Many years ago, for some reason I started to fancy studying some Finnish. Before I had gone further than the everyday greetings, I met a Finnish young woman and with the typical Nordic straight talk, she just said: “Nobody should study Finnish”. Fine. Exactly the same happened the time I made the mistake of expressing my wish to pick up some Czech in front of a Czech girl, while I was trying to chat her up with my elementary Polish. So I ended up studying neither Finnish nor Czech. After all, and I am not really pleased to admit it, those girls might have been right. I had no plans to visit Finland or Czechia (in case you are wondering, that’s how the government of the Czech Republic would prefer their country to be called) anytime soon, and Czech is spoken “only” by 10 million people, while Finnish “only” by a little more than 5 million people. I might have had some interest in learning these two languages, but my sympathy for these countries was not strong enough to overcome the determination of the locals who so dismissively told me it was not worth to learn their language. Sadly I came to the conclusion that there really might be some languages which are not worth learning. Time, after all, is not an infinite resource and learning a language takes a lot of time, mainly because with languages anything short of perfection looks like a mistake.
But German? I mean, after all, it is a language spoken by nearly 100 million people in Europe, a language with a great and long cultural tradition (by the way did you know that until World War I, German was widely spoken in the US too and only after the US went to war with Germany in 1917 the German languages began to disappear from everyday life?), the language of one of the wealthiest countries on earth, the language of the most powerful EU member and so on and so on, it should be well worth learning, shouldn’t it? Think again.
It is not a beautiful language
I know that beauty is a matter of taste, but I mean, German is not Italian or French, is it? It just does not sound very beautiful to the ear and comes across as rather harsh. Some people say it is only a stereotype. Well, sometimes stereotypes have some base of truth.
It is difficult
Or rather: it is actually not so difficult at all, because even if it does have a case system, which means that sometimes you will have to slightly change the ending of a word according to whether this word is the subject or an object in the sentence, it is an extremely simplified case system. However, if your experience of language learning has been limited to English or, say, Spanish, at first this additional difficulty may give you some unnecessary headaches. In addition to that, Germans will invariably tell you that their language is difficult, even if it is not, at least compared to some really “difficult” languages like Russian or Turkish. At some point, you will start to believe it.
Everybody speaks English
You are doing your best, with painful efforts to put together a sentence in German, almost physically sweating, looking for the right word, trying to remember which case you need to use with the word in that position, it sounds like you got it just right, you are starting to feel proud, and it looks like the message got across and your counterpart has understood what you really wanted to say – until he replies to you in English. It happens all the time. Apparently people do it to make your life easier, because they know that their language is so difficult that foreigners will never get it right. But to me this habit had a rather annoying effect. Sometimes even if you got your sentence right, even just exibiting an unfamiliar accent will make people reply to you in English. When this happens, I can barely keep my frustration and I always say: “Ich kann leider kein English, ich verstehe kein English”. It is not like people will respect you more if you have made the effort to learn their language.
You will never become German
In the US, they say that immigrants start feeling themselves American pretty soon and after five years they can take the American citizenship. The path to citizenship is open to foreigners in Germany too, and it takes only slightly longer than in the US, but even having a German passport will not mean that you have become German. Germans are also arguably not the most easygoing people in the world. I am not saying it is impossible to make German friends, but there are places in the world were it is easier to get to know new people and make friends, like, a lot easier. I remember when I was at my German university, before the seminars, people hardly spoke to each other, immersed in their books. It must be because I am from a “Southern” country, but in my native place, before our seminars, our classrooms were definitely a bit more chaotic, and how can I say it, more lively. Here sometimes I would feel like venturing into throwing out a “hello”, which was often met with some skepticism and was not reciprocated the next time. When I accidentaly stumbled upon some classmates outside of the classroom, even in other parts of the town, we would simply just ignore each other politely.
Germany is not so German anymore
100 hundred years ago, one could speak of a distinctive German culture, a distinctive German film school, a superb German education system. Now German cinema looks just like a slightly cheaper imitation of Hollywood. The only typically German film production I can think of are the Krimis, the thrillers, of which there are a million. But they are so devoid of any form of humour or entertaining elements that you need to be German to appreciate them. German universities are good enough, but they are far away from the top, and to attract international students you have to offer programs in English anyway, with English firmly established as the language of scientific/academic research. The point here is that with the liquidation of Nazism after World War II, German culture automatically became something not to be proud of. A German philosopher, one of those that probably nobody reads today, said once: “To be a good German means to become less German”. Sounds like they took these words seriously (like anything else, for that matter), because other than ten different sorts of beer and great cars, it is hard to find some uniqueness in contemporary German culture.
Goethe – who?
Germany prouded itself of being a nation of philosophers, the nation of Goethe and Schiller. Well, you might be surprised to hear nobody reads Goethe and Schiller now, or even Thomas Mann. If you look at the bestseller list you will find the usual Krimis in book form and probably some work by George Martin. If you want to learn German just to read Goethe and Schiller in the original, good luck. The only ones who do are probably Germanistik (German literature studies) students because they are forced to do it and probably they are going to realize what a big mistake they made when in 10 years they will still be stacking shelves at that cheap supermarket.
You don’t need German
If you are a professional, let’s say a computer programmer, and you come to Germany for work, nobody will ever ask you to learn German as long as you are good at your job. It is very likely instead that you will work for a multinational company with a lot of other international expats and you will all speak English at work, and the main socialization will occur at your workplace (and very likely, it is not with your German colleagues that you are going to socialize). So if you pick up enough German to go to the grocery store, your life will be just fine.
Because of the sausage
In German to say “I don’t care”, you say “Das ist mir völlig wurst”, which literally means, “this is totally sausage to me”.
It may be a naive belief, but I think that there are only a few simple truths in the world and that something does not become less true just because you have heard it a million times. So, in a way I can’t not agree with Mark Twain who put it briefly and memorably when he said: “Life is too short to learn German”.
PS I originally titled this piece ”5 reasons not to study German” and eventually came up with 8 pretty good reasons not to do it, while leaving out at least two other equally good ones, because I am a nice person and it was not my intention to offend anyone. Einen schönen Tag noch!