Skip to main content Skip to main content

Why learn German?

The importance of German is indisputable. German-speakers occupy a prominent place on almost any list of the world's greatest artists and thinkers, while almost every discipline in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences has a strong German tradition, in many cases one that largely defines the field. The library holdings of many institutions reflect this fact: English works of course predominate in the collections, but German monographs, series, and journals are in second place. Nobel Prize results give another kind of indication. Through 2001, scientists from the three major German-speaking countries have won 34 Nobel Prizes in Physics, 37 in Chemistry, and 31 in Medicine, while many laureates from other countries received their training at German universities. Ten German or Swiss-German writers have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and seven Germans or Austrians have received the Peace Prize.

While this academic perspective holds the most relevance for liberal arts studies, practical considerations are also unavoidable, and many students choose some of their subjects, including a foreign language, with an eye to their professional futures. Here, too, the study of German offers some real advantages.

German is spoken in three countries with diverse cultural, political, and economic traditions: The Federal Republic of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. It is also the mother tongue of significant minorities in neighboring countries. Among Europeans, in fact, the approximately 98 million native speakers of German greatly outnumber those of English, French, Italian (58-60 million each), or Spanish (36 million). In business, diplomacy, and tourism, German stands second only to English in Western Europe, and in Eastern Europe it holds first place.

The German-speaking countries' economic significance is even greater. When market size is defined by language, they together form the world's second-largest. Switzerland and Austria enjoy considerable wealth for their size, and the German Federal Republic has the world's third-highest GDP. This importance is compounded by Germany's position as the most influential member of the European Union, even after the introduction of the Euro. As the New York Times put it on January 1, 2002, Germany is "not so much giving up the mark as exporting it to the rest of Europe." In fact, several years ago Bosnia-Herzogovina, Kosovo, and Montenegro also adopted the German Mark as their official currency and have now joined Germany in switching to the Euro.

Size is not the only source of Germany's importance within the European Community. The Federal Republic boasts the highest worker productivity in Europe and in 1998 had more patent approvals than the next four European nations combined. In 2000, Germany accounted for 13.2% of all world-wide patents, second only to the United States.

In the area of world trade, Germany's significance is also greater than just its GDP would indicate. International trade makes up a quarter of its economic activity, and in 2000 its $541 billion in exports accounted for a 9.9% share of the world's export market, second only to the U.S.'s 12.8% (Japan was in third position, with 7.6%). But in contrast to the U.S., Germany also maintains a large trade surplus: in 2000 it was $68.9 billion. The world's second-highest creditor nation, Germany also grants the second-greatest amount of foreign aid.

In addition to its exports, Germany invests heavily around the world. In China, for example, Volkswagen plants supply over half the automobiles sold in that country. Similarly significant investments can be found in many parts of Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and the Americas, but Germany maintains an especially strong relationship with the United States. This association is partly defined by trade: German exports to the United States in 1999 totaled $46.7 billion, while imports from the U.S. were $33 billion. Cars are the most obvious German import - in 2001, Americans bought 881,773 German-manufactured automobiles - but the reciprocal trade includes many other kinds of goods and services. Of perhaps even greater significance is the amount that each of the two countries invests in the other; in 1994 and again in 1995 it was approximately $40 billion. In 1995, German investments in the United States supported 2,507 separate enterprises with 494,000 employees. Furthermore, German firms are increasingly being listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Mid-size businesses traditionally form the backbone of the German economy, but a number of larger companies also play important international roles. DaimlerChrysler and Volkswagen are the third and fourth biggest automotive producers, and the top two, General Motors and Ford, have large German divisions. Among the top firms in terms of money spent on research and development, DaimlerChrysler and Siemens rank third and fourth in the world, while Volkswagen, Bayer, Hoechst, Bosch, BASF, Boehringer/Ingelheim, Deutsche Telekom, and Mannesman also occupy places among the first 90 (International Herald-Tribune, 26 Feb. 2000). The Deutsche Bank is one of the world's largest financial institutions.

Germany's automobile, engineering, chemical, and pharmaceutical firms are well known, but the country's information enterprises are also significant. Bertelsmann is the world's largest publisher, and the German book-publishing industry as a whole ranks third in the world (behind England and China), annually producing over a third more new titles than does the United States (see The Bowker Annual). Germany is also a leader in computing. A 1999 study by McKinsey found that the Munich area's 1,800 computer firms, with over 100,000 employees, form the world's fourth largest concentration of hardware and software producers (after Silicon Valley, Boston, and London), and German is the internet's second language: 62% of the world's websites are in English, followed by 13% in German, 5% in Japanese, 4% in French, and 2% in Spanish. Germany's '.de' is the world's most widely-used country-specific domain, with over 4 million registered names - a figure that rises daily - and only '.com' accounts for a larger number of web addresses in any category. By 2001, 27.8 million Germans had internet access, and around 13 million of them purchased something online ("The Week in Germany," January 18, 2002).

Even in the world of sport, German-speakers figure prominently. In the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt lake City, Germany accumulated the highest total number of medals with 35. Athletes from the German-speaking countries traditionally dominate alpine skiing to the extent that German is the sport's primary language. In soccer, the men's national team has reached the World Cup finals more often than that of any other country, and only Brazil has won the title more often. In July 2001, the women's team won the European championship for the second time in a row. Tennis, swimming, rowing, golf, track, and auto racing are just some of the other major sports at which Germans excel.

Thus it becomes clear that a knowledge of German grants access not only to rich literary, philosophical, and artistic traditions, but also to many other kinds of contemporary cultural, economic, political, and scientific developments.

The MSCD Department of Modern Languages consequently offers a curriculum in German that appeals to a wide range of interests. German majors have pursued careers in business, engineering, finance, law, journalism, government service, medicine, and the sciences. Even non-majors have discovered that their knowledge of German complements such fields as economics, government, history, engineering, and computer science. But no matter what their future careers, students find that German, as part of a liberal education, can enrich their professional and personal lives.

 


Edit this page