A growing number of people are learning German – a new documentary shows us why

Why are you learning German? Maren Niemeyer, Film-maker & Programme Coordinator for the Film Department of the Goethe-Institut, has compiled answers to this question from all over the world in a documentary of the same name. She found that the main factor motivating people to learn German was entirely pragmatic in nature: 'The job and educational opportunities in Germany are virtually unparalleled around the world.'

The film 'Why are you learning German?' traces the evolution of German language teaching at Goethe-Instituts around the world, using historical films and newly recorded footage to show developments and changes in the delivery of German courses and in the background and motivation of learners over the decades.

A cinematic journey

Maren Niemeyer was inspired to make her documentary while browsing the archives in the basement of the Goethe-Institut. 'I stumbled upon a pile of dusty old boxes of language teaching films from the 50s, 60s and 70s and wanted to make sure that this treasure trove of films didn't fade into obscurity. Then there was the fact that 2012 was a record year in terms of the number of people wanting to learn German at Goethe-Instituts around the world. This gave me the idea of showing, on the one hand, just how diverse German learners and their reasons for learning are and, on the other hand, how German courses have developed over the last 60 years.'

The documentary team travelled right around the world to meet German learners, taking in Spain, Russia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Bavaria, Berlin and California's Silicon Valley along the way, and also meeting a number of prominent course alumni. Were you aware, for example, that Pope Francis, former Israeli ambassador in Germany Avi Primor, and US opera diva Renée Fleming all once attended German courses at the Goethe-Institut?

Trailer: 'Why are you learning German?' (in German only)

German for university and professional life

Niemeyer's first stop is in the Spanish capital, Madrid, where German language courses are in particularly high demand as a result of the European financial crisis. Around 40 percent of young Spaniards were out of work in 2012. Twenty-four year old Laura is one of them. She has just completed an engineering degree, but does not see any career prospects in Spain. Well qualified specialists are in high demand in Germany, and so Laura is taking an intensive course in German, hoping to find better job prospects there.

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the team visits Hanoi in Vietnam. 'I was particularly keen to visit Vietnam, as it has had very close ties with Germany historically, something which is often forgotten in Germany,' said Maren Niemeyer. There are over 100,000 Vietnamese people living in Germany and many people in Vietnam speak German. A large number of young people are learning German because they are going to Germany to study and wish to prepare themselves to speak the language before leaving Vietnam.

Learning German for love's sake

This time, the team make a stop in Ethiopia, the country with the highest illiteracy rate in the world. Less than 50 percent of Ethiopians have the opportunity to attend school and learn to read and write, which is why director Niemeyer was particularly struck by the story of thirty-six year old Rahel. This young woman had recently married her German fiancé and was determined to learn German quickly. After several attempts, Rahel managed to pass the A1 German course at the Goethe-Institut in Addis Ababa, despite having had no formal education. 'Until I made this documentary, I could never have imagined just how difficult it is for an adult to learn a new language when they cannot read or write,' said Niemeyer.

Music as a vehicle for learning

Many of the world's most acclaimed opera singers began their careers in Germany and, consequently, learned German. Take Renée Flemming, for instance. As a young singer, she was an iron-willed German student in Boppard am Rhein and now makes regular concert appearances at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.

Music is a popular tool in German teaching. 'Pop, rock and other genres of music have always been the main vehicle for getting young people abroad interested in the German language,' said Niemeyer. 'We need to be completely honest about the fact that it isn't because lots of people want to read Goethe's Werther in its original version that German is sexy, but rather because German-language songs by pop- and rock-stars like Nina Hagen, Nena, die Toten Hosen and Tokio Hotel are becoming hits around the world.'

Key information about the Goethe-Institut

There are 158 Goethe Instituts in 93 countries across the world, employing around 3,000 staff members in total (as at 31.12.2012). During 2012, 246,600 people around the world took part in a language course run by the Goethe-Institut. The Goethe-Institut offers a range of teaching formats, including group, individual and distance lessons, intensive and corporate courses, web-based self-learning courses, and specialist language courses for professional groups such as doctors, engineers and nursing staff. You can find more information about these German courses on the Goethe-Institut's website.

October 2013

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7 July 2020

Why was the Goethe Institut at Boppard closed? Is thee a group of alumni?

Ahmed Bessedik
20 February 2019

Deutsch lernen macht wirklich Spass .Ich habe sogar den Privileg es zu unterrichten und das seit Jahren in Algerien (im Gymnasium). Allerdings lerne ich jeden Tag neue Sachen im Fernsehen,im Internet,lese Zeitungen online.

Adel Rizk
26 February 2018

It is true that, we are here at Goethe institute Cairo there are a rush for
German language learning .

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