Not dull, not ugly, just German

German can be perfect for flirting and being witty in - so why have Brits stopped learning it?
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The Independent Culture
THE ENGLISH never really understood Germany; but it's only quite recently, I think, that it's become evident that they weren't even interested in it. For a few years, friends of mine who teach German in universities were reporting some odd feed-back from their students. The subject was regarded by the students' contemporaries as not very sexy at best, or even rather dull; anyone teaching German found themselves having to convince their students that they weren't themselves boring people.

A puzzling sort of development, and now this subjective impression has been confirmed by a vertiginous decline in the numbers studying the language. The number of sixth-formers entering for A-levels in foreign languages has been falling for some time. This year, out of a total of 783,000 A- levels taken, it was an option taken by no more than 9,551 students. Compare this to the 37,008 who took business studies, the 28,737 who applied themselves to psychology, or even the 14,222 poor saps who thought that an A-level in media studies would get them anywhere in the world; next to these more fashionable and less demanding subjects, foreign languages can seem like rather a pointlessly hard option. Even French has suffered from the trend. In the case of German, it is not seen as a sexy subject; the country does not, apparently, fascinate the young; and the language has the reputation among people who don't speak or understand it of being complicated and ugly. Nor does it stop there. The numbers of people wanting to study German at institutes of adult education have, it seems, fallen by more than half in the past three years.

The study of German in this country will soon reach the sort of levels more appropriate to the study of a dead language. Maybe it's because Germans often speak good English; maybe it's because we can't be bothered. But what seems clear is that interest and curiosity about one of the most fascinating cultures in the world is on the decline, and for no good reason - since German is not a particularly difficult language - except laziness.

Even those who profess an interest in Germany, it seems, have so narrow a focus as to make their comments meaningless. The Sunday Times, a month or two ago, sent their restaurant critic to Germany to write a piece about the nation. Everything he saw reminded him of the war and the Holocaust; nothing else struck him as being of any interest. It is unfair to mock someone with such limited intellectual resources - one of his more memorable comments was that he had no idea until his trip that Weimar was a place - but his assumption that nothing in Germany was of any interest unless it could be related to the war is not, in this country, an unusual one.

For most English people, now, Germany means one of two things; it is either dull or monstrous - Dusseldorf or Buchenwald. Of course, one shouldn't take the impressions of people who don't understand German too seriously. But it is surprising how many otherwise educated people refuse to accept that German can be a perfect language for being flirtatious, sexy, or witty in. For many English people, German is just an ugly guttural language with words half a mile long, useful only for shouting in at political rallies.

But in the week of Goethe's 250th birthday, perhaps we should let him remind us what we're missing out on. Goethe is a writer of greater range than anyone else in European literature. Not just his intellectual range, not just the range of his emotional understanding, but, most of all, his understanding of the full range of thepossibilities of the German language, from the mysterious intimate whisper of the lyrics in the West-Ostlicher Diwan to the monumental geometric paragraphs of the Wahlverwandschaften. We know in an abstract sort of way, I think, how important Goethe is, just as we know that Germany is an important fact. What we don't have is an innate sense of how interesting he, and it, is.

The whole decline of interest in Germany is a worrying phenomenon. Frankly, if we're not prepared to take an interest in Germany, you have to ask whether we are prepared to take an interest in Europe. Germany is not our preferred holiday destination; it is difficult for us to patronize it; we have to regard them as our equals, and we have to enter into some kind of dialogue with them. And we can't do that unless we are prepared to learn their language, and read their books. It is difficult to know what has been achieved by those 14,222 people who took an A-level in media studies, but an A-level in German gives you direct access to the most interesting culture in Europe. And that, surely, ought to be enough.