Keith Barnes
Prizewinners celebrating with Michael Morpugo

Keith Barnes

German learners celebrate success in midst of UK languages crisis

Matt Pickles

The Oxford German Network Fest took place in the Divinity School of the Bodleian Library yesterday evening (23 June).

Author Michael Morpurgo spoke at the event and awarded prizes to schoolchildren, undergraduates and postgraduates for their entries in the Oxford German Olympiad competitions.

Over 60 schoolchildren from Year 5 upwards attended to collect their prizes for poems, stories, raps, cartoons and films in German. One prize sponsored by the Wiener Library was awarded to undergraduates who translated a letter about the Dresden bombings into English and commented on it, while another was awarded to postgraduates for a book proposal which was judged by the publisher Camden House, who sponsored the prize.

The event's organiser, Professor Katrin Kohl of the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages at Oxford University, says she started the Oxford German Network to promote the teaching of German in schools and universities. The Oxford German Olympiad is now an annual competition attracting entries from across the UK.

'The teaching of German has really been suffering in schools, and indeed there is a crisis in modern languages teaching across the UK,' she says. 'The aim of the Oxford German Olympiad is to extend children’s experience of what modern languages is about, particularly showing them the cultural dimension of languages, which is neglected in the school syllabus.

'Since 2000 more than 40 university departments of modern languages have closed because there are simply not enough good applicants.'

Professor Kohl says the effects of the decline in modern languages teaching are already being felt in Britain. 'There is a shortage of linguists at all levels and in all sectors,' she says. 'Britain is under-represented in Brussels and diplomatic circles more generally because of a lack of language skills. This creates a security risk because there are not enough linguists to supply the necessary expertise.

'We are also losing the skills that language learning gives people who work in international business. You can do most of the work in English but when it comes to grass roots work, you need to be able to speak the language of the people you are dealing with.'

The Oxford German Network is the first university-led cultural network. Prizes were donated by Deutsche Bahn and the German Youth Hostel Association, business software company SAP AG, the Wiener Library, Camden House, OUP, Blackwell UK Ltd, and Penguin Books.