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.

Germany: Memories of a Nation – a promising exhibition that fails to deliver

Last week, I paid my (fairly obligatory) visit to the British Museum exhibition, “Germany: Memories of a Nation”, the accompaniment to Neil MacGregor’s Radio 4 series which I wrote about here.

Reaction to the exhibition has been mixed, often fairly critical. Charges are levelled against mundane objects with “large wodge[s] of text”, the cramped layout and the lack of female figures. My objection to the focus on elite figures and high culture in MacGregor’s radio series also applies to the exhibition.

At the sharp end of many reviews is the section dealing with the Holocaust – although there is a fair amount of praise for this bit too. Following several rooms of traditional, even old-fashioned, exhibiting techniques – old objects in glass cases with bits of explanatory text – you come to a large alcove whose walls are mostly blank. There’s a bench to sit on – the only one in the whole exhibition – and the white walls are broken only by a replica of the gate to Buchenwald concentration camp and two small segments of text.

Section on the Holocaust - British Museum exhibition - Germany: Memories of a Nation

Section on the Holocaust

You’re taken aback by the juxtaposition. The blankness after the artefact-filled displays of the previous room is unnerving. There are no words or objects that can guide you comfortably through this bit of history, it seems to say. And indeed, that’s exactly what it does say – the Holocaust “poses an insoluble question for Germany and the world”, we are told. “There is no narrative that can encompass it”. The text introducing the whole room reiterates this viewpoint. We read that the Nazis “left a dark memory that can be neither avoided nor adequately explained”.

The language is echoed in reviews praising the exhibition’s acknowledgement that this part of German history is indeed “unpalatable” and “unspeakable”. Such language, filled with negations – insoluble, neither/nor, no narrative, unpalatable, unspeakable – is now in common usage with regard to the Holocaust. I can understand its place in discussions regarding the emotional and personal engagement with the Nazi past that is faced by German individuals and the German nation – a struggle that has its very own German word, Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

Yet the task of an exhibition such as this is neither emotional nor personal but historiographical. And the events, ideological movements and widespread prejudices that led to the Nazi atrocities are explicable and can (and should) be discussed. To avoid doing so and instead simply offer a place to sit and reflect seems like a cop-out, a neat way to evade the perhaps even more unpalatable truth that this segment of the past can be “adequately explained” as part of a historical narrative.

There is a danger in suggesting, as this exhibition does both implicitly and explicitly, that this part of history is entirely different to the rest of it, that while the rest can be neatly manifested in an eclectic array of books and paintings, clocks and hats, silverware and wetsuits, the Holocaust can be manifested in neither object nor word.

This both allows the Nazi past to go unaddressed – and this exhibition was surely a great chance to present a more considered narrative than we are offered in popular novels and films – and undermines the complexities, nuances and suffering present in the rest of German history. Nearly half of the German states’ male population were killed during the Thirty Years War and villages that survived the marauding armies took a century to recover. The fluidity of national borders that once encompassed Kaliningrad, Prague and Strasbourg caused untold disruption, confusion and crises of identity. These human consequences remain concealed in an exhibition that focuses mainly on historical fact.

There is no denying that the Holocaust is a unique event in German history and its depiction in an exhibition deserves careful consideration. But the same could be said of most of German history, especially the parts thought worthy of a place in the British Museum. No part of Germany’s narrative (or the narrative of any nation) is free of complexities or controversy, and there is little that is free of emotional resonance.

Perhaps, then, we should confront the idea that no part of history can be explained by a numbered artefact and a paragraph of text. Most of us learn from a young age how to look at an old vase or piece of bone in a glass cabinet, skim some text and move on, our eyes glazing over as object follows object. What’s good about the Holocaust section – that it makes us stop and think – should be replicated in the whole exhibition. Although its technique of blankness and near silence might not be received too well among the fee-paying visitors.

The exhibition shop at British Museum - Germany: Memories of a Nation

The exhibition shop

The exhibition shop provided a final disappointment. Filled with sausage-eating, beer-drinking rubber ducks, dachshund cufflinks, VW campervan money boxes and 3D Neuschwanstein jigsaws, it reverts to and takes commercial advantage of customary stereotypes, none of which featured in the undeniably stimulating and stereotype-free exhibition.

Bavarian rubber ducks on sale at British Museum - Germany: Memories of a Nation

Bavarian rubber ducks

It’s a shame that the final impression is one of kitschig beer mugs and plastic Beetles. The shop, like the exhibition, was ripe with potential to challenge conventional ideas about Germany with an exciting, thought-provoking narrative. In my view, both fail to deliver.

Neil MacGregor on Germany: From Wurst to Walhalla

The BBC Radio 4 enthusiasts among you will know that Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum and professed Germanophile, is currently making a daily appearance. At 9.45am every weekday we are being treated to fifteen minutes of enlightening discussion in his series Germany: Memories of a Nation.

