Why Learn German?

Studying German can help a student lead a more successful life. Finance, career enhancement, travel, heritage, personal enjoyment, and human services include some of the areas enriched by the study of German.  Learning German helps students achieve higher SAT and ACT scores.  A 1987 study by Thomas Cooper and Associates indicates that students who studied a 2nd language scored higher on the SAT than students who did not. Students of German scored higher on the SAT than students of other languages.

German is prevalent at the university level.  For example, at the University of California more majors require, or are satisfied by, the study of German than other languages (German 56 majors, French 43 majors, Spanish 21 majors, Japanese 7 majors).  Among many academic programs requiring or recommending German are: anatomy, art history, biochemistry, biology, biomedical physics, botany, chemistry, design, engineering, film studies, genetics, linguistics, logic and methodology of science, molecular biology, music, near eastern studies, philosophy, physical science, physics, physiology, religious studies, and zoology to name a few.

The importance of German is indisputable. German-speakers occupy a prominent place on almost any list of the world's greatest artists and thinkers, while almost every discipline in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences has a strong German tradition, in many cases one that largely defines the field. Most university library holdings reflect this fact: after English, more of them are in German than in any other language.

German contributions in the sciences are the easiest to document. In The Discoveries (Pantheon, 2005), Alan Lightman's list of the 22 greatest scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century includes eight that were made exclusively by Germans, while two more had Austrian or German collaborators. Nobel Prize awards give another kind of indication. Scientists from the three major German-speaking countries have won 22 Nobel Prizes in Physics, 27 in Chemistry, 25 in Medicine, and 1 in Economics, while many laureates from other countries received their training at German universities (Germany has the third-highest number of international students in the world - after the U.S. and Great Britain). Eleven German, Austrian, or Swiss-German writers have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the most recent being Günter Grass in 1999 and Elfriede Jelinek in 2004, while seven Germans or Austrians have received the Peace Prize.

Germany and Austria are well known as homes to great music, but especially Germany is also a center of the visual arts, including film. According to the magazine Capital, the two living artists whose works are most sought after by the world's museums and collectors are Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, followed in fourth place by Rosemarie Trockel and in seventh by Georg Baselitz. Newsweek names Germany as the best place in the world in which to live as an artist (and called Gegen die Wand ["Head On"] the best film of 2005).

KuppelWhile these academic and artistic perspectives hold the most relevance for liberal arts studies, practical considerations are also unavoidable, and many students choose some of their subjects, including a foreign language, with an eye to their professional futures.  Here, too, the study of German offers some real advantages.

German is spoken in four countries with diverse cultural, political, and economic traditions: The Federal Republic of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. It is also the mother tongue of significant minorities in neighboring countries, as well as one of Luxembourg's official administrative languages. Among Europeans, in fact, the approximately 101 million native speakers of German greatly outnumber those of English, French, Italian (58-60 million each), or Spanish (36 million). In business, diplomacy, and tourism, German stands second only to English in Western Europe, and in Eastern Europe it holds first place.1 At the same time, according to a 2005 survey by the Pew Global Outreach Project, Germany enjoys the most favorable image of any nation in the world.

The German-speaking countries' economic significance is even greater. According to the International Monetary Fund, Germany ranks as the world's fifth-largest national economy, and those of Austria and German-speaking Switzerland are also substantial. Furthermore, Germany is the most influential and wealthiest member of the European Union, the world's largest economy.

Size is not the only source of Germany's importance, however. The Federal Republic boasts the highest worker productivity in Europe, and Ernst & Young's annual surveys of international business executives from 2004-6 have each year rated it the world's third-most attractive economic location, behind only the U.S. and China. The World Economic Forum's 2003 Global Competitiveness Report ranked Germany's global competitive index 6th in the world, ahead of that of the 7th-ranked United States, 21st-ranked France and 36th-ranked Spain. In determining that Germany has one of the world's most competitive economies, the Forum cited its innovative research universities and their cooperation with industry. 

