An Irishman's Diary

Mon, Mar 4, 2013, 00:00

There’s a little-known link between the Irish economy and the German language – something I call Brandt’s Law.

The former West German chancellor Willy Brandt once explained the laws of linguistic engagement thus: “If I am selling to you I will speak English, but if you are selling to me dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.”

Brandt’s Law when applied to Ireland means that, when the Irish economy hits the skids, people start learning German to help find work and new opportunities. When the economy recovers, attitudes reverse and the Irish think Germans – and all others – should learn English.

Instead of seeing German as a language of culture, thought, or even love, many Irish view German as a utilitarian tool of economics and efficiency, a hard and joyless rescue ring to fling at schoolchildren to keep them afloat in choppy economic waters.

In the grim 1980s, German language classes boomed as emigrants headed off to the BMW plant or a beer garden job. Three decades on, as the economy follows fashion back to the 1980s, non-smiling Irish eyes have once again settled their gaze again on Germany and German.

A new promotional campaign and website – germanconnects.ie– is an attempt by the German, Austrian and Swiss embassies to explain the benefits of learning Europe’s most commonly-spoken native tongue – spoken by almost 120 million people daily.

Conscious of its audience, however, the new website front-loads the economic benefits. At this minute there are more than 1,000 job vacancies for German-speakers in Ireland, with many more positions for skilled, German-speaking staff in continental Europe.

So is the “German Connects” website a clever attempt to tap the Zeitgeist or, with the economy hopefully turning a corner soon, will the effort fall victim to Brandt’s Law and renewed apathy to language-learning as Ireland’s economic star rises again?

At the recent launch of the website, Dublin secondary school students presented their thoughts on the matter. Many gave unconscious nods to Brandt’s Law, saying they hoped learning German would improve their career prospects and earning potential. A few took the broader view, saying learning German “gives a better taste for Europe”.

“People think German is hard,” said Aindrias Ó hEachteirn, in fifth year at Coláiste Eoin in Booterstown. “But it’s actually a lot easier than Irish.”

Remarks like that might come as a surprise to many in Ireland, where stereotypes about the “hard” German language are stubbornly difficult to shift.

One of the greatest difficulties for Irish students learning German – or any other modern language – is facing a daunting crash course in grammar, thanks to the removal of English grammar teaching from the Irish school syllabus. Compulsory Irish lessons have caused further collateral damage.

Adding to the difficulties are special, German-only burdens. It has played second fiddle to French, which Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn suggested last month was linked to religious orders’ preference for Romance languages.

Rather than learn French because the long-vanished nuns wanted to teach it, perhaps the time has come to look to German. If nothing else, it’s worth finding out what they think of us by learning their language, visiting their country and asking them directly.

Aindrias Ó hEachteirn already did that. At the website launch he brandished a well-thumbed, dual-language copy of Goethe’s epic tragedy, Faust. It’s a daunting read but, just back from a school exchange, Aindrias is anxious to learn German for more than just economic gain.

“With every language you learn,” he said, “you take off a pair of blinkers you didn’t even know you were wearing and suddenly see much more.” So is the German language hard to learn? It’s not easy but, then again, neither is watching monolingual children emigrate to far-flung English-speaking lands in search of work.

There is an emigration alternative to 23-hour flights to Sydney and watching grandchildren grow up on Skype. Learning German takes time but, long-term, the effort can open doors to new home and new opportunities just a two-hour flight from Ireland.

Before the shock of recent years passes, it’s worth learning one lesson of the economic crisis: speaking only English in a globalised world is as much a risk as it is a benefit.

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