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The History of German as a Foreign Language in Europe

The History of German as a Foreign Language in Europe

By Helmut Gluck

Language and History, Vol. 57:1 (2014)

Page from the Codex Abrogans, regarded as the oldest preserved book in the German language.

Page from the Codex Abrogans, regarded as the oldest preserved book in the German language.

Abstract: This article provides the first overview in English of how German has been taught and learned in Europe up to about 1800: who were the learners of German, where in Europe was German learnt, for what purposes was it learnt, and what do we know about how it was learnt? It also gives a brief overview of the current state of research, and gives three case studies of the history of German as a Foreign Language (GFL) in three different language areas: Italy, Bohemia, and Russia.

Introduction: This overview of the history of teaching and learning German in Europe is a sketch, no more. It deals with the period from the Middle Ages to about 1800, and is necessarily quite incomplete. After an introduction to the first beginnings of learning German, my contribution considers what we know about who learned German, and how German was learned, before turning to the current state of research, and brief case studies of German as a foreign language in three different language areas.

The history of the teaching and learning German as a foreign language in neighbouring areas and in the Baltic region reaches back to the Middle Ages. In the Mediterranean countries, it can be traced in some language areas to the early modern period, as in the British Isles. In the German-speaking world itself, the earliest evidence for the use of German as a foreign language comes from the early ninth century, from the beginning of the Old High German period, the start of the history of the German language. The so-called Kassel glosses are a Romance-Old High German vocabulary list compiled by a West Frankish traveller in order to make himself understood in Bavaria. Another text of this kind is the ‘Paris Conversations’ (Pariser Gespräche).

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