Chartered Institute
of Linguists

The problem with German

Does the portrayal of Germans by the UK press stop pupils wanting to study the language, asks Heike Krüsemann

Working as a secondary school German teacher for over two decades, I became more and more aware of how difficult British students seemed to find learning languages. This was playing out against the background of declining language uptake nationally, which has affected German the most. Currently, fewer than half of all 16-year-olds take a language GCSE. The number studying German has fallen by more than a third since 2010,1 while German A-level entries have dropped by three-quarters since 1997 to just 3,000.2 Experts now hold that German as a school subject is “headed for extinction”.3

What my students heard about German, Germans and Germany often did not square with what they experienced in lessons, or through travel and contact with German people. This made me wonder whether motivation to learn German, including uptake at school, was related to public discourses around German. This question became a research focus of my PhD.4 The ’school’ part of my study involved just over 500 learners, their German teachers and head teachers from four English secondary schools; the ‘public’ part consisted of a large number of articles about German, Germans and Germany from a range of UK national newspapers.

The participants were students who were deciding whether to continue with German study. They therefore split into ‘continuers’ and ‘droppers’, as well as into the last years of Key Stage 3 (KS3; ages 13-14) and of Key Stage 4 (KS4; ages 15-16). Through lesson observations, questionnaires, focus groups and interviews, I learnt that adolescent German learners in England seem to be motivated mainly by enjoyment of lessons and a sense of personal relevance.

To measure learner motivation, I broke it down into three variables: self-efficacy (i.e. how well learners feel they are doing); learning situation (i.e. lesson-related factors); and perceptions of the value of German. I found that these three variables were positively correlated, meaning that an increase in one correlated with an increase in the others. This implies that to sustain motivation, German learners would need to feel positive about all three of the aspects of motivation I tested.

Another more indirect way I used to capture how learners felt about German was metaphor elicitation. Here, I asked students what learning German was like for them, and to think of it in terms of a food and an animal. This allowed me to access learners’ often complex, subconsciously held beliefs around German. They came up with amazingly creative and insightful metaphors, which I coded into ‘static’ (e.g. “Brussel sprouts – everyone hates it”), ‘dynamic’ (e.g. “eating a gobstopper – hard at first, but gets easier”) and ‘ambivalent’ (e.g. “football training – sometimes hard, sometimes fun”).

Ambivalent metaphors were associated with continuing German, static metaphors with dropping it. This suggests that even the most motivated learners did not think that German was unreservedly wonderful, but the less motivated learners felt that it was categorically bad, which raises interesting questions about learning expectations.


Attitudes towards german

To explore the relationship between the private, school-based attitudes around German and the more widely circulated public discourses, I invented a task which I called ‘Family Fortunes’. It was designed to probe learners’ perception of public discourses around German, as well as their stance towards these discourses.

The first part was an association task, loosely based on the famous TV gameshow, asking learners what they thought random British people might associate with German, Germans and Germany. The second part asked whether learners perceived public attitudes towards German to be positive, negative or neutral. Although more people perceived neutral public attitudes, those who perceived negative attitudes were only slightly smaller in number. The percentage of learners in KS4 who believed public attitudes towards German were positive was double that of learners in KS3. Although most learners agreed with public perspectives, the older learners tended to take a slightly more critical stance. In KS3, continuers disagreed strongly with negative public discourse, whereas droppers did not.

So is this related to German uptake? Apparently so: KS3 learners who perceived positive public attitudes around the term ‘German’ were more likely to continue with the subject, whereas those who perceived negative attitudes were more likely to drop it.


Impact on uptake

So far, I had been looking at perceptions of public attitudes, rather than actual public attitudes, and this is where the press comes in. The newspaper articles I collected formed the basis of a linguistic corpus: a large, digital collection of text, which can act as a standard reference of typical language patterns. The purpose was to provide a snapshot of discourses around German in wider circulation.

With the help of a corpus analysis tool, I was able to identify the contexts in which my search words were typically used in the UK press. I found that, for ‘German’, the top themes were 1) politics, 2) war and 3) other nations; for ‘Germany’, 1) other countries, 2) football and 3) politics; and for ‘Germans’, 1) war and (much less frequently) 2) other nations. When I compared these themes with learner perceptions of public associations, there were some clear overlaps.

One theme in my data that was reproduced across the private (school) and public (press) domains is a view of German as a threat. Using animal metaphors, learners described German as “scary and it hunts me down”, “vicious and always cruel to you” and a creature that “stabs you in the back when you think it gets easier”. The verbs typically used with ‘Germans’ fell under the same category: ‘invade’, ‘capture’, ‘attack’, ‘occupy’, ‘lose’, ‘fight’, ‘defeat’, ‘retreat’, ‘shoot’, ‘attack’, ‘surrender’, ‘invade’, ‘shell’, ‘evacuate’, ‘bomb’, ‘kill’. Here, the press theme of ‘Germans’ (the people) seems to have migrated across discourse domains to pupils’ conceptualisation of German (the school subject/language).

My findings suggest that there is a relationship between learner discourses in the school context and wider discourses around German, and that this affects motivation and language uptake. While continuers disagree strongly with perceived negative public discourse, those who perceive negative public attitudes are more likely to drop German.

It all sounds rather depressing, but there is hope. Intervention studies have shown that learners can reconceptualise negative attitudes towards language learning and reframe them in a more positive way. But they need help with that. Teachers tell us that, in the context of impending Brexit, attitudes to language study have deteriorated even further,5 and a discussion on the benefits, meaning and implications of language study is more crucial in the UK now than ever before.

In my study, teenage language learners have shown themselves to be thoughtful and creative thinkers around language learning and what it means to them. They are acutely aware of negative public discourses, and I believe they deserve better. Let’s not let them down.

Dr Heike Krüsemann is a post-doctoral researcher for Creative Multilingualism, a large-scale research programme led by the University of Oxford. Her work focuses on linguistic creativity in language learning. She is also a freelance writer and translator.



1 Tinsley, T & Doležal, N (2018) ‘Language Trends 2018’, British Council
2 Adams, S & Barr, C (16/8/2018) ‘A-level Results: Foreign languages suffer further slump’. In The Guardian
3 Weale, S (27/6/18) ‘Spanish Exam Entries on Track to Surpass French in English schools’. In The Guardian
4 Krüsemann, H (2017) ‘Language Learning Motivation and the Discursive Representation of German, the Germans, and Germany in UK School Settings and the Press’, unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Reading
5 Tinsley & Doležal op. cit.