Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, German
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German is a West Germanic language closely related to English and Dutch. There are about 90 million native German speakers in the world and another 20 million nonnative speakers who use German on a regular basis. German is the most widely used first language in the European Union. It is spoken in 43 countries and is the national language of Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, and Luxembourg; the largest official language in Switzerland; an official language in Belgium, Denmark, Italy, and Poland; and a minority language in many other countries around the world. German once was, and to some extent still is, a lingua franca in Central, Eastern, and Northern Europe.

The German language has a long history dating back to the eighth century in its more modern form. It possesses one of the oldest written literatures on the European mainland and is an important component of the intellectual history of central Europe. The formation of the language as we know it today took place between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, during which time the Holy Roman Empire developed a written language combining different dialects of Middle High German. At the time, a standard form of German, a precursor to modern standard German, was only used as a written form, and dialect varieties from north to south of the region were immensely diverse, sounding similar to different languages. It was not until the mid-eighteenth century that people began to learn how to speak standard German. Various dialects are still used and are experiencing a renaissance.

German is one of the oldest heritage languages in the United States. Its presence dates back to colonial times: German craftsmen helped build the first American settlement in Jamestown in 1608. By 1790, 141,000 German settlers lived in Pennsylvania, 28,000 in Virginia, 26,000 in New York, 24,000 in Maryland, and 1,000 in Ohio. Today the United States has the largest population of German speakers outside of Europe, and German is the sixth most commonly spoken non-English language spoken in the United States.

Adapted from Heritage Voices: German by Renate Ludanyi.

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The Alliance for the Advancement of Heritage Languages has developed the Heritage Voices Collection, an online series of documents designed to allow heritage language speakers and programs to share their unique voices with visitors to our website.

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Meet the Language Representative

Dr. Renate Ludanyi serves as the Alliance Language Representative for German. Learn more about Dr. Renate Ludanyi.

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