FRANKFURT -- For centuries the German language has terrified even the most conscientious of pupils. Mark Twain called it "awful."

Alarmed by that kind of thinking, the West German government is promoting the study of the language around the world.

Already, the program run by the government-supported Goethe Institute has reached Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Paris, Rome and some cities in the United States. Early next year, the Goethe Institute will open its doors in Beijing, the Chinese capital.

The campaign, begun three years ago, is intended to combat notions that German is both hard to learn and little-spoken, Foreign Ministry spokesmen say.

The number of foreign students learning German dropped from about 17 million in 1979 to 15 million in 1987, according to the government. Officials and educators attribute the declining interest mainly to the growing attractiveness of other languages.

"English is a language that you can get around with worldwide," said one Foreign Ministry spokesman, Claus Wunderlich. "German is important, but obviously not as widespread internationally as, say, English or Spanish or even French."

Still, by strengthening German-language programs abroad through various educational and cultural institutions, especially the Goethe Institute, the West German government hopes to counter the trend, Wunderlich added.

The Foreign Ministry in 1984 apportioned an extra 1 million marks (about $600,000 at current exchange rates) to the Goethe Institute annually to intensify advertising for the study of the German language, said the institute's spokesman, Rolf Rauschenbach.

The annual sums were doubled to 2 million marks (about $1.2 million) starting in 1985.

The campaign, using such slogans as "German is Fun" and "Learn German -- Get to Know Germany," includes participation in trade fairs, videotapes about Germany to be aired on TV stations internationally, essay contests with trips to West Germany as a prize and visits to schools abroad.

The Goethe Institute, a non-profit organization founded in 1951, has 149 branches in 67 countries around the world. Besides offering language lessons, the institute sponsors a broad range of cultural events and provides materials and support for teachers of German abroad.

The institute is named after the poet, dramatist and novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who wrote "Faust," the dramatic poem, and the novel, "The Sorrows of Young Werther."

In some countries, including the United States, there is still resistance to learning German because it was Hitler's language, Rauschenbach said.

The more advanced textbooks used by the Goethe Institute deal with the Nazi period and the Holocaust, he added.

The campaign also emphasizes West Germany's economic strength and technological innovations as a reason to learn the language.

One strategy in the United States has been to emphasize the German heritage of many Americans.

About 2,400 Americans visited Germany in 1985 to learn the language, Rauschenbach said.

German is the primary language in West and East Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein; it is an official language in the multilingual countries of Switzerland and Luxembourg.

The perils of learning German have been chronicled by many writers, most notably by Twain in his 1879 essay, "The Awful German Language."

"To learn to read and understand a German newspaper," he wrote, "must remain an impossibility to a foreigner."

The 16th century Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who also was the king of Spain, is reported to have said, "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse."