From fruit juice to life hacks: Why the Germans are so much better at foreign languages than us

Germany-foreign-languages-englishI was visiting a friend in the German city of Nuremberg last week and we popped into a hairdressers for a quick trim. I left most of the talking to my friend, the German words for ‘choppy layers’ and ‘thinning scissors’ momentarily eluding me. I did exchange some pleasantries with the friendly hairdresser though, who seemed glad that we’ve enlivened her otherwise slow Monday morning at Nuremberg’s branch of ‘Hair Killer’. (Wouldn’t ‘Killer Hair’ be more suitable? No matter.)

My friend, fairly new to the city herself, then asked where we could buy souvenirs. The hairdresser turned to me and asked, ‘So what city do you come from, then?’, obviously assuming I was German. I replied, ‘I’m from London. I’m English.’ Somewhat confused, she turned to my friend and asked, ‘So she doesn’t speak German then?’ as if I’d somehow been pretending all along.

To her, the idea of an English person speaking German at all, let alone fluently, was a paradox. The stereotype of the proudly monolingual English is of course rooted in fact. The percentage of English people who can speak a foreign language is very low compared to other European nationalities and falling numbers of modern language students at UK universities suggests that this will only get worse.

The figures are often attributed to laziness (‘languages are too difficult’), ignorance (‘everyone speaks English anyway’), egotism (‘English is the most important’) or island-bred insularity.

But this is too simple. We should not be comparing a German pupil learning English with an English pupil learning German – the contexts are too dissimilar.

While many English children meet foreign languages for the first time in the classroom, where they seem strange, irrelevant and insurmountably foreign, German children are bombarded by the English language on a daily basis from birth and continue to be so throughout their lives.

Brands such as Apple and social media outlets Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, whose names all boast the global supremacy of English, cannot be ignored – unless you are raised in the darkest corner of a Bavarian forest.

The seven highest-grossing films in Germany this week were made in the USA while seven singles in the top ten were English-language. While German-language videos hold their own against British and American influences on YouTube, most of them are liberally sprinkled with English phrases such as ‘top 10’, ‘life hacks’ or ‘Topmodel’.

Germany-foreign-languages-englishGo to the supermarket and you’ll find shampoo with slogans like ‘Repair and Care’ and a brand of fruit juice called ‘vitafit’. Buy Germany’s biggest tabloid newspaper and you’ll find words like ‘Shitstorm’, ‘Stripper-Stars’ and ‘Iran-Deal’ in its headlines.

In this context, it’s no wonder that German children are so good at English. Absorbing it from a young age, it doesn’t feel so foreign. Seeing it around them, they understand its relevance and actually want to learn – even if it’s just to understand Avicii’s lyrics!

So until more foreign-language films get out of arthouse cinemas and into Odeons and more foreign-language music hits UK charts – and until a London hairdressers is launched as ‘Haartöter’ in a gesture to Nuremberg’s finest salon – the dire percentage of foreign-language speakers in this country is unfortunately unlikely to change.


‘Militant’ Germans and ‘cockroach’ migrants: Sowing the seeds of prejudice

‘Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.’
(Jodie Picoult, Salem Falls)

It’s remarkable how often I end up discussing Germany and the Germans within five minutes of conversing with a total stranger. ‘What do you do?’ they ask. I give them a potted outline. It’s rare that I’m met with a blank, uninterested face: everyone has an opinion about Germany and most people are keen to share it with me. I’m fascinated by these opinions. (So if I’m ever talking to you on this subject, please don’t hold back!)

Germany_prejudice_languageOne man I met recently had a stronger opinion than most. ‘I find them kind of militant’, he said. I was a little taken aback by his choice of word. How had he reached this conclusion, I wondered? ‘I knew some Germans at university’, he told me. ‘They were always in the library. Oh, and they didn’t like walking on the grass when there was a sign saying you shouldn’t.’

That was it. His firm belief that Germans are ‘militant’ was based on anecdotal evidence of a couple of Germans whose behaviour was admittedly slightly unusual for students but in no way justified his chosen adjective. Hard-working and law-abiding, maybe, but not militant. And making sweeping generalisations about a whole nation from a couple of individuals is never a good idea.

It was probably a throwaway comment. It’s unlikely (I hope) that this man believes all Germans to be aggressive, combative and fanatical. But as the quotation above conveys so well, words are powerful things and, like eggs, demand careful handling.