German inventiveness is also legendary. Perhaps printing with movable type is the greatest German invention, but here are a few others:

Bicycle, 1817 Karl von Drais
Electric light bulb, 1854 Heinrich Göbel
Telephone, 1861 Philipp Reis
Refrigerator (using liquid ammonia), 1876   Carl von Linde
4-cycle internal combustion engine, 1876   Nikolaus August Otto
Automobile, 1885 Carl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler
Aspirin, 1897 Felix Hoffmann
Television, 1930 Manfred von Ardenne
Jet engine, 1939 Hans von Ohain
Binary computer, 1941 Konrad Zuse
Bar scanner, 1963 Rudolf Hell
Chip card, 1969 Jürgen Dethloff, Helmut Gröttrup
Fuel cells, 1994 Christian Friedrich Schönbein
MP3, 1995 Karlheinz Brandenberg

This kind of creativity continues. In 2005, for example, Germany successfully registered 23,800 new patents, more than any other country except the U.S.  According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, four of the world's ten most innovative companies are German.2

In the area of world trade, Germany's significance is greater than just its GDP would indicate. In 2008 it was the world's largest exporter for the sixth year in a row. In 2007 its 969 billion euros' (approximately $1.33 trillion) worth of goods and services sold abroad accounted for 9.5% of world-wide exports (ahead of second-place China's 8.8%). At the same time, it is the second-largest importer.  Furthermore, the $12.3 billion that Germany gave in development assistance in 2007 made it the second-biggest donor in absolute terms, outspent only by the U.S.3 In travel Germans are #1 in the world: in 2007 they spent $91 billion on visits to other countries. That same year, Germany ranked #7 as a tourist destination; around two million Americans visit Germany each year. In its list of the 44 "most compelling travel destinations" in the world for 2009, the New York Times put Berlin at #4, Vienna #8, and Cologne #30 (1/11/2009).


In addition to its exports, Germany invests heavily around the world. In 2001, Volkswagen plants in China supplied over half the automobiles sold in that country. That market share decreased the following year, but actual sales went up considerably. In fact, overall exports to China increased 19.6% between 2001 and 2002. Similarly significant investments can be found in many other parts of Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and the Americas. The more than 700 German companies with operations in Mexico, for example, account for 5% of that country's gross domestic product. This world-wide activity is reciprocal: in 2000, other nations invested $262 billion in Germany.

Despite its global reach, Germany maintains an especially strong economic relationship with the United States. This association is partly defined by trade: in 2003 the exchange of goods and services between the two countries reached $96.8 billion.  According to a September 7, 2007, statement from the German-American Chamber of Commerce in New York, "More than 3,000 German subsidiaries and their branches are operating successfully in the US, where German companies have created some 780,000 jobs.... The top 50 German companies in the US have created 500,000 jobs with a total annual turnover of $270 billion. Germany, meanwhile, is the location in Europe with the strongest concentration of American investors, accounting for some 130 billion euros in investment and 800,000 related jobs."4  In the 1994 survey conducted by the Chamber of Commerce, 64.9% of all respondents conducting business with Germany "specifically ask for German and English bilingual skills when conducting a search for new employees."

Mid-size businesses traditionally form the backbone of the German economy, but a number of larger companies also play important international roles. Siemens is the world's eighth-largest business enterprise, and the Deutsche Bank is one of its biggest financial institutions. DaimlerChrysler and Volkswagen are among the leading automotive producers, and General Motors and Ford have large German divisions. In 2003 Forbes Magazine named BMW the most-admired company in Europe. In terms of money spent on research and development, DaimlerChrysler and Siemens rank third and fourth in the world, while Volkswagen, Bayer, Hoechst, Bosch, BASF, Boehringer/Ingelheim, Deutsche Telekom, and Mannesman also occupy places among the first 90 (International Herald-Tribune, 26 Feb. 2000).

Germany's automobile, engineering, chemical, pharmaceutical, and high-end appliance firms are well known, as is its leadership in design, but the country's information enterprises are also significant. Bertelsmann is the world's largest publisher, and the German book-publishing industry as a whole ranks third in the world (behind Britain and China), traditionally producing over a third more new book titles each year than does the United States (see The Bowker Annual). Germany is also among the world's leaders in computing. A 1999 study by McKinsey found that the Munich area's 1,800 computer firms, with over 100,000 employees, formed the world's fourth largest concentration of hardware and software producers (after Silicon Valley, Boston, and London - Munich is also home to 115 biotech companies, while Dresden hosts 765 semiconductor firms). German is the internet's third language (after English and Russian) in terms of total percentage of web sites.  German and Japanese are the pilot languages for new Microsoft products that will eventually be brought on to the market. Germany and China house the most trade shows in the world and trade shows are an excellent way to sell products to distributors globally, not just in the host countries.  According to a 2003 study by the European Interactive Advertising Association, a higher percentage of Germans went online every day than any other Europeans, and Germany had the highest number of websites per capita: 85 per 1000 inhabitants. In fact, Germany's '.de' is the world's most widely-used country-specific domain, and only '.com' accounts for a larger number of web addresses in any category.5

