Why a second foreign language?

By Nicolai Petersen, August 2019

Our language environment is changing at breathtaking speed. Twenty years ago, people complained about the flood of “anglicisms” in German and many attempted to fight against it. Today we don’t really have any anglicisms any longer but our whole everyday language environment is suffused at every turn with words, sentences and syntagma that have their origin in English.

English as a world language

Be it the media, consumerism, administration or quite ordinary everyday things, from “coffee to go” to “waste watcher”, German has already incorporated large parts of basic English usage into its communicative life, frequently as whole word groups including their syntactical usage. Everybody is assumed to know what they mean or such knowledge gradually trickles down: “follow the future”! The idea of putting this slogan into a shop window in German would be quite absurd in 2019. 

At the other end of the spectrum of communication, too, in emotional and spontaneous exclamations such as wow, ok, please or sorry, English in many instances trips off the tongue of the German speaker more easily, including the typical pronunciation of certain sounds (e.g. the r in sorry), than the corresponding German expressions. The letters of the alphabet are also naturally voiced in the English way in many acronyms such as (IT, SUV, E-Sport). 

This omnipresent world language thus pervades our everyday awareness of language at the sound, word and sentence level today already and is losing its status as an actual “foreign language” to an ever greater extent. That applies equally to adults and children, in private and professional life. Today’s reality thus no longer accords with the division of languages into the classic dichotomy of native language and foreign language. A threefold division is more realistic: native language(s), a world language (English – pervading the native language(s) to a greater or lesser extent) – and foreign languages. 

The second language is no “common language”

With the rise of English to become the sole world language, the conditions for all other languages have also changed. They are meanwhile different from English in two ways. Firstly, they are indeed relatively foreign or very foreign (Russian) for most people, in contrast to English. And secondly, none of them really need to be taught any longer for purely pragmatic reasons. English is sufficient to be able to communicate worldwide at all levels. So why still learn a second language? Children are also asking that from class 6 or 7 onwards at the latest, when learning a foreign language enters a difficult phase. 

But in the debate about the second foreign language, there is a tendency to focus precisely on those pragmatic aspects which are actually outdated. The world is still thought of in terms of the old “common languages” as they were still indispensible at the start of the twentieth century in order to be able to communicate in different regions of the world, for example German and Russian in eastern Europe, or French and English in large parts of the western and southern world. 

But the importance of all non-English common languages is constantly declining. Even Finns and Swedes, who for centuries were united in a single state and always spoke Swedish with one another, in many cases communicate in English today. Even languages such as Spanish, French, Russian or Chinese, which belong to the top ten in the world, have to bow to the principle of one world, one language today. It seems hardly forward-looking when we seek to justify teaching any “second language” with its respective size and political or economic “importance”. 

Developing basic abilities

So why in the age of a global lingua francado we insist that our children study one of the actual “foreign languages”? Looked at more closely, two different questions arise: what is the educational value of teaching a foreign language as such, what abilities does it promote? And: how is that modified depending on the language we have chosen? From an educational point of view, we have to exclude the pragmatic element complete to begin with, just as we do with other subjects as well, particularly in Waldorf schools.  

In eurythmy, we don’t ask either where we can “apply” the sounds or sound gestures, rhythms or spatial forms at a later time. We see, suspect or sense that this subject allows quite specific abilities to grow which makes it worthwhile for our children to practise this subject over many years. We can assume the same in foreign language teaching. Such development of abilities happens completely independently from the degree to which our children have the opportunity in the future to utilise the foreign language learnt in school communicatively. It might well be that it never happens. We nevertheless give them more to take away with them as the basis for cognitive, social and physical abilities and sensitivities than any final mark will ever reveal. 

So why Russian?

The question as to the language which should be selected for teaching arises particularly in respect of the most difficult of the three languages, Russian. The alien nature and difficulty of this language is always raised, as is the current political situation which has made the likeability of Russian fall again, in contrast to the Gorbachev era. Or parents are simply suspicious of the language because they do not know it themselves and cannot therefore follow the learning trajectory of their children. The debate constantly makes it necessary to justify Russian which places stress on teachers and pupils, clouds the learning atmosphere and distorts our view of what is important. 

All the arguments against Russian can, from an educational perspective, also be interpreted in precisely the opposite way, namely that this language leads to the development of greater abilities precisely because of its greater degree of difficulty. That has already been shown to be the case in the field of aural training through oral Russian lessons at an early stage (see the literature). 

Anyone who has observed in practice how a class 2, for example, at the full “height” of its time in lower school, is taught absolutely monolingually in Russian (even as far as sorting out small social problems), understands everything, throws Russian words around for all its worth, and recites the long dialogue between Fox and Wolf with captivatingly good pronunciation, will get some idea of what a “foreign language” can do in a child. 

That Cyrillic writing, which reflects the sound of Russian relatively accurately, later helps dyslexics to overcome their disability in middle school is also something that is frequently reported from practice. It may also be assumed that memory performance is also enhanced in remembering multi-syllabic words which have no similarity with German words. We could also, for example, mention the comparatively differentiated grammar and morphology, the logic of which matches the much-praised Latin (“learning to think”) in every respect. Or we could look at German-Russian cultural relations which, precisely because of the differences between East and West, produce blossoms which are therefore all the more beautiful when they succeed. 

Trips to Russia can deeply transform people from the West, particularly young people. In addition, experience shows that the “transformation” which comes about through a more complex language will support the subsequent learning of other languages. In any event, no student of Russian will be put off by learning a western European language later on. It will appear “easy” to them. The reverse is rarely the case. 

None of this means that French and Spanish are not also associated in their own way with wonderful opportunities for developing our abilities and provide an inexhaustible fund of educational openings. It is therefore helpful for the learning atmosphere at the school if teachers and parents avoid playing the second languages off against one another and together support the given language once it has been chosen, turning the debate into something positive: what is it we can learn particularly through this language and this culture? That can also be discussed with the pupils in an age-appropriate way and they can be helped in their different phases to maintain their motivation and perseverance on the long path of “transformation”. 

About the author: Nicolai Petersen teaches Russian in Bochum 

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