Anyone deciding to undertake studies in Europe usually faces the question: do I learn the language of my host country, or do I try and muddle through with English? English-instructed study programmes are available in most EU countries, including Germany, and the working language in many companies is now English. In some Berlin cafés you can only order your coffee in English, because the service staff know little or no German.
Yet speaking more than just your mother tongue and English has many advantages. Especially in Europe. ‘Europa defines itself via its cultural diversity, and that in turn is closely linked with its linguistic diversity’, says Holger Hopp. This DAAD alumnus is co-founder and managing director of the Mannheimer Zentrum für empirische Mehrsprachigkeitsforschung (MAZEM – Mannheim Centre for Empirical Multilingualism Research) and Professor of English Linguistics at Braunschweig University of Technology.
Access to a country’s culture – and its people – is gained through language. ‘It’s a crucial, identity-forming element; so you can never truly integrate without language skills’, Hopp explains. There are even subtle differences in various languages when it comes to salutations, and these say a lot about a culture. A casual English ‘Hi’, for instance, doesn't go down well with everyone in France. Salutations there tend to be mostly very polite, in Germany more formal. Multilingualism also fosters intercultural understanding. Hopp is convinced that the more languages someone speaks, the better they understand the world. ‘Multilingualism is a guarantor for cosmopolitanism.’
Those who have a command of multiple languages, and learn new ones, also do something for their brain. Studies have shown that learning languages generally increases creativity and intellectual capacity. Holger Hopp says that learning languages is like jogging for the brain. Multilingualism is even said to have a positive impact on the progression of dementia. ‘There is evidence that the disease process is delayed.’ Those who are used to switching back and forth between different languages are also able to react more flexibly in other areas of life. ‘People like this also find it easier to make decisions, for example.’
This all sounds great. If only it weren’t so arduous to acquire a new language. German, for instance, is considered to be complex. Hopp sees it differently. ‘German is no more difficult to learn than other languages. Those who have the motivation and an objective in mind, such as studies or a professional career in Germany, will manage to achieve it.’
Yet cramming vocabulary and grammar doesn’t usually bring the desired success. Modern language courses simulate and linguistically act out everyday situations. This is called contextual learning. Extracurricular input is also important, especially conversations with native speakers, but even the use of social media such as YouTube or TikTok. Language learning apps can also be a good tool to improve your language level. Albeit Holger Hopp conversely only recommends translation programmes and apps for overcoming initial language barriers.
He does not, by the way, believe that programmes based on artificial intelligence will ever obviate the need to learn languages: ‘AI programmes may in future undertake technical translations. But machines simply cannot comprehend the linguistic subtleties that matter in a conversation or in literature.’
So there will still be no substitute for learning in the future. Research has at least revealed that language learning becomes easier with each new language learned!