Is there such a thing as the Merkel effect?

The chancellor's invitation to Spanish engineers may not have lured that many abroad

Raquel Vidales
Hundreds of people wait in line in Valencia to sign up for German classes.
Hundreds of people wait in line in Valencia to sign up for German classes.TANIA CASTRO (EL PAÍS)

Last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that her country would need around 100,000 engineers in the coming decade, and suggested that many of them could come from Spain. At a time of worsening unemployment her comments prompted many young people to seriously consider moving east. The main problem in most cases was simple: few of them speak a word of German. In fact, according to a recent survey by the European Union's statistics office, just two percent of Spaniards are able to communicate in German, as opposed to the EU average of 11 percent.

Merkel's comments set in motion a kind of gold rush to learn German, which has seen long lines outside colleges belonging to the Official School of Languages, and the elite Goethe Institute, run under the auspices of the German embassy. The phenomenon shows no sign of abating so far, but teachers and others working in the language studies sector doubt that we are entering a golden age of German in Spain, and that the current boom will fizzle out.

No figures are as yet available on the number of people who have signed up for German courses in the last two years, although partial data points to a significant increase. The Goethe Institute says that it has seen a 30-percent increase in applications, while the Spanish Federation of Language Teaching Centers (FECEI) says that its members have reported a 100-percent increase in numbers each year. "Around 90 percent of our students are learning English, and the other 10 percent are learning other languages, with about two percent of the total attending German classes," says FECEI president Richard Johnson.

The popularity of German is fast approaching that of English

María Jesús Gil, the head of the German Department at the Complutense University's language faculty in Madrid, says that the number of students studying German has increased over the last two years and that the popularity of the language is fast approaching that of English.

"It is clear that although the statistics do not yet reflect it, interest in German rose sharply following the German chancellor's comments. But we can't expect the Merkel effect to last forever. We have to work to make sure that this isn't something that lasts just a few years, and take advantage of this in the long term," says Michael Höfig, the head of teaching at the Goethe Institute in Madrid. He adds that at the current rate, the number of German speakers in Spain could soon reach four percent of the population, the same as in France, according to EU figures. "That would be a very acceptable level, bearing in mind the low starting point," he concludes.

A full picture of the scale of the phenomenon has yet to emerge, but there is already a profile of the typical Spaniard who wants to learn German: a student, or recent university graduate, who is seriously thinking about emigrating to Germany in the near future if he or she doesn't find work in Spain. "It is a very different profile to the previous type of person interested in learning German, whose reasons were largely cultural, rather than professional," says Matilde Cerrolaza, who runs the Tandem school in Madrid, a pioneer in the teaching of German in Spain, which has seen a 60-percent increase this year in applications to study the language.

In interviews people are unable to explain what their particular skills are"

It's the same story at the Goethe Institute, which has decided to adapt many of its classes to the needs of its students. "People are not looking for a general understanding of the language," says Manfred Ewel, the body's academic director. "What we are being asked for are classes related to job-hunting, interviews, or the world of work in general. We have had to adapt some of our methods and create special courses, with the emphasis on interview techniques. This is what our new students want to learn."

It's clear that the majority of new students are interested in learning German to find a job. But is "instant" German possible? Can students learn the basics - enough to find a job - in a few months? What level of German do employers expect applicants to have? Is it possible to find work without understanding the language at all? "It depends on the company. Some multinationals only hire people who speak English, but in general, most German companies, or hospitals looking for medical staff, for example, require applicants to have at least mid-level knowledge," says Walter von Plettenberg, the managing director of the German Chamber of Commerce in Spain. He recommends that anybody intending to head for Germany in search of work should have at the very least a basic knowledge of the language. "Otherwise, they will likely find that in interviews, they are simply unable to explain what their particular skills are."

Ewel advises anybody thinking of learning German to take a long-term approach: "There is no point in doing so simply on the basis that you are unemployed and need to find a job in Germany." He says that other factors need to be taken into account, such as what type of work one is looking for, the time available to learn the language, and the ability that one has for learning. Otherwise what starts out as a dream can all too often end in a nightmare. The academic director of the Goethe Institute illustrates what can go wrong: he organized a special intensive course for 15 medical professionals who had been shortlisted by a German private hospital, which was paying for the course. Three of the group were unable to pass the first exam, simply because they had greater difficulties in acquiring language than the others. "They then found themselves without a job, when they had already assumed that the language aspect was little more than a formality," says Ewel. "Around 20 percent of each group is rejected," he adds.

Spaniards find the idea of moving to Germany very challenging"

The head of FECEI adds that Spaniards find German much harder to learn than English. "Not so much because it is more difficult, but because it is much less familiar. English is around us everywhere we go: on television, in advertising, movies, music, the internet... but pretty much the only way you are going to hear or see German is if you go out of your way to do so," he says.

This, say the experts, means that it takes at least two years of studies to acquire a reasonable understanding of German - although intensive courses can achieve that level in a year. A basic level, sufficient for some jobs, can be reached in six months of intensive learning, and with application.

In response to the perceived demand for German, many language schools and private teachers are now offering courses. The experts say that would-be students should not be fooled by courses that promise to teach the language in three months. The regional government of Madrid is offering 100 hours of free teaching to 20,000 people on its unemployment register, but Ewel says this would barely scratch the surface: "This kind of course is fine for people thinking of going on vacation to Germany, but they are certainly not enough to acquire the skills necessary to live and work in the country."

There are more than 1,000 German companies in Spain, with 300,000 staff"

Even if they are able to overcome the challenges of learning German and reach a reasonable level of communication skills, Spaniards face another problem: the German way of life, which until now has not proved much of a draw. The Goethe Institute hopes that another of the outcomes of the so-called Merkel effect, aside from learning German, will be a change in attitudes toward Germany among Spaniards. "Let's be honest: a German is much more likely to be attracted to living in Spain than the other way round. Germans love to come to Spain, and many want to retire here, to live here as well, and not just on the coast. In contrast, Spaniards find the idea of moving to Germany very challenging," says Manfred Ewel.

The facts speak for themselves: there are one million Germans living in Spain, and more German schools here than anywhere else outside the country; in Germany there are just 130,000 Spaniards, of whom only 46,000 are working. What's more, since Merkel suggested Spaniards think about working in Germany, just 5,000 have taken her up on the offer, according to the German Federal Employment Office.

"There is no doubt that many Spaniards are thinking about going to live and work in Germany at the moment, but we cannot say that this intention has actually translated itself into a mass exodus, contrary to the stories that we hear in the media," says Walter von Plettenberg. "On the other hand, even if one isn't thinking about emigrating, knowledge of German is very useful in Spain," says the managing director of the German Chamber of Commerce. "There are more than 1,000 German companies operating in Spain, with around 300,000 employees. These are international groups, and although most of them use English more than German, being able to speak the language is certainly one way of standing out from other interviewee candidates when looking for work with German companies," he suggests.

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