Whether we refer to migrants as ‘cockroaches’, Jews as ‘dirty’ or Germans as ‘militant’, and whether we speak privately or publicly, our words can have unintended repercussions. A careless adjective, a generalized insult: this is how the seeds of prejudice are sown. Let’s choose our words well and show our fellow human beings some respect.

The case of Oskar Groening

“I ask for forgiveness. I share morally in the guilt but whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide.”

These words were spoken yesterday by Oskar Groening on the opening day of his trial in Lüneburg. He stands accused of being an accessory to the murder of at least 300,000 Jews at the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau between May and June 1944.

He told the court that his job was to count the money taken from prisoners. He admitted witnessing mass killings but denied any direct role.

All of the major news outlets are covering the case, so I’m not going to re-hash the details. Instead, I’d like to explore the question of guilt a little further.

Groening’s admission of “moral” guilt and his distinction between moral and criminal culpability taps into a debate that began in 1945 and has never been – and can never be – resolved.

In that immediate post-war period, the German nation was widely and collectively condemned as guilty. (You can read more about the debate around German collective guilt in my blog post here.)

But when journalists and newspaper readers wrote angrily of “German maniacal guilt” or the “great guilt” carried on all German shoulders, they were free of the responsibility for deciding what should happen to the people they were denouncing. To try a whole nation would be absurd and the vast majority of Germans were not guilty of a crime in the legal sense anyway. The guilt that so many Britons charged them with was not criminal, but moral.

Even trying those Nazis who would later be imprisoned or executed as war criminals was not easy. Their undeniable guilt was not of a kind recognized by existing laws and a new category of ‘Crimes against Humanity’ had to be created to deal with them.

German philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote on this subject in 1946, expressing her concern that “We are simply not equipped to deal, on a human, political level with a guilt that is beyond crime”.

It may even be impossible to convict Groening of the charges he is facing – similar charges against him in the 1980s had to be dropped as the law did not allow criminal guilt to be proven in his case. His guilt was and may still be “beyond crime”.

Yet few people would disagree that Groening should receive some punishment. Even he seems to think so.

Logic tells us that guilt should be punished. But what does punishment for moral guilt, either for a whole nation or for an individual like Groening, look like?

It’s a difficult, perhaps impossible, question to answer. But it will certainly be interesting to follow this trial as the judges seek a path through the maze of legal and moral questions ahead of them.

The question of Britishness: A German perspective

You’ve probably read enough about the Scottish referendum in the past week to last you until doomsday. But my take on the matter is somewhat different and involves a kilted Scotsman called Bosty, a bewigged George II and a murdering Viscount. An intriguing prospect, I hope you’ll agree.

There’s been lots of discussion about Britishness in the last weeks, plenty of agreement that it’s important and worth hanging onto, but no consensus about what it means.

Cole Morton writing in the Telegraph on Sunday failed to answer the question in his own headline, “what does it mean to be British now?” commenting only (and fairly obviously) that Britishness is “elusive” and incorporates many types of people and identities. Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting’s conclusion that Britishness is “by definition a plural identity” is equally vague.

Having read these albeit interesting but somewhat disappointing articles, I was certainly none the wiser. So I turned to my terrible 1950s German novels and even worse 1950s German films to see what insight they could offer. After all, I’m studying German depictions of the British, so perhaps they had a clearer idea what Britishness meant, at least in the 1950s, than we do today?

Yet British characters, it seems, were few and far between in post-war German popular culture (which could be problematic for my thesis…). There are plenty of specifically English characters and a couple of Scots, but no sign yet of any Welsh or Irish, and none who are identified as British.

Still from "Robinson soll nicht sterben"

Still from “Robinson soll nicht sterben”

The 1956 comedy film Robinson soll nicht sterben (Robinson shall not die) is a fictional story based on the absurd premise that Daniel Defoe’s famous novel has inspired so many English sailors to abandon their ships and seek out a lonely desert island that the novel has been banned and Defoe is now penniless. Although the film is self-consciously farcical and over embellished, the depictions of a highly ornate, rather ugly English court inhabited by royals and nobles flamboyantly dressed and bewigged would have been relished by German audiences obsessed with what they saw as an English monarchy and English traditions.

