Is German disappearing as a language of science?

  • 2021-11-30
  • Christina Pfänder
  • Comment
German learners in the classroom
© Getty Images/SDI Productions

It is no longer unusual to experience English-language degree courses in German lecture halls. The academic community tends to communicate in English, especially when it comes to STEM subjects, and this trend is even discernible in the humanities. German is increasingly declining in importance as a science language – yet there are always numerous people still learning German worldwide.

Like Dr Djouroukoro Diallo from Mali, who works as a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for the Study in Language and Society (CSLS) at the University of Bern. ‘Conducting my research in German means that I incorporate another language and cultural community into my work, which broadens my horizon’, says the  alumnus. ‘It also gives me the opportunity to participate in social discussions within Switzerland and thereby to gain new impetus from a different perspective.’

Diallo grew up in a tradition of multilingualism. His research focuses on text and discourse analysis in the media and involves similarities and differences between German-speaking countries and the African continent. ‘I’ve always considered learning German to be a major advantage. It also increased my interest in academic culture within the German-speaking sphere.’

„Germany is still very influential as an academic location“

He’s not alone in this assessment. ‘German is in position 12 on the list of the most spoken languages in the world and is the most spoken language in the EU’, according to Professor Dr Peter Schlobinski, chairman of the . ‘Germany is still a heavyweight as a research and academic location. Whether it continues to be is dependent on Germany’s development and its education and higher education policies.’ An historical perspective indicates that excellent research and economic dominance strengthen the prestige of an academic language. Scientific progress meant that German dominated on the international academic stage in the 19th and early 20th centuries, although it lost its rank to English in the course of the First and Second World Wars. It is still true today that you have to publish a lot of material – and preferably in English – if you want to be successful and reach a large audience. ‘Even in the STEM subjects, where publishing in English has become increasingly established in recent years, German is preserved for the purpose of a linguistically differentiated exchange in technical communication and in everyday professional interchange with colleagues’, says Dr Hebatallah Fathy, head of the DAAD German Studies Department, German Language and “Lektor” Programme. ‘Knowledge of German source texts and an understanding of academic discourse in German will moreover continue to be of great importance in the humanities and social sciences in the future.’

This is one of the reasons why the  supports international educational biographies – and uses its Studienbrücke (study bridge) programme to enable direct entry into a German-language bachelor's degree course in Germany. The focus of this initiative, which is offered in 24 countries in the regions of Eastern Europe/Central Asia, North and South America, and South-east and East Asia, starts as early as the school years and is based on intensive (technical) language, learning and intercultural training, which is primarily imparted in a digital format. Close cooperation with the DAAD and eight German partner higher education institutions means that participants receive ideal preparation for studies in STEM or scientific subjects in Germany and obtain comprehensive support at the start of their studies. ‘Many pupils select German as a subject at school if they see a potential to use the language’, explains Svenja von Itter, who manages the programme. ‘Studienbrücke enables us to create a direct route for particularly committed and excellent prospective students to study in Germany and to provide the conditions for them to easily master their studies in German.’ There are now over 450 successful Studienbrücke graduates studying in Germany. ‘This programme meets both the increased interest from pupils in conducting their undergraduate studies in Germany and the demand from German higher education institutions for qualified international students, especially in the STEM subjects’, says von Itter.

Deutschlandfunk - Deutsch als Wissenschaftssprache

Deutschlandfunk - Deutsch als Wissenschaftssprache
Deutschlandfunk - Deutsch als Wissenschaftssprache ©

The DAAD promoting German as a language of science

The DAAD is also promoting German as a language of science, for instance by means of a language course for scholarship holders, an extensive lecturers' network that disseminates the German language, culture and literature around the world, as well as via funding for international German Studies conferences, which form an important basis for professional exchange and networking among early-career academics. ‘We see this as our contribution to academic multilingualism’, Fathy explains. ‘Because internationalisation doesn’t necessarily means anglicisation. Maintaining linguistic diversity in all higher educational contexts, be it in studies, in academia or in research, is an essential objective of our support.’

Linguistic diversity forms the basis for intellectual enrichment: each language permits a different perspective regarding the object of research and offers different ways of thinking – and there isn’t always an adequate English translation for every technical term. The GfdS therefore also backs linguistic diversity, not merely at academic conferences. ‘Direct interaction in the respective research country’s language should not be underestimated’, states GfdS chairman Schlobinski. ‘I’ve been in China a few times myself and experienced the appreciation when I spoke Chinese with colleagues there.’

Connected to an intercultural mindset

Holding a conversation in the host country’s language was also a special experience for DAAD alumna . This renowned biophysicist, who held the professorship for modern materials at the CSIR Central Leather Research Institute in Chennai, India, worked at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in 1983 and 1984 with assistance from the DAAD. ‘The excellent reputation of the MPI and also the names of important German physicists influenced my choice for Göttingen’, she says. ‘I returned several times to conduct research projects at the Institute in subsequent years.’ In her academic career, however, she preferred to conduct her academic discussions in English: ‘The vocabulary is accessible and easy to understand’, states Dhathathreyan. ‘English is used in many parts of the world, especially for training in graduate programmes.’ Dhathathreyan did nevertheless benefit from her exposure to German vocabulary. ‘Knowing the German language made it easier for me to access the research conducted by my colleagues in Göttingen’, Dhathathreyan says. ‘It also improved my interpersonal relationships, in the Institute, but also in everyday life.’

, Professor in Classics and Italian Philology at the Faculty of ‘Artes Liberales’ at the University of Warsaw, also backs multilingualism. In 2006 and 2007 she travelled to conduct postdoctoral research at the Free University of Berlin with a scholarship from the : a unique experience. ‘I love the German language’, she says, ‘the great poets, thinkers and musicians.’ As winner of the Humboldt Alumni Award for Innovative Networking Initiatives and Vice-Dean for International Cooperation she still to this day feels connected to an intercultural mindset – and is continuing to collaborate with German and international researchers. 

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