Saving German Dialects. Is it worth it?

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Is saving dialects of the German language worth the time, expense and effort? Yvonne Seger shares her thoughts of current initiatives in Germany.

In Germany, as in Great Britain, there are many dialects and a number of minority languages spoken throughout the country. Due to television and other media using a standard language and also because of greater mobility within the society, these dialects vanish and dialect colouring levels out more and more.

Many people regret this approximation of their language to the standard and wish to save their vernacular or even revive certain idioms which have already disappeared. In several regions, distinct dialects are only spoken by a very limited number of elderly citizens and are close to dying out. Many people long to reactivate the knowledge about this way of communicating, for this reason many German schools or similar institutions begin to teach their (former) regional dialects in special language classes. In some regions these lessons approach the dimension of conventional foreign language schooling, especially for primary school pupils and in areas where there existed very marked vernaculars.

Undeniably it is good to honor and preserve one’s traditions and original diction, but should time and other resources be invested in the tuition of dialect in schools? And can this official education really help to reinforce the use of dialect?

As praiseworthy as the intention may be, I do not believe that these lavish means to save dialect are effective enough. To my mind it is not justifiable to send children to real dialect classes, where they have to study the regional dialect (even if they originally do not stem from the same region) and get marks for it which affect their school reports. In a time where increasing demands are enforced on schools, where they have to teach more subjects and evaluate their achievements more extensively than ever before, it is not reasonable to require a mandatory teaching of dialects. Optional offers are of course desirable, but expecting every pupil to learn the dialect people formerly absorbed automatically, is a strange concern.

What is more: Studying a dialect is highly unlikely to prompt anyone to use it outside classes or even establish it as their main manner of communication, e.g. within their family. The ‘artificial’ acquiring of a language or dialect may help to retain a certain knowledge about it and foster its comprehension and appreciation, but it will not bring back the time when everybody used it naturally.

Therefore dialectal language classes should only be an optional choice and only be offered if the school has the appropriate resources to provide such ‘luxury education’.

Written by Yvonne Seger

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