The German language around the world

  • 2024-02-20
  • Christina Pfänder
  • Comment
A cheerful Asian woman with a German flag poses at the media harbour and television tower in Düsseldorf.
© Getty Images/frantic00

International Mother Language Day will be celebrated on 21 February. We therefore look at the spread of the German language worldwide. German is spoken far beyond the borders of Germany, Austria and Switzerland: roughly 110 million people in 42 countries speak German as their primary language.

Europe, Africa, South and North America, Australia: with its wide-ranging dialects and variants, the German language is used in many regions around the world. In Germany, Austria and Switzerland, not to mention Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Belgium, German is an official language – and with more than 95 million speakers is the most widely spoken native language in the European Union. “Social diversity means that many children in Germany and other European countries grow up with more than one language, however,” stresses Professor Sebastian Kürschner, who holds the chair in German linguistics at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt. Variety and are very much part of everyday life for German minorities abroad – as are questions concerning their own sense of belonging or marginalisation.

The primary language in which people communicate and think serves as one building block for personal development.

Prof Dr Sebastian Kürschner

“The primary language in which people communicate and think serves as one building block for personal development,” explains Kürschner, who is researching linguistic minorities with a Bohemian or Bavarian immigration background in Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina in Brazil. “Members of German minorities often think a lot about their own identity and have a number of anchoring points. Many of them feel connected not only to the country in which they live but also to the German culture.” That said, not all are oriented towards modern-day Europe: their reference point may well be their respective ethnic German regional group. “These people frequently have a strong sense of their traditions – this is evident in their family get-togethers, festivals, traditional dress, music and other cultural elements besides language.”

Historical background of German emigration movements

Reasons for the numerous German-speaking communities around the globe include the redrawing of borders in regions such as Alsace and Lothringen, and emigration movements since the Middle Ages. Hunger, poverty, conflicts over land rights, war, political or religious persecution: over the course of the centuries, large numbers of Germans emigrated to places such as Hungary, Romania, Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe, as well as to North and South America. The Transylvanian Saxons for example, most of whom originally came from the Middle Rhine and Mosel regions, already settled in the twelfth century in a territory that belonged to Hungary at the time and is now situated in central Romania. The German peasants and skilled craftsmen enjoyed privileged rights there and were supposed to secure the borders of Hungary. “In the Middle Ages, some countries specifically encouraged German craftsmen to move there as their skills were highly valued,” explains Kürschner.

German language in the world

German language in the world
German language in the world ©

The diversity of German dialects worldwide

Overall, the many German emigrants around the world led to the establishment of a wide spectrum of dialects that has a positive impact on the linguistic diversity of the present day. “Variants of the German language that are difficult or impossible to find in Germany these days are still being preserved from extinction by the German diaspora in some regions,” says Kürschner. “Pomeranian, a dialect of Low German, is now spoken almost only in Brazil, for instance.” The Reformation also led to the spread of : Protestant groups such as the Mennonites emigrated to Eastern Europe and North America in search of a new home where they would be free to practise their faith. “Especially communities like the Amish and the Mennonites speak German to this day; Mennonites use a common Low German language to communicate across national and linguistic borders,” Kürschner explains. Furthermore, many Germans had political reasons for emigrating to the United States:

  • Nowadays, German is the mother tongue of around 1.4 million Americans, while some 45 million have German ancestors.
  • German is the primary language for roughly 20,000 people in Namibia because of the country’s German colonial history.
  • And in Papua-New Guinea, the northern part of which was a German colony from 1884 to 1914, a variant known as “Unserdeutsch” evolved. “This is a creole language that consists mainly of a German vocabulary but whose grammatical structure is influenced by contact with other languages, including the creole language Tok Pisin.”

German is still popular as a foreign language

Germanic languages such as Dutch, Luxembourgish and English are more closely related to modern standard German. Adults wishing to learn German as a foreign language may perceive the many verb and noun forms or genders to be obstacles; many people also find it difficult to form the plural. “What is more, German syntax dictates that the central action is only identified at the end of sentences containing auxiliary or modal verbs, and in most subordinate clauses,“ says Kürschner. “This so-called bracket principle can be a challenge in information processing.”

Ranking twelfth on the list of the world’s most widely spoken languages, German is certainly popular despite its stumbling blocks: around 15.4 million people around the world are learning . Though there is particularly great demand in Europe, numbers are also rising in some African countries, as well as in China and Brazil. Often this reflects an interest in German culture – and the fact that .

Related links

People speak German as their mother tongue in 42 countries around the world. Why is that? We trace the reasons for you.

German is the most widely spoken native language in the EU. Interest in learning German is rising rapidly in many countries.

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