Andreas Kluth

Germany Should Make English an Official Language

Here’s a great idea that unfortunately won’t become reality any time soon: Germany should recognize English as a second official language. So should most countries, in fact.

The idea popped up this month in a 10-point program put forth by the Free Democrats, the business-friendly and liberal junior partners in the German governing coalition. Their motivation is to attract half a million skilled immigrants per year, net of emigrants.

This makes sense. Germany is an aging society that suffers from labor shortages and needs more international talent. But as a society, it’s much less open to newcomers — both bureaucratically and culturally — than traditional immigrant nations such as Canada, say. Another hurdle is German.

As Mark Twain authoritatively and charmingly put it, the language is “awful.” Only a deviant mind, given a clean slate, would construct a grammar with four cases and three genders, yielding a baffling array of permutations just for definite articles. By contrast, English has “the.” Nuff said.

Simplicity isn’t the only thing to commend English. Ubiquity is the big one. English is the obvious heir to such historical antecedents as Akkadian, Aramaic, Greek or Latin in being a lingua franca — that is, a common and near-universal means of communication. Its only rivals today are Mandarin in Asia and Spanish in the Americas.

In old Italian, lingua franca meant “Frankish tongue.” The term didn’t refer to Frankish — the Germanic dialect spoken by the Franks around the time they conquered Gaul — but to a new language spoken all around the Mediterranean during the late Middle Ages.

Also called sabir, this “Frankish” was actually a blend of Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Slavic, Greek and other dialects. It was therefore a pidgin, which later turned into a creole. A pidgin is a simplified mixture of existing tongues spoken as a second language to facilitate communication. A creole is a pidgin spoken by subsequent generations as a first language, with more standardized grammar and syntax.

English, according to some linguists, also started as a pidgin — a cocktail of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French, with bits of Norse and Celtic — before turning into a creole and eventually a language.
This evolution is ongoing. For example, Singapore English, also known as Singlish, began as a pidgin of English, Hokkien, Malay, Cantonese, Tamil and other ingredients, before turning into today’s colorful creole.

In its global rise, English has followed the classic career path of lingua francas throughout the ages, as Nicholas Ostler describes in “Empires of the Word.” It initially spread by migration (to North America and Australia, for example), then by “diffusion” (to India, say), as well as “infiltration,” the combination of the two (as in South Africa).

Via global diffusion — through business and academic jargon, the reach of Hollywood, Silicon Valley and what have you — English has of late been spreading even faster. In places such as Scandinavia, it’s become almost a second first language.

Sometimes using English just makes things easier. Other times it keeps the peace among native language communities that might otherwise be at each other’s throats, as in Singapore, India or the Philippines. Often, it does both, as in the European Union. There and in a long list of other places, English is, therefore, privileged as an official language — that is, one that citizens can use to communicate with their bureaucracies.

So why won’t countries like Germany make English official? The Free Democrats’ suggestion quickly got shot down by other parties, as well as lobbies representing civil servants. Some argued that adding an official language would impose unacceptable costs in paperwork and staff training. Perhaps. But that reasoning neglects the benefits.

The real reason why many people reject the lingua franca is more visceral. They’re reacting against the cultural cosmopolitanism and globalism English represents. English is for “anywheres,” people who barely care any longer which country their current Starbucks and yoga studio is in. National languages and regional dialects are for “somewheres,” those who don’t want to, and maybe couldn’t, live anywhere but their home town.

The backlash against English isn’t confined to nativists and populists. It’s also spreading to the political center. Jens Spahn is a conservative member of the Bundestag and former health minister. A few years ago, he went through a phase in which he ranted in Op-Ed pages against chic cafes in his hipster neighborhood of Berlin that displayed menus — gasp — in English.

Let’s all relax. Anglophone cosmopolitanism won’t replace local cultures, just as “Frankish” sabir didn’t make medieval Mediterranean societies any less varied and colorful. A lingua franca just helps more people get stuff done.

Up to a point, that is. Even embracing the lingua franca can’t solve the deeper human problem of miscommunication. Germans speaking English, in which they tend to be overconfident because the two Germanic languages are deceptively similar, are at particular risk.

There’s an apocryphal story about Helmut Kohl, when he was German chancellor and hosting Margaret Thatcher, a British prime minister not known for being a Germanophile. “You can say you to me,” Kohl allegedly suggested in flirtatious English, translating “Sie dürfen mich duzen” verbatim.

In his mind, Kohl was offering amity. In hers, he was confirming that Krauts are weird. The diplomatic damage was contained — Thatcher, after some American arm-twisting, did eventually accept German reunification. But sometimes, it’s probably better just to get a translator.