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Efforts to Promote German Language Fall on Deaf Ears

December 26, 1987|WILLIAM TUOHY | Times Staff Writer

WIESBADEN, West Germany — The renowned Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who ruled much of Western Europe from 1519 to 1556, was said to have spoken Spanish to his wife, French to his cook, Italian to his mistress--and German to his horse.

Grappling with German a few centuries later, the American humorist Mark Twain remarked that the language "must always remain an impossibility to a foreigner."

And even the greatest German writer of them all, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was reported to have preferred reading his own works in French in his later years because he found it easier.

Still, officials concerned with the language strive to promote the use of German throughout the world, although they readily concede that German will never take the place of English as a second language.

"It is difficult to compete with English," said Franz Planatscher, an official at the Society for the German Language in the resort spa of Wiesbaden. "And, increasingly, we find that technical journals that were once the province of the German language are now written in English. So, it is a problem to promote German."

Planatscher said that his society's job is to "cultivate and promote the German language."

Toward that end, the society publishes two magazines with a limited circulation overseas: a bimonthly called Language Service and another, Mother Tongue, which together reach 35 countries. German is the mother tongue of citizens of East and West Germany, Austria, eastern Switzerland and a couple of northern provinces of Italy--an estimated 90 million people.

As such, it is well behind such multi-country languages as Spanish and Arabic, but it vies with French as a second or third language for Europeans.

In the United States, only an estimated 1.3 million of about 40 million citizens of German descent still speak the language. One American study showed that about 2 million high school pupils study Spanish, 1 million learn French and only 300,000 are in German classes.

Declining Enrollments

The Munich newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported that the number of university students studying German in the United States dropped from 216,000 to 126,999 in the last 20 years and that 150 American colleges have closed their German departments.

In Western Europe, too, German is declining; it is no longer an obligatory language in most schools. It is more frequently studied in Scandinavia, but even there it is declining.

In Britain, about 75% of advanced high school students take French, while only 20% study German.

It is not hard to see why: The complexities of German grammar, with a welter of rules governing the use of capital letters, commas and hyphens, make the language a nightmare for many students.

And even literate Germans complain about the long sentences with the verbs at the end, often making the sentence meaningless until the last word.

Mme. De Stael, whose 18-Century salon attracted political and intellectual notables, once complained that you can't have a decent conversation in German because with the verb at the very end, you have to forgo "the pleasure of interrupting, which makes discussion so animated in France."

Observations by Twain

And Mark Twain wrote in his essay, "The Awful German Language":

"An average sentence in a German newspaper is a sublime and impressive curiosity. It occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all 10 parts of speech--not in regular order but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot and not to be found in any dictionary. . . .

"It treats of 14 or 15 different subjects, each enclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here or there extra parentheses which re-enclose three or four of the minor parentheses; finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line--after which comes the verb , and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about. . . . "

Despite the critics, German officials continue to press for promotion of the language in other parts of the world. Chancellor Helmut Kohl has called for "new efforts to make the German language more widely known abroad."

This year, half the Foreign Ministry's annual cultural budget of more than $500 million supports language promotion.

According to Barthold Witte, head of the Foreign Ministry's cultural department, there is a feeling that "German has a place in the world too."

This place is being fostered mainly through the Goethe Institute, an organization with 147 branches in 66 countries that promotes German culture and the language. A new branch is to be opened in Beijing.

The institute is funded by the West German government but remains independent of it.

Training Teachers

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