This is my post for Creative Multilingualism, a large-scale research programme led by the University of Oxford, which explores linguistic diversity and creativity. Head over to read it there, or scroll down below!
As a German teacher in English secondary schools for many years, I became more and more aware of how difficult students found learning languages. Most started keen but got disheartened somewhere along the way, and even those who sustained their enthusiasm often did not opt for languages post age 14 (the end of the compulsory stage of language learning in England).
Students also shared with me what they had heard about German, Germans and Germany, which often didn’t square up with what they experienced in lessons, or through contact with native speakers on trips and exchanges. So I wanted to know what’s going on – and what better way to find out than to do a PhD? Don’t answer that, because three years and a lot of data, number crunching and tearing out of hair later, I handed in a veritable word-fest of a thesis at the University of Reading. Hurrah! So if you want to know what I found out, you can either email me for the whole thing, or you can read on (I wonder which option you’ll pick).
Now it’s a little bit hard to summarise 100,000 words in a few bullet points, so I’m just going to pick a handful of key findings. Here goes:
- Teenage German learners in the UK seem to be mainly motivated by enjoyment of lessons and a sense of personal relevance, as opposed to career-oriented motives. Who knew? (Well, anyone with an ounce of common sense, really!)
- Although teachers and head teachers seemed to have an understanding that learners choose languages for reasons of enjoyment and personal relevance, promotional messages tended to focus mainly on practical rationales. So here a discrepancy became apparent between educators’ insights into learner motivation for language learning, and how this translated into practice.
- When I looked at how German, the Germans and Germany were represented in the UK press, I found that for German, the top three themes were 1) politics, 2) world war I and II, and 3) other nations. For Germany, they were 1) other countries, 2) football, and 3) politics. What about the Germans? Here, I found only two themes: 1) world war I and II, and, much less frequent, 2) people of other nations. And this came from a corpus of more than 40,000 UK newspaper articles from the last three years. Hmm…
- What about representations of German in the school context? Here, I found that they were very similar to the themes found in the corpus. In discourse analysis terms, the themes were reproduced across the two discourse domains.
- This may be so, but, does it make a difference to learner motivation for German? Apparently so, yes. I found that pupils who chose to continue studying German disagreed strongly with perceived negative public discourse, and that there was an association between perceived negative public attitudes and dropping German.
- So… who goes on to study German then these days? Really, it’s more and more only the privileged few. The growing elitification of language study in the UK very clearly manifested in my data. And you don’t need me to tell you that this a very, very bad thing for society.
- When I asked learners to tell me what learning German was like for them, they came up with amazingly insightful metaphors, including: a Brussels sprout – because everyone hates them (allegedly); a coconut – because it starts hard but then it gets easier; and a lemon – because it can be sour but also delicious. I coded these metaphors into static, dynamic and ambivalent views of German. And guess which view is associated with uptake? It’s the lemon: ambivalent. So now you know what to do: if life gives you lemons, learn German!