English is widely spoken in Brazil
German abroad: In which countries is German spoken?
Is the German language on the rise again?
Several reasons prompted us to investigate the issue of the importance of the German language in the world. According to the GfK study (Society for Consumer, Market and Approach Research) published in 2017, Germany is once again one of the most popular countries in the world. More and more young people from our European neighbors are drawn to economically strong Germany.
How does this affect the spread of the German language? Where is German currently spoken at all, apart from in Germany, and what role does the German language play in comparison to the major world languages or lingua franca, English and Spanish?
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Over 100 million people speak German
German is spoken by around 118 million people worldwide. Besides Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein belong to the German-speaking countries. In addition, German is recognized as an official language in a number of countries or is officially considered a minority language (Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, Italy (South Tyrol and Vatican City), Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Czech Republic, Hungary and Russia).
But even in countries outside the European continent, German is much more widespread as a mother tongue or second language than one would assume. German is spoken by over a million people in Brazil. In addition to Portuguese, German is also the official language of nine Brazilian municipalities. And in African Namibia it is the mother tongue of around 20,000 people and is one of the eleven national languages.
German is not only learned as a mother tongue or second language worldwide, but also spoken as a foreign language. In his basic work “The Position of the German Language in the World”, published in 2015, the sociologist Ulrich Ammon assumes around 14.5 million people, according to a data collection by the Goethe Institute there are as many as 15.46 million people. This makes German one of the three to four most common foreign languages learned worldwide - after English, French and Spanish. Click here for the complete overview of the countriesin which German is spoken.
Is German a world language?
German is clearly one of the “big languages” and is usually found among the ten most widely spoken languages in the world - in some surveys, however, it only lands in eleventh place. Is that why German is a world language? No, just like Chinese, although it is spoken by over a billion people. The number of speakers is not decisive for whether a language makes it to the world language. It is also important how intensively it is used as an official language by countries and international organizations, what role it plays in international trade contacts, in diplomacy or in the transfer of knowledge.
Where is German spoken: The results
We looked around the world to find out in which countries German is spoken. However, the numbers can only be an approximation of the actual number of speakers.
Ammon also refers extensively in his work to the difficulty of determining exact numbers. He sees the main reasons for this in the survey methods, which use different criteria such as the status of the language (official language), the extent of existing minorities (of German origin) and emigration statistics as the basis for the survey. However, the fact that a language is an additional official language or that there are German roots only says something about the extent to which German is actually spoken in a country.
In the European Union, German is the most widely spoken mother tongue (16 to 18 percent). But why is German spoken at all in other European countries? On the one hand, the development of the language areas has not always adhered to national borders and, on the other hand, national borders have shifted over time without necessarily adhering to language borders. In addition, there have been large and small population movements over the course of history, such as from Germany to Eastern Europe or emigrations to other continents. This has resulted in German language minorities in many European and non-European countries to this day. The German language is most widespread in Western Europe.
In addition to Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein, the German language is widespread in France (1.2 million speakers), Luxembourg (475,000 speakers), the Netherlands (400,000 speakers) and Italy (310,000 speakers). The high number in France results largely from the Franconian and Alemannic dialects spoken in the Grand Est region (formerly Alsace, Champagne-Ardenne and Lorraine). In Luxembourg, German is the official language alongside Letzeburgisch and French.
Around 360,000 Germans who immigrated to the country live in the Netherlands. Many Dutch schools offer German as a foreign language. The majority of German speakers in Italy live in South Tyrol, which until 1919 belonged to Austria and where today more than 60% of the population still speak German as their mother tongue. In Spain, which is a popular emigration country in Europe, the number is estimated at 100,000 and in Greece at 45,000. In Sweden, also a place of longing for many Germans, the number is around 50,000 speakers.
Like South Tyrol, the “German-speaking Community” in Belgium (76,000 speakers) is one of the linguistic minorities with the best rights in a country where the majority speak a different language. Although it actually belongs to the French-speaking region of Wallonia, they represent a separate community alongside the Flemish and French (South Tyrol has a largely autonomous administration). A minority of German descent also lives in Denmark (20,000 speakers) - especially in Northern Schleswig - which until 1920 belonged to the Prussian province of Schleswig-Holstein.
In Eastern Europe, minorities of German origin in the former settlement areas, such as Russian Germans and Hungarian Germans, play a role in the presence of the German language: Russia (597,000 speakers), Kazakhstan (358,000 speakers), Poland (58,000 speakers), Hungary (50,000 speakers). In Hungary, the population of German origin is actually the largest minority in the country.
The German language in the rest of the world
For centuries people have left the German-speaking area to settle on other continents. In the past it was mostly for economic reasons, today it is more a preference for a country or a culture. So it's no wonder that German is spoken in the Dominican Republic (20,000 speakers). In sunny South Africa there are an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 native speakers. In neighboring Namibia, which was once a German colony, 20,000 people speak German.
