Tour promotes German language classes in schools

EVERETT — The scene in a dark and crowded theater: kids packed in, a dark stage with amplifiers and a drum kit. Then the band enters, the lights come up, and the singer begins to sing. The crowd is on its feet, cheering, smartphones out to record the concert.

This is a different sort of concert, though. For one, it’s 11 a.m. The venue is the Everett Civic Auditorium at Everett High School, and the students in the theater are on a field trip, coming from schools from Bellingham to Olympia.

The other major difference is exemplified in the band’s lyrics: “Wir bauen uns Stück für Stück, Stück für Stück die Zukunft zurück.”

The band is Tonbandgerät, a young up-and-coming indie pop group out of Hamburg, Germany. With their skinny jeans, shaggy hair and catchy pop songs, the members fit right in with just about any U.S. music scene.

The Everett show Tuesday was the first stop on a 10-city tour across the U.S., sponsored in part by the German government. It’s part of a broader outreach program to promote German language classes in schools.

“We want to show the kids that Germany is not just lederhosen and the Autobahn and beer and Oktoberfest,” said Peter Zygowski a language consultant with the San Francisco office of the Goethe Institute, the German government’s cultural promotion organization.

Bringing Tonbandgerät (“tape recorder” in English) to the U.S. was a good way to show a more modern side of Germany, Zygowski said.

Kelly Dietsch, a German language teacher at Henry M. Jackson High School in Mill Creek, worked with Cascade High teacher Katherine Lockwood to bring the band to Everett.

In advance of the show, the teachers spent weeks crafting lessons around the band’s lyrics and videos. Successfully, it would seem, as the 1,100 kids in the Everett Civic Auditorium sang along to many of the songs.

“The Goethe Institute is really good about providing lesson plans that can be used easily,” Dietsch said, pointing to the institute’s resource for teachers and students, Step Into German.

German in the U.S. has been in a bit of a decline for several years, however. The rise of China as an economic superpower has shifted the focus of U.S. businesses and educators to Asia.

Dietsch is Jackson High’s sole German teacher, and this year the number of classes she teaches was cut from five to four, the first time in more than a decade that has happened.

“We’ve had a number of Washington state programs closed, even at the secondary level,” Dietsch said.

“Considering that Germany is the fifth-largest economic partner for Washington state, it’s a pity we don’t do a little something more for that,” she said.

According to a 2008 survey from the Center for Applied Linguistics, German language instruction in the U.S. in recent years has fallen at all levels of K-12 eduction.

Just 14 percent of U.S. high schools offered German classes, down from 25 percent in 1997. In elementary and middle schools, the number of schools fell to 2 percent in 2008 from 5 percent in 1997.

During the same time period, Chinese and Arabic gained more traction in American schools. In 2008, more primary schools offered Chinese language instruction than German, and the Chinese government has been active in promoting and supporting those programs in the U.S.

It’s a trend Dietsch and other advocates of German would like to reverse.

Lucas Ekstrom and Ariana Bratt, both 17, might be part of that trend. Both are studying German at Bothell High School. While neither had heard about Tonbandgerät before a few weeks ago, both enjoyed the show.

“They’re pretty good for a startup band,” Bratt said. She added she’s more into Rush and The Lumineers these days.

But both are interested in continuing with German and visiting Germany. Ekstrom has applied for a scholarship program and Bratt hopes to go there on a mission trip.

In addition to the Goethe Institute’s cultural programs (which often emphasize soccer as well as music), the German government provides more direct support to schools, and last year its Central Agency for Schools Abroad reopened a Pacific Northwest office that had been vacant for about 15 years.

“If there’s a school that might be interested in offering German, I’d be right there telling them why it’s important,” said Natascha Milde, the German Language Advisor for the agency’s new office in Bellevue.

Milde said that with American students, learning a foreign language other than Spanish (still the most commonly studied language in the U.S.) can be a challenge, given that Americans don’t travel overseas as much as Europeans do.

Milde’s selling points include Germany’s position as the dominant economy in Europe, the language’s importance in the sciences and business, and the fact that German is the mother tongue of 120 million people and a second language of choice throughout Europe.

German is still the third most-studied language in colleges and universities, with 96,349 enrollments in 2009, according to the Modern Language Association, although its growth rate (2.2 percent from 2006-2009) is much slower than that of Chinese (46.3 percent), Korean (19.1 percent) and Arabic (18.2 percent).

People like Natascha Milde and Kelly Dietsch hope more events like the Tonbandgerät show and tour will help build more awareness of German culture and encourage more kids to take up the language.

Despite some setbacks, Dietsch said, “The Northwest is still pretty much a stronghold for German language programs.”

Or, as the band sang in its show Tuesday: “We’re building ourselves piece by piece, piece by piece back into the future.”

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com.

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