[lg policy] Germany: “When Language Dies, Culture Dies Too”. An Inte =?windows-1252?Q?rview_with_J=FCrgen_?=Trabant
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Sun Mar 6 19:53:19 UTC 2011
“When Language Dies, Culture Dies Too”. An Interview with Jürgen Trabant
In the beginning was the word, but now the word has come to an end, in
all kinds of different ways – claims Berlin linguistics expert Jürgen
Trabant. He talked to Goethe.de about the fact that young people have
stopped talking, the shame associated with the German language, a
museum for dead languages and the merits of Latin.
Mr Trabant, nowadays people appear to be chatting, talking, texting,
twittering or mailing as if their lives depended on it, yet you are
thinking about the death of language. Is that not somewhat
Not at all. It is only empty chatter that is on the increase, after
all. There are in fact indications on many different levels that the
end of speech and language is nigh.
What are these indications?
A growing loss of linguistic activity can be observed in communicative
behaviour. In groups of young men, simple gestures are often more
important than verbal communication, which after all always involves
articulation and thought. They spit on the street to mark their
territory, push each other away instead of saying “Go away!”, or emit
an unarticulated “grunt” to round up a group.
When it comes to national languages, the loss of diversity is already
alarming: there are currently some 6,000 languages still in existence,
yet it is estimated that only 200 to 600 of these will remain in one
Elites turn their back on German
You once said that German no longer has much of a future ahead of it.
Will German soon be dead too?
With a hundred million people speaking the language, German will
obviously not die out from one day to the next.
What matters, however, is that German is already giving way to English
in key, highly prestigious fields of discourse – such as in science
and academia and in the social domain.
In Germany in particular, the elite is drifting away from its mother
tongue. Children are being raised in English with a view to enrolling
them in a global aristocracy. This hugely reduces the standing of
German, with far-reaching consequences, also at “lower” levels. Why
after all should migrants learn German when German elites these days
wish to speak German only within the family, if at all? Migrants have
no need of a second family language, as they already have one – what
they need is a public or work language.
“We still feel ashamed of our language”
Can you explain why elites are turning their back on the German language?
This is partly due to general tendencies towards globalization, though
it is no doubt also partly because of Germany’s special problem,
namely the fact that we no longer have any faith in our native
language after our experiences of national socialism. Even today, we
still feel ashamed of our language – and this weakens our linguistic
Languages, after all, exist not only for the purposes of practical
communication; they are also used to transport a linguistic
community’s entire mode of thinking and its culture.
Re-strengthening German teaching
What should language policy do to counter this risk?
Essentially, language policy boils down to school and education
policy, and here we need to re-strengthen the teaching of German.
Today, ambitious school heads invest all their passion and enthusiasm
into English teaching.
All kinds of subjects are now taught in English, which serves to
weaken German in these areas. In a pragmatic sense, German lessons
have become perverted – instead of teaching German-language
literature, factual texts and films tend to be the focus.
As far as foreign language teaching is concerned, the wonderful idea
of a “personal adoptive language” should be pursued – this was
developed by the European Commission at the suggestion of Leonard
Orban, the then Commissioner for Multilingualism. The idea is that all
EU citizens should learn another European language apart from global
English so that they can acquaint themselves with their neighbour’s
This would mean that the “adoptive languages” would have to be taught
alongside the mother tongue and English as a global language of
communication. This is a challenge for education that we should not
The cathedrals of thought are decaying
So what can be done to stop languages dying out?
Very little. Ultimately, only those languages with a large number of
speakers will survive. It is essential, however, that we preserve even
the languages that disappear, as their structures and grammatical
rules – some of which are curious – show how differently people can
Humankind must create a “museum of languages”. We fight for the
restoration of cathedrals, yet simply let the cathedrals of thought
decay and collapse.
“Stupidity will triumph”
Will perhaps just one language survive at the end of the day?
I don’t believe so. I myself often talk about how the writing’s on the
wall, and about how stupidity will triumph if we all end up speaking
just English, but this is of course simply rhetorical exaggeration.
Would it not in any case be fairer to choose an artificial language
like Esperanto for everyday communication?
Not in my opinion. If one were to choose a lingua franca, Latin would
be better in my view, at least for Europe. Latin, after all, is rooted
in great literature, which Esperanto lacks entirely. But perhaps it is
better after all to participate in a living culture such as the
English or American one rather than using an artificial or dead
A reminder of diversity
Is this also the message you communicate to your students as Professor
of European Plurilingualism?
As Professor of European Plurilingualism I remind my English-speaking
students from all over the world – in English, of course – that they
also speak other languages and that these languages are valuable.
Within this framework we usually discuss problematic cases of
globalization which are often associated with the end of language and
the death of languages.
This gives me the chance as a professor to experience at first hand
the risks involved in English monolingualism: knowledge developed by
German, Italian or French scholars of the humanities that has not been
translated into English is no longer registered in this Anglophone
world, with the result that entire libraries of accumulated knowledge
are simply lost.
Born in 1942, Jürgen Trabant has taught at the Free University in
Berlin as a professor of linguistics since 1980. He will continue to
hold the “Conrad Naber Chair for European Plurilingualism” at Jacobs
University Bremen until 2013. His specialist fields include historical
linguistic anthropology, the philosophy of language and language
policy. His standard work entitled Die Sprache (i.e. Language) was
published in 2009 by C.H.Beck Verlag.
Thomas Köster conducted the interview. He is one of two directors of
an editorial office and works as a culture and science journalist
(Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, NZZ am Sonntag,
Westdeutscher Rundfunk) in Cologne.
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