I started learning German at the age of eight, when I first attended a bilingual class, and ever since, studying languages has been a great interest of mine. As to German, it was important for me to be able to study the language, but also the culture of the country, as well as the ways of thinking of the population and its history. I recently had the opportunity to demonstrate my grasp of the German language: I started teaching high school students who had already failed to obtain their baccalaureate twice.
Despite the fact that I have been taking German classes since the age of eight, I am not qualified as a teacher: I have not received the required training. Fact is, I was only hired because no one else was able to teach German at the high school in question, which is located in the rather large city of Orléans. The school has 1500 students and employs about 60 teachers; none of them are able to teach German. Out of the 1500 students only six attended my class.
One would think that with Germany being a major economic and trade partner, geographically very close to France and with a long common history, German classes would be more popular. The French minister of education, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, publically declared that improving students’ foreign language skills is a priority for her. According to her, they are a vital part of the construction of national and European citizenship and of personal fulfilment, but mostly a tremendous advantage in professional integration, in France but also abroad.
But these reasons were nothing in comparison to the very close collaboration that has governed French and German foreign policies since the end of World War II. The minister stresses that it has never been more efficient and is constantly developing, both parties having committed to promoting the other country’s national language, a commitment that was first made in 1963 with the Elysée Treaty and renewed at every Franco-German summit.
However, things are not as simple as that. Every year both France and Germany struggle to find employees for several thousands of positions, for there are not enough German speakers available in the tourism sector and in the hotel industry, as well as in the automotive and the cultural sector. German is the second most sought for foreign language in French recruitment criteria, after English, but before Spanish.
Paradoxically, English stopped the decline of German teaching in France: bilingual English-German classes were set up with great such success, which led to the introduction of English-Spanish classes. According to the newspaper Libération, 95% of students who choose German as a first language are nowadays enrolled in such classes, the drawback being that German as a second language gradually disappears: some schools and high schools do not even offer it anymore, such as the one I am teaching at. However, nothing is lost: German is in third position with 15% of all students, behind English and Spanish (44% of all students).
German students perform much better than the ones who opted for Spanish or English.
Spanish is much more popular because of the rumoured complexity of German grammar, which has been largely disproved by the scores of the baccalaureate: German students perform much better than the ones who opted for Spanish or English. This is also due to prejudice: Spaniards are considered to be trendy and friendly, Spain is always sunny and Spanish is key if one wants to discover Latin America. This growing popularity is also explained by Germany’s difficult history. While the French Ministry of education spares no effort to promote its partner country’s language, external factors play a crucial role: the popularity of the German language is known to have grown as a result of students’ interest in bands such as Rammstein and Tokio Hotel.
The last two educational reforms however have been very detrimental to German teaching: job cuts have occurred (up to 80 000 German teaching jobs), and despite the alleged importance of German language teaching for the two countries’ collaboration, German language teaching hours were reduced and bilingual classes will no longer be offered.
One of the ministry’s arguments is that those classes were too elitist. This is certainly true, at least to a certain extent. But I remember that my own class was not exclusively made up of children from well-established families, but also of people with much more modest backgrounds and diverse ethnic origins. And I cannot help but think that closing these sections will be the end of social diversity, for private schools attract almost all good students in certain areas. I see the abolition of theses classes in the public school system as the development of a two-tier education system: on the one hand, there are public schools with basic teaching, and on the other hand private schools, which offer more electives and language classes.
Strictly speaking, German classes are still available, the minister of education having made sure to emphasise the importance of second language learning would. But this does not change the facts: there will be fewer hours, less funding, and fewer teachers, meaning that in actual fact, German will disappear from many schools and high schools. The language’s popularity started to drop about 30 years ago, a fact that was illustrated by the ridiculously low baccalaureate grades in languages.
The French are unfortunately not the only ones to be affected by this tendency: on the other side of the Rhine, German students, too, are not pleased when asked to study French. France is no longer the attractive country it used to be; German students no longer dream of studying there the way they did in the 60s, 70s or 80s. The further from the border, the less popular the French language. In Berlin, it is almost impossible to learn French as a first foreign language, and as a second foreign language, French now faces the ferocious competition of Spanish and Chinese.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the Franco-German couple is no longer at the centre of European leadership and movement, and suffers from various levels of incomprehension. If this tendency is not reversed very soon, I see no future improvement not only for the Franco-German couple, but also for Europe as a whole: how can we understand one another if we cannot even understand our closest neighbours?