clarke has several times indicated in conversation with me that this area is a priority of his work. I am no expert on education and cannot assess the reform process in detail - nor would I want to.

However, just a few days ago the Government's own interim report (Language Trends 2003, by CILT) noted a further significant decline in foreign language teaching. Probably the main reason at this moment is that the ending of compulsory language learning between ages 14 and 16 is already having serious effects. This issue - whether language teaching should be compulsory teaching - is actually probably the greatest cultural difference between foreign language teaching here and in Germany. In Germany, foreign languages are compulsory from the first school year. In Britain, language learning seems to be more on a voluntary basis and priority is given to other curricular requirements. But that's an approach which comes in for a lot of criticism, including in Britain itself.

However, there are also a great many promising developments: for example, the requirement for primary schools to offer foreign languages from 2012 and the creation of Specialist Language Colleges. But at the broadest and deepest level, it's probably also necessary for society as a whole to recognise the value of foreign languages and to create an atmosphere and an environment in which language learning is seen as vitally important.

III. Reasons for learning a language

Why should we learn a foreign language? After all, the whole world speaks English! Ladies and Gentlemen, there's some truth in this argument - but only some! Allow me to give an example from the area which I can perhaps judge best: diplomacy. British diplomats generally have an excellent reputation as extremely professional and efficient. And that specifically includes language skills. Before they're posted to a new country, British diplomats are trained in its language, sometimes for up to a year.

Why do they do that? When you come to a new post, you can only really make full use of your professionalism and efficiency in your host country's language. You can't just rely on English. So having a foreign language in addition to English is vital - as indeed it is in so many other professions.

Educational reasons

Learning a foreign language at the earliest possible age, and by that I mean from between 4 and 5 years old - that is, at nursery and primary school - opens up a whole new dimension for children: it greatly benefits their reading and writing in their own language; there's evidence that, like musical education, it contributes significantly to the development of individual intelligence; and concretely it improves overall results at school.

Cultural reasons

A new language opens up a whole new culture. A foreign language gives us access to another culture, and our lives take on a new dimension. The great German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, said in 1827: "Whoever is not acquainted with foreign languages knows nothing of his own." Seen like that, learning a language is almost comparable to a journey of discovery - and if we remember the great explorers and the 18th century gentleman's grand tour, you might almost call it a British invention.
Conversely, to lose a language is to lose a whole culture. This realisation has led to determined efforts to preserve minority languages, including, for example, in Britain, with the renaissance of the Welsh and Gaelic languages. There are similar widespread efforts in Britain to promote community languages, for example by providing application forms in Urdu or other languages. It is a fundamental truth that cultures define themselves through languages.


By learning a new language, you gain new horizons, but at the same time you reinforce your own identity, and therefore also your self-confidence. A foreign language can contribute to a stronger personality. Apparently foreign languages are even an essential quality of a lover. In Shakespeare's great comedy "Twelfth Night" we hear a gentleman being praised: He plays the viol-de-gamboys, speaks 3 or 4 languages and hath all the good gifts of nature.

Economic reasons

The typical profile expected from future business leaders fully reflects the demands of the globalised world. British language graduates find a good job more easily than others. Knowledge of German in particular improves one's chances on the job market. Many German companies abroad, and many foreign companies in Germany and companies with close links to German-speaking countries look for employees with language skills.
In spite of all the current economic difficulties in Germany, we are now, thanks to the Government's reform policies, well on the way to overcoming our economic weakness. Germany is still the most important trading partner for almost all the European countries and many countries outside Europe. A person who speaks German will be able to communicate better with business partners in the world's third-biggest economy and one of the foremost exporting countries.

Political reasons

Politically, a positive approach in Britain to language learning would have benefits on two different levels. Firstly, it would help to enable Germany to be seen more as a whole rather than just isolated aspects, and to break down a residual antipathy or at least ignorance and indifference. That's of course our number one aim. And secondly, it would help to ensure that Britain does not remain apart in Europe. In my view, it cannot be in Britain's interests to isolate itself politically or culturally.

IV. Reasons for learning German

Let me finally answer one last question: which is actually the most important language for British young people to learn? After long and careful consideration, I've come to the absolutely honest and objective conclusion that it has to be German (Vorsicht Ironie!)

I know that almost all of you speak a little German. Vorsprung durch Technik, Kindergarten, Oktoberfest and so on. And I'd rather not mention all those words from a certain period of our history that some people here never seem to get enough of. But there really seriously are good reasons for learning German.
Importance for communication in Europe

Over 100 million Europeans speak German as their native language. German is spoken not only in Germany, but also in Austria and in large parts of Switzerland. After English, German is the most spoken language in the European Union. In the new member countries of the European Union in central and eastern Europe, above all in Poland, which stands out with its population of over 50 million, German plays an important part both culturally and economically.

German as a language of culture

If you know German, you have access to one of the great European cultures in the original. German is the language of Goethe, Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, and of Thomas Mann and Günter Grass - but also of Michael Schumacher and of the film "Goodbye Lenin", which in the last few months has been the most successful non-English language film. Each year there are 60,000 new publications in the German book market - that's 18% of all the books published each year in the world. That puts Germany at third place among the world's book producers.

Germany as a country of culture

Germany is a highly attractive country for travel, with a great variety of natural beauty, from Bavaria to the lakes and coast of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. (And by the way, there's no problem getting a towel onto a German beach!)

Germany also has a great cultural heritage, from the Middle Ages to the modern period. In Wittenberg you can visit the house of the great reformer Martin Luther. Germany has a vast number of theatres, choirs and symphony orchestras, in Munich, Cologne, Bamberg and elsewhere. Germany has produced great contributions to art and architecture, from Romanticism through Bauhaus and the classical modern period to some of the most interesting developments in modern art, such as Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter or Sigmar Polke, who can be seen at this very moment in a superb and very popular exhibition at Tate Modern in London.

V. Conclusion

If language skills are to improve here in Britain, everyone needs to play their part:
parents - must recognise the importance of foreign languages, encourage their children to take an interest and demand that schools give their children the opportunity to benefit from all that languages have to offer; 
teachers - I'd like to thank them for all their dedicated work under sometimes difficult conditions, and encourage them to keep it up; universities - should promote language departments wherever possible, even under difficult financial circumstances; Government, Local Education Authorities and Schools - must give language learning a firm place in school life and enable as many pupils as possible to benefit from the opportunities it creates. In my personal view, this is also a matter of social justice, because languages facilitate social mobility; lastly, the general public and the media - should recognise the value of language learning for future generations and support it accordingly.

So all that was good news, and now the bad news:
There's unfortunately one great problem with foreign languages. You have to learn them. There's no escaping that. I'm fascinated by courses with names like "Polish Made Easy", "German in Three Weeks", "Chinese in Tuscany over the Weekend" - but I'm afraid these are usually empty promises.