The USA was still one of the most popular emigration countries. Even today, well over 10,000 German citizens leave Germany every year to live in the USA. The estimated number of German speakers in the US is 1.1 million. In some countries, German ranks third behind English and French among the languages spoken in private. The area stretches from Alabama across the Midwest to Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.
Canada (438,000 speakers) is also at the top of the list of emigration countries. Over 400,000 Germans have emigrated to the country since the 1940s. In Australia, which is also a popular emigration country, the estimate is 77,000 speakers. In the first half of the 20th century in particular, the German community carried its language to many South and Central American countries. The estimate is 1.1 million speakers in Brazil, 400,000 in Argentina, 166,000 in Paraguay, 20,000 in Chile and 80,000 in Mexico. The Jewish diaspora has also carried the German language into the distance. The number of people speaking German in Israel is estimated at 200,000, including the number of people speaking Yiddish.
Within five years, the number of German learners in Egypt has more than doubled from 120,000 to 250,000. The main reason for this is the educational reform with the 2014 constitution, which provides educational opportunities for every citizen of the state. In the 2014/15 school year, 229,420 students in Egypt learned German as a foreign language. In contrast, a negative development can be observed in the Russian Federation. From 2010 to 2015, the number of students learning German fell from 1.6 to 1.1 million. City schools are increasingly choosing to teach English as their first foreign language instead of German. In addition, the number of schools teaching German fell from 22,600 to 16,800 institutions in just five years.
Overview: Where is German spoken?
|Official language or minority language||speaker|
|Papua New Guinea||100|
A “small, big” language goes around the world
Measured against the spread of many other languages of strong economic nations such as Norwegian, Swedish or Danish, German is a major language. In terms of the prevalence of languages such as English, Spanish and Chinese, however, it falls far behind in numbers. Nevertheless, the German language was able to spread worldwide. What are the reasons for that?
A major factor in the spread of languages was colonization, which can be seen as the first type of globalization. The English, Spaniards and Portuguese were ahead of the game. Germany played only an insignificant role in colonization. Only a few smaller countries, especially in Africa, fell under the rule of the Germans. The implementation of the “ruler's language” as the official language on a large scale, as was the case with the other colonial powers, failed because Germany lost all colonies again after the outbreak of the First World War.
It looked quite different with the emigration movement. By the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century at the latest, millions of Germans migrated across the seas. Between five and six million Germans were involved in the settlement of America alone. Today an estimated 60 million Americans have German roots. The German emigrants increasingly consolidated their position and were an influential “community” for years. This is shown not least by the Mühlenberg legend, according to which there should have been a bill in the USA at the end of the 18th century that would make German the official language of the country. It wasn't quite like that. In fact, there was only one petition by German immigrants from Virginia that laws should be published in English and German. The German-American Frederik Mühlenberg, first speaker of the House of Representatives, tipped the scales and decided no.
In the second half of the 18th century, emigration to Eastern Europe began. After the First World War and partly again after the Second, many German emigrants came to South America.
The German language conquers science
The great age of the German language only came with the upswing of science and industrialization in the 19th century. Here Germany was able to establish itself alongside England, France and the USA right from the start, and with it the German language as one of the leading academic languages. Many scientific findings and discoveries were published in German. If you wanted to read it, you had to learn German.
Where is the German language today?
German has developed from a world science language to a business language for bilateral contacts. The proportion of German publications in the natural sciences is just one percent, and in the social sciences it is still seven percent. German is most likely to play an international role as a scientific language due to the many classical works in the humanities. The fact that more and more German universities are internationalizing courses and introducing English as the language of study could further contribute to the declining importance of the German language as a scientific language.
What future does the German language have?
German is more than a regional language, but it could not develop into a world language. During globalization, German did not find the same spread and importance as the English and Spanish languages, which are still the official languages of many earlier colonies. Another important point is that Germany, and with it its language, lost a lot of its importance after the Second World War. For years, German was avoided in many countries and in some cases even banned by the state. To date, German is neither of the six official languages of the United Nations (only document language) nor is it an official language of the Council of Europe (only working language). In the European Union, German is one of the 23 official languages, but is used far less than English or French. Globalization has also contributed to English becoming the most important working and lingua franca.
Only since Germany began to play an important economic and political role again has interest in the German language and German culture increased. Ammon documents in his book that in 2010 German was taught as a foreign language in public schools in 119 countries outside the German official language area and at universities in 117 countries. There was growth primarily in China, India, Brazil and in African countries, while in the CIS states and in Eastern Europe, where German was widely used as a second foreign language before the Second World War, it tended to lose importance.
The advantage of speaking German
It has always been like this: the language that opens up opportunities has also been learned. Germany is one of the strongest economies in the world. If you look at the gross national product that all native speakers generate overall, German ranks third worldwide and German is one of the three most used languages on the Internet. The attractiveness of a language always depends on the possibilities it offers. The increase in German learners in developing countries is no coincidence. Many young people in China are learning German in order to study in Germany. There is also a high affinity for German culture there. How the German language will develop in the future also depends on the advantages of speaking German.
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