A leader in the development of alternative energy sources, Germany tops all other nations both in wind energy production and in the use of photovoltaic cells to produce electricity.  Approximately half of all photovoltaic cells and a third of all windmills are produced in Germany, while a single firm, Voith in Heidesheim, provides a third of the world's hydroelectric installations. Renewable energy accounts for 14.2% of Germany's electricity and 6.6% of its heating. In the 2008 Yale-Columbia Environmental Performance Index. Switzerland, Austria, and Germany were ranked among the top 13 countries - with Switzerland in first place. By March 2009 Germany had already met its 2012 Kyoto Treaty obligations for reduced greenhouse gas emissions, three years ahead of time.

Even in the world of sport, German-speakers figure prominently. Since unification, Germany has stood no lower than 5th place in the number of medals won in the Summer Olympics. When the women's national soccer team won the 2003 World Cup, Germany became the only country whose men and women have both held the championship. The men's team, which placed third in the 2006 World Cup, has reached the semi-finals and the finals more often than has that of any other country, and only Brazil and Italy have won the title more often. Tennis, swimming, rowing, golf, track, basketball, boxing, riding, and auto racing are just some of the other major sports at which Germans excel. German-speaking Switzerland has also produced some of the world's top tennis players, including Martina Hingis and Roger Federer. In 2006, as in the previous two Winter Olympics, Germany was the top medal winner. Austria was 4th (although tied for the 2nd-place U.S. and ahead of 3rd-place Canada in the number of gold medals). Athletes from all the German-speaking countries traditionally dominate alpine skiing to the extent that German is the sport's primary language. Each summer the U.S. Ski Team sends its members to the Dartmouth College ALPS Program in New Hampshire to learn German.

Thus it becomes clear that a knowledge of German grants access not only to rich literary, philosophical, and artistic traditions but also to many other kinds of contemporary cultural, economic, political, and scientific developments.

1 See Thttp://www.daad.de/deutschland/en/2.5.1.html. Among the world's languages, German ranks 12th in the number of native speakers. According to the 1990 Census, 1.5 million residents of the U.S. speak German at home (see www.glreach.com/globstats/refs.php3). In Europe, German is also the second-most-often taught foreign language. Since Europeans who study English frequently learn German, as well, the total of German-speakers in the European Union actually exceeds that of English-speakers (Franz Stark, "The Historical and Current Position of the German Language in Europe," New York: The German Information Center, 1995; the DAAD Letter Nr. 1, March 2000, p. 18). In most countries in the world, French and German are, after English, the most frequently taught foreign languages. In the countries that have recently joined the European Union, 77% of students learn English, 37% German, and 18% French. In Japan, 68% of all students learn German.
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2 See the comparative economic review from The German Information Center and the report of February 16, 2001, from [email protected] For an updating of general facts about Germany, see the Center's Fact Page, as well as http://www.magazine-deutschland.de. For facts about the other German-speaking countries, see www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook.
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3  It is also worth noting that Germany's wealth is distributed relatively equitably among its population. When post-tax transfers are factored in, Germany's relative poverty rate is 2.4%, while Switzerland's is 4.3% - the United States' rate is 11.7% (See The New York Review of Books, March 23, 2000, p. 21). In the average large German company, the CEO's compensation is 11 times that of the average worker; in the U.S., the ratio is 531 to 1 (The New York Times, Jan. 25, 2004).
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4 From a September 7, 2007, statement from the German-American Chamber of Commerce in New York.
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5 DAAD Letter, op. cit., the report of February 16, 2001, from [email protected], and also http://www.magazine-deutschland.de.
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Research provided by Dartmouth College.


The "Why Learn German?" Top Ten Reasons

The importance of German may not seem as obvious to Americans because we are separated from the rest of the world by ocean.  We tend to notice only what's in our own backyard.  Worldwide, German is among the most popular foreign languages to learn.  The world sees the importance of German.  We really do live in a global society and must look at more than what is immediately around us.  We need to see the entire picture.

Sources:  American Assoc. of Teachers of German, Dartmouth College, National Council for the Social Studies, St. Olaf College, Univ. of St. Thomas, US News & World Report, World Book Encyclopedia

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