From education to employment

Alan Corbett tells FE News why German is a valuable language to learn.

Der Tag der deutschen Einheit ““ which roughly translates as German Reunification Day – is a very important day in Germany and central Europe. A vast part of the continent, extending way beyond Germany, into central and eastern Europe, can reflect on the momentous events in 1989 which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and opened the way to a reunited Deutschland. This has resulted, in turn, in mass movement of populations into the EU zone, particularly Germany and the UK, seeking work and a better life. In sum, this was possibly the most important day in recent European history, yet one that, without special efforts, is likely to be completely ignored in the UK. Indeed, Germany is only ever mentioned in war programmes and seemingly no media is willing to accept that the modern nation is a different world to that of 1939. So why does Germany matter? Why bother learning German? After all, Germans speak English, nicht wahr? FE News speaks to Alan Corbett, International Officer at the Association of South East Colleges, who learned German whilst in the RAF and found it to be an invaluable skill, particularly in the work place.

“Foreign languages are rarely out of the spotlight at the current time, especially in the wake of the Leitch Report and various Government statements over the summer. However, whilst there is plenty of concern from academics regarding the UK’s lack of linguistic skills, there is one voice that is conspicuously absent, that of employers. Until recently, I worked in international marketing for a global company in the City of London, prior to entering FE, so believe that I am ideally placed to fill this void.

I started my marketing career as a researcher and rose to become a training officer. As such I was responsible for training a team capable of servicing the European and African market. My firm has offices in Asia and the Americas, so my comments are limited to the European land mass and defer from judgements on markets further afield.

On arrival at the job I confess that I launched myself into the French and Spanish markets ““ reflecting my love of the two languages ““ and only touched the German speaking community as a last resort. However, it soon became apparent that I was focusing too much effort in the wrong areas. Without a doubt German is still the most important foreign language. It is not just that it is the language of Germany, Austria and large parts of Switzerland and Italy, where there are affluent firms with budgets that outperform non-German rivals. German is increasingly spoken in central and eastern Europe, as a second language. I spoke German every day with Hungarian, Slovakian, Bulgarian and Russian companies with big commercial ties with the German speaking world. These people spoke German fluently because of their reliance on the German market. Given that they had no export market in the UK, their English was limited to talking about their family and hobbies, hardly good preparation for international marketing. Whilst it is true that Germans are in general gifted English speakers in everyday language and non business spheres, it always proved easier to discuss complex marketing issues in their language, especially as the technical words in the two tongues are completely different and must be learned parrot-fashion.

French and Spanish are still important and are central to everything I do. But German is, in truth, invariably the language of choice in an economic sense. Learn German and you will never be short of work and you will always be one large step ahead of your UK competitors. Moreover, outside work, a massive part of Europe will open itself to you and you will never short of quality holidays and travel options, well away from the tourist hordes.

Finally, I want to finish on a high note. I can honestly say that British students make superb linguists, if motivated and offered the right training. Yes, German is a difficult language to learn, but given time, effort and motivation a British German speaker will always outperform his foreign counterpart talking English, if only as German pronunciation is easy, whereas it is virtually impossible for a non native speaker to master English phonetics. So please accept that learning German is hard work, but that the rewards more than match the hours spent in grammar books or, better still, in college. Talking of which, colleges in my region ““ South East England ““ have joined forces to promote German via several mediums, including popular media. In Aylesbury, for example, the local radio station ““ MIX96 ““ recently dedicated a day to the local college’s German Department and how it could support youngsters and businesses.

So it is not all gloom and doom. Exactly the opposite. But we will not progress until we get the basics right and that, I fear, is where we continue to go wrong. German matters and we ignore that at our economic peril.”

Alan Corbett, Association of South East Colleges

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