Similarly, post-war German novels and films were riddled with remnants of the English nobility, often depicted as eccentric relics, sometimes as lunatics, but always undoubtedly English rather than British. If their Englishness isn’t being commented on directly, it is always present in their perpetual tea-drinking, discussions about the weather and obsession with their own noble status.

Indeed, Viscount Blair of Menseley in a 1957 detective novel is so fanatical about maintaining the prestige of his noble heritage that he murders his wife in order to inherit her fortune. His Englishness is highlighted not only by his Oxford accent and English furniture but by the very bloodline he is desperate to protect.

The English aren’t coming out of this too well so far, are they? That’s for another blog post though…

"Das Sonntagskind"

“Das Sonntagskind”

Then you’ve got your Scotsmen, like Bosty McMillar in the comedy film Das Sonntagskind, a Scottish soldier in occupied Germany after the war. Complete with kilt, bagpipes and whisky and speaking very bad German, he flaunts all the Scottish stereotypes available to German film producers in 1956.

So for German filmmakers and novelists in the 1950s, Britishness wasn’t terribly ripe with possibility. Even now, there’s a fair amount of understandable confusion among the Germans I’ve spoken to about what Britain is, let alone how it relates to Great Britain or the United Kingdom.

So it seems we’re on our own in working out what Britain is about. We’ve had the word since the Romans arrived, so there’s no excuse really.


The language of remembrance

In a year of important anniversaries, today marks another. One hundred years ago, Britain declared war on Germany, marking the beginning of what became known as the ‘Great War’.

European leaders have gathered in Belgium, flags have been lowered, monuments unveiled, prayers spoken and candles lit and extinguished. It’s a far cry from the unsuitably celebratory atmosphere of the D-Day commemorations that I wrote about in my last post. And rightly so – there is some validity in celebrating the beginning of the end of a war, while any form of celebration today would be absurd and wholly inappropriate.

Yet the knowledge that we, the British, were the victors in the war that began on 4 August 1914 is tangibly present in the British speeches and media coverage of today’s events. And the knowledge both that they were the primary aggressor and the defeated nation is no less evident in the words spoken and written by Germans.

Over and over again, we hear and read the verbs “commemorate”, “remember”, “think”, “reflect”, “mark”, “salute”. Time for reflection is rare in our often hectic lives and days like today force us to find that time, to remember what has passed and to mark a moment in history.

But what will happen tomorrow? We’ll return to our everyday lives, for most of us increasingly distant in every way from the realities of the ‘Great War’, and the words we’ve heard and thoughts we’ve had will fade into nothing. That cenotaph, grave or memorial in our village, town or city will return to its customary function as a barely noticed pile of stone, useful certainly for a posed snapshot or a meeting place, but little more.

The problem is one of passivity and complacency. Despite David Cameron’s insistence in a speech today in Belgium that the principles that determined Britain’s entry into the First World War should still be our guiding principles today, there was little in his or other British speeches to inspire real action. As the military and moral victor, we need do no more than mourn, remember and salute, it seems. These may be verbs but they have little to do with action and do nothing to engage or inspire.

German President Joachim Gauck also made a speech in Belgium today. Representing the nation that both initiated and lost the war, his speech was appropriately different to Cameron’s but need not have deviated too far from the language of remembrance and mourning. Yet he spoke boldly of the “bitter, terrible lessons” of the war, of Germany’s responsibility for it and of ever-present shame.

He demanded the active advocacy among Europeans of freedom, justice and tolerance and made explicit reference to current conflicts that necessitate such action. He appealed to European political leaders to show not only with words, but with actions too, that they have learned the lessons of the First World War.

Gauck’s plea for action and his call for all countries, not just those that carry the most blame, to actively learn from century-old events are a long way from Cameron’s passivity and the British media’s insistence on presenting the First World War as an interesting and saddening historical event to be remembered and marked but no more.

Yet this complacency is misplaced. Just because we play the (somewhat dubious) role of moral victor in this one chapter of history, why can’t we still learn from the mistakes that others made in that same chapter? If nations victorious in wars were to descend from their moral high ground in order to study the moral and military errors of their opponents (and themselves), thereby acknowledging that every nation has the potential to err, rather than seeking lessons only in defeat, humanity might progress a little faster.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

The Germans have a special word for a monument that serves as a warning to future generations – Mahnmal. It’s different to their standard word for monument or memorial – Denkmal. The first word contains part of the word for ‘warning’ – Mahnung – while the second comes from the verb ‘to think’ – denken.