Topics so far have ranged from Kafka to Kaliningrad, Goethe to the Brandenburg Gate. It’s perhaps unsurprising that a series broadcast on Radio 4 and accompanying a British Museum exhibition should focus on high culture, monumental architecture and individuals famous for their literary and philosophical achievements.

Walhalla, hall of fame in Bavaria honouring esteemed German artists, scientists, sovereigns and politicians of the past.

Walhalla, hall of fame in Bavaria honouring esteemed German artists, scientists, sovereigns and politicians of the past.

But as a student of popular culture and with a growing awareness of its importance for a nation’s sense of self, I’m disappointed. In his wonderfully eloquent and undeniably fascinating attempt to piece together a history of German national identity, MacGregor has neglected everyday people, for whom Rammstein and Schumacher are far more important than Walhalla and Kant.


Sausage and beer

One episode bucks the trend. In it, he traces the history of those celebrated German gastronomic exports – sausage (Wurst) and beer. For many Germans (or at least the 91% who aren’t vegetarian), sausage in one of its approximately 1200 different forms is indeed a staple food. And at 106 litres per year (compared to 68.5 in the UK), the average German’s beer consumption also lives up to the stereotype.

Not only is the “sausage and beer” stereotype actually rooted in fact, it’s also a fairly positive one compared to the other weary stereotypes – Germans are over-efficient, Germans are humourless and German women have hairy legs. Every Briton visiting Germany – or one of those half-authentic German Christmas markets that spring up everywhere from Birmingham to Bournemouth – buys a beer and a sausage and, perhaps a little grudgingly, admits that they’re pretty good.

Yet in the popular British films, novels and TV dramas made in the years after the Second World War – surely a time when Germans needed all the positive stereotypes they could get to counteract the negative – I have yet to find a German character eating a sausage or drinking a beer.

Since sausage-eating and beer-drinking have been part of German culture for centuries and were even defined as national activities by the German nationalists of the 1800s, British ignorance of these habits can’t be blamed for the omission. So what’s the reason?

Sink the Bismarck!

Things become clearer if we compare the British and German characters in these post-war films and novels. The 1960 British war film Sink the Bismarck! is a perfect example. The British characters – from admirals to cadets – are regularly seen doing very ordinary English things like drinking tea and eating sandwiches, even in the midst of battle! In one scene, two men on lookout for a German battleship in Icelandic waters discuss quite seriously their crumpet cravings.

Their penchant for stereotypically English food and drink makes these characters seem very ordinary, very human and very English – just like the cinema audience themselves – despite the extraordinary events.

In contrast, the German characters are rarely seen eating, drinking or discussing such basic human needs and cravings. If they are enjoying a beverage, it’s usually an expensive tipple in a fancy glass. They seem either unhuman, almost machine-like, in their lack of any need for sustenance or inhabitants of a luxurious world detached from that of the ordinary British cinema-goer.

Ironically, Sink The Bismarck is now a beer by BrewDog, supposedly the strongest beer in the world.

Ironically, Sink The Bismarck is now a beer by BrewDog, supposedly the strongest beer in the world.

It sounds crazy, but it’s true that more sausage-eating and beer-drinking in these films and novels would have vastly improved the post-war image of Germany among ordinary Britons. Of course, the intention was often to depict truly repulsive Germans and the lack of eating or drinking was a device to emphasise how different they were to the rest of humankind.

So we’ve made real progress to get to a point where two of the biggest stereotypes about Germany are so positive. In his episode on sausages and beer, Neil MacGregor quotes the Roman historian Tacitus writing about the Germanic tribes, among whom “to pass an entire day and night in drinking disgraces no one”. Perhaps such habits, widespread among Britons and an important part of German identity, could be the twenty-first century glue that binds us all together. Or perhaps not.

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.


Fantasy, farce and folly: Nazis on the big screen

Good news for all you “Iron Sky” fans out there. Filming for the sequel, “Iron Sky: The Coming Race” is due to start next year for release in 2016.

In case you missed the first one – you lucky, lucky people… – it went something like this. Iron SkyAn Afro-American astronaut, landing on the moon in 2018, discovers a city of Nazis hidden there since 1945 and planning a re-invasion of the earth.

Among other intriguing plot points, a mad, racist Nazi scientist turns the astronaut albino and, in search of smart phones to power their space battleship, the future Führer and his fiancé are roped in as advisors for the American President’s re-election campaign.

Baffled? Don’t worry. I am too, and I’ve watched the film myself. What I’m interested in here, however, is not the plot but the characterisation of the Nazis. These men and women, homogenously attired in their field-grey uniforms, are meant to seem absurd.

Their overly rigid rules and regulations, total lack of individuality and spontaneity, and their ludicrous understanding of the world as divided into capitalists and bolshevists render them farcical and the perfect targets for mockery. Seventy-three years after Hitler’s death, they have not quite got the hang of using the name of his successor, Wolfgang Kortzfleisch, in greeting each other. Even Kortzfleisch himself is greeted consistently with “Heil Hitler”, testament to the complete idiocy of these twenty-first century Nazis.

