Growing up in the UK, learning German was not seen as particularly cool nor encouraged by peers. Although it was an option as a foreign language during secondary school, not many people took it seriously, myself included. Dad’s Army was still on TV. Prince Harry was appearing as a Nazi at fancy dress parties. This was the typical image problem it had amongst the Brits of my generation.
Fast forward to 2019, a few days away from 2020, and here I am as a Korean speaker, which is considered a level 5 difficulty language by the FSI. I’ve seen it first hand that speaking a niche language is pretty interesting and it opens up a lot of doors. I discovered the joy of learning languages particularly late in life. I spent a few years in Thailand and picked up Thai basics using Pimsleur courses. Since living in Korea, I have used a variety of methods but I now focus on Pimsleur on long drives, Duolingo on short commutes, and YouTube videos of native speakers using the language in natural situations (not language lessons, but just typical prank videos and other trending topics).
Recently, I had a business trip to Vienna, Austria. It is the most livable city in the world. It was very nice. It got me thinking. Over the past few years, I have been to Frankfurt, Germany, a couple of times for business, too. What strikes me about both of these places is that they are both really nice, and most people are relatively well-off. Switzerland, also officially German-speaking, is really nice too. Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, also pretty minted. Even the German-speaking part of Belgium is well-off. Notice a theme here? Where the German language is native, the people are well-off, mostly well educated, the people are safe and the standard of living is high. That’s the kind of place worth living. Therefore, that’s the kind of language and culture worth knowing.
While certainly, English is the lingua franca of global business, one thing that struck me is that German is the lingua franca of continental Europe and absolutely without question, Germany dominates the direction of the EU. As my British-born now naturalized German colleague notes, “What I can say is that German really is the lingua franca of Europe. Especially if you go to Eastern Europe; Hungaria, Slovenia, Slovakia. A lot of people in those areas speak German. If you also consider Turkey there is a large Turkish German-speaking diaspora. I always found that it was a good language to have next to English.”
I can hear you now. But what about Spanish, or French, or Chinese?
Well, yeah, there are of course a lot more Chinese, French and Spanish native speakers in the world and the basic logic follows therefore that perhaps more opportunities for entrepreneurialism and business exist. While that may well be true, however, it’s only a surface-level analysis. In the vast majority of those places which use one of the above languages as an official language, the typical person is not having a great time and, in general, these places are rife with corruption and bureaucracy and basically not very good places to live, work, and raise a family, with some caveats of course. Outside of Spain, the vast majority of Spanish speaking countries are in Latin America, which is notoriously corrupt and mob justice still largely prevails. Outside of France, the French language is most widely spoken in former African colonies and requires a willingness to live in and amongst abject poverty and, again, face a mountain of corruption in order to get anything done. Chinese is basically only spoken in China as an official language and, well, unless you’re a member of the CCP you can’t really make huge strides in that country either, unless, of course, you are backhanding some officials; corruption is the common theme in these three places. Doesn’t sound much fun really if you’re learning a language to better your life. You will have to learn a whole bunch of extracurriculars along the way to even have a shot at it in these places.
German, on the other hand, is spoken as the official language in rich, modern, well-developed countries, and I mean well-developed in the fullest sense of the word, both culturally deep and infrastructurally sound, with very high social mobility and high business and entrepreneurial opportunities, and with very limited almost non-existent corruption – especially in comparison to Latin America, post-colonial Africa, and China.
As a betting guy, I think it’s a far safer bet to learn the German language and do business with or work in native German-speaking companies to become middle class and well-off in an already well-off place. Rather than try to learn Spanish, French, or Chinese and attempt to become ultra-rich in one of these places which would require luck, playing the game with the local gatekeepers and getting around all of the inherent corruption, and not be sure if some bureaucrat finds (or invents) a technicality somewhere and then takes it all away from you on a whim.
Where German is spoken, people are generally rich, well-educated, and happy. Sounds good to me. So that’s why I’m learning German.