In Britain, we only have Denkmale, memorials that invite us to think, and only that on special anniversaries. Germany has many of these, but also many Mahnmale, monuments that can’t be ignored, that demand our attention, our reflection, our action, monuments that ask of us, ‘how are you going to make sure that this atrocity doesn’t happen again?’

We need a more active rhetoric on our commemorative days. We need a greater willingness to confront today’s realities and to actively use the lessons of the past to better ourselves as nations and as individuals. And we need more than Denkmale that invite us to think – we need Mahnmale to provoke us into action.

Some thoughts on D-Day

Last weekend’s D-Day anniversary made me more than a little uncomfortable. The commemorations were meant to be acts of sober remembrance and a chance to reflect on how far we’ve come as a (more or less) united Europe since 1944.

There were indeed plenty of solemn moments, but these were sandwiched between re-enactments featuring paratroopers, men in jeeps and military uniforms and Spitfires painted with invasion stripes. The stone villages surrounding the Normandy beaches were packed with World War II-era jeeps, children excitedly waving American flags and signs across storefronts welcoming the liberators: “Merci a nos liberateurs!”

There’s no doubt that D-Day was a hugely important milestone on the road to defeating D-Day_landingNazism in the Second World War. There’s no doubt that it should be remembered. But 20,000 men died that day and, however just the cause for which they were fighting, we must continue to mourn that tragic loss of life. Yet Friday’s events showed just how easily sober commemoration can turn into celebration.

It’s easy to remember the things that went well, the victories. The war as a whole, and D-Day and the Blitz in particular, have acquired a special place in the narrative of British national identity. As Jonathan Freedland discusses in an article in ‘The Spectator’ back in 2012, the events of 1940 ‘have acquired the status of a creation myth, the heroic and finest hour in which modern Britain was born’. That myth was cemented by the actions of over 83,000 British men on June 6th 1944.

But nations are formed by more than just victories. Germany is a country that knows this perhaps better than any other and has refused to shy away from the horrors of its past. Every year on 27th January, Holocaust Memorial Day is marked by a moment of silence in the German Parliament as well as lectures, theatre performances and church services across the country. German cities are pockmarked with monuments, statues, plaques and sculptures memorialising the Nazi crimes. Some are vast and intimidating, others almost hidden, but each embodies a city’s awareness of the need to make the Holocaust a part of the everyday reality of today’s Germany.

There were many Germans at Normandy last week too. They came despite fear of hostility – one group recounted how locals refused to serve them at the 65th anniversary in 2009 – and despite the inevitable emotional difficulty of facing both the increasingly frail Allied veterans and the sea of gravestones, the many thousands who died that day in the fight against Nazi Germany. They came because they know they should, because they know the importance of continuing to confront their nation’s past, even (perhaps more so) as it recedes out of living memory.

Britain’s history, too, is blotted with acts of horror. But we’re much less good at confronting this. Where is the day commemorating the violence perpetrated by Britain in north America and Australia in the name of colonisation? Where is the day to remember Britain’s role in the deaths of 250,000 people during the Indian partition in 1947? Where is the day to commemorate the almost total destruction of Hamburg, Dresden, Cologne and many other German cities during the Second World War?

In his study of British area bombing of Germany during that conflict, philosopher A.C. Grayling looks in detail at that policy and its effects and concludes that it was neither necessary nor proportionate, that it contravened humanitarian principles and general moral standards. ‘In short and in sum: was area bombing wrong? Yes. Very wrong? Yes.’

Immoral actions remain immoral even when fighting a just war. And to point out that the Allied record is not unblemished does nothing to diminish the enormity of the Nazi crimes, as some seem to fear.

Rather, to acknowledge the less admirable, even abhorrent, aspects of our nation’s history is to say, “this must never happen again”. Michael Gove wants “British values” to be taught in our schools. Let’s follow Germany’s example and make sure this includes real examination of Britain’s history, warts and all.  Only then can the rose-tinted image of our past be replaced with a humbling narrative that inspires future generations to build a better “Great” Britain.