Although a poorly executed example, “Iron Sky” is part of a recent trend of creating and mocking exaggerated Nazi stereotypes in film. “Inglorious Basterds” was a film that did it far more successfully, but the basic premise was similar. The numerous Hitler Rants Parodies on YouTube, based on that famous scene from “Untergang” (“Downfall”), testify to the same idea – that such extremity of character, ideology and behaviour is all too easily turned into farce.

These films and parodies may seem new and radical. But there’s a whole bunch of films made in the 1950s and 1960s that were doing exactly the same thing, often better. Then, too, Nazis were frequently represented as overly obedient, mechanical, homogenous, tunnel-visioned and excessively self-confident.

In the numerous films set in German POW camps and on wartime battlefields, such characteristics leave ample room for quick-witted, spontaneous, cynical and witty British individuals to run rings around dull-witted Germans.

Norman Wisdom (right) as a German general in "The Square Peg"

Norman Wisdom (right) as a German general in “The Square Peg”

For brilliant and wonderfully simple comedy – without the excessive special effects that are sadly “Iron Sky”s best feature – I’d recommend those early post-war films. Norman Wisdom impersonating a German general in “The Square Peg” is utterly hilarious, as are the ludicrous Nazis scattered through the hit POW films “Very Important Person” and “The Wooden Horse”.

“Iron Sky” lacks the tongue-in-cheek attitude that makes those films so enjoyable. In fact, it behaves rather like a stereotypical Nazi, so convinced of its own greatness that it fails to see its own fatal flaws. In the novel “The Wooden Horse” – based on a true story – the German camp officer is so self-satisfied and convinced of his own superiority that he misreads the derisive roar from the British prisoners in response to his morning greeting as enthusiasm: ‘He was popular with these wild-looking British, was he not?’ Such idiocy is exactly the kind being mocked in the films I’ve been discussing.

Similarly, despite the derisive roar from critics and public alike, the makers of “Iron Sky” blindly proclaimed the film a success and forged ahead with a sequel. Such absurdity will surely, rightfully, spawn its own cynical parody and the cycle of mockery will continue.

Rose bushes and concentration camps

I have concocted a (by no means) exhaustive list of over sixty British novels published between 1945 and 1960 that feature German characters. I’ve read nearly thirty and they’re slowly morphing in my mind into one never-ending and entirely implausible Berlin spy thriller filled with Nazis, Communists and the occasional friendly German (often a Jew…). A spreadsheet with plot summaries is just about keeping me sane.

Emerging out of these thousands of pages of text are, thankfully, some discernible trends and recurring figures.

The “German we love to hate” is at the top of the list. He (never she) is usually an ex- or emerging Nazi (depending on when the novel is set), but sometimes a Communist. He’s brutal, emotionally cold, cowardly and driven entirely by his politically extreme ideology.

Dr Ischenasch in D.M. Dowley’s 1952 novel exemplifies this type. Brought in to manage a failing chemical plant in a small English town, he aggressively imposes his own agenda, firing long-serving employees in the name of “efficiency” and scorning the advice of others, most of whom he dismisses as “stupid”. The downfall and eventual departure of this self-aggrandising and unpopular figure are celebrated by the whole town (not to mention the reader!).

Then there are the Nazis. Hansen (in Desmond Cory’s Pilgrim at the Gate) is representative of so many – small, weak and cowardly, he bolsters his own ego with delusional speeches, preaching his own important role in the imminent rise of Germany “to adopt its rightful position as the head of nations”.

His cruel and sadistic behaviour as a high-powered Nazi scientist make it impossible for us to laugh at his absurd theorising and gutless surrender to death as we otherwise might. In his last moments, he is described as “almost comically woebegone” – the “almost” indicating that such a malevolent character can never be comic, even darkly so.

hands of the devil

There are the faceless SS men in Tony Faramus’ romping adventure tale, Hands of the Devil, appearing at regular intervals, “cruel, gruesome and sadistic”, to thwart the escape of the French and British heroes from enemy territory.

And there’s Hugo, the apparently charming chap who enjoys entertaining the young relations of his naïve English wife. Yet on hearing of an attack of green-fly on a prized rose bush in the garden (a contrived plot device if ever I’ve seen one…), he charges outside, offering to lead a gas attack to smoke them out.

As if the reference isn’t already clear enough, he amends his technique of using heavy cigar smoke that’s bad for the roses, explaining that a lighter smoke “would do the work of extermination as well, if rather more slowly”. Ah yes, the reader thinks knowingly, a simple step for those Germans from green-fly and cigar smoke to concentration camps.

It’s perhaps no surprise to discover that this repulsive figure is so pervasive in post-war British novels. It may even go some way to explain the persistence of the Nazi stereotype in British popular culture. What seems more surprising is the “good German”, who crops up almost as regularly. More on him (or her) next time.