At 13 years old, I began my journey of learning German, and to this day I am still in awe of why it was love at first sound. The answer is clear to me now: my teacher was excellent. Mr. King was a prominent figure at my English public school, known for his intelligence and kindness. Despite the chaos of the second world war, he had a deep connection and love for Germany – a love he was set on instilling in us.
Mr. King chose to inspire us by teaching us the beauty of the language, literature, and culture, rather than buying into the negativity and propaganda that spread throughout the country about Germany. He believed and discussed the notion that "the real Germany will come back", and he was right. Nowadays, it has.
To make learning German an enriching experience, Mr. King played gramophone records of classical German actors reciting romantic German poetry for us. It was clear that these records were a significant part of his life, which he carried in brown paper bags in a satchel placed in the bicycle basket when he rode to school. They were precious to him and to us too. Even though the records were a bit cracked, we loved them and learned to recite the poems with the cracks included.
It amazed me how well German fit with my tongue. I appreciated the language’s beauty and was glad it felt like it was mine and mine alone. I found it fascinating that most students knew only a small amount about German, limited to phrases such as "Achtung!" and "Hände hoch!" used in propaganda war movies. I had an upper hand, thanks to Mr. King.
When I realized that I couldn’t withstand my public school any longer, German was my escape, and in 1948, I went to Switzerland and enrolled in Bern university. Frau Karsten, my new teacher, was just as admirable as Mr. King. A stern north German woman with grey hair in a ponytail, she rode a bicycle, and her bobbing grey hair followed suit.
It’s no wonder that once I joined the army for my national service, I was assigned to Austria, or that I went on to study German at Oxford after the army. And finally, to Eton, where I honorably taught German.
German is an amusing language to speak. It’s possible to tease it, make fun of it, and play with its pronunciations. It’s easy to create new words that are tremendously long and unrealistic, like "Donaudamp-fschiffsfahrtsgessellschaftskapitän."
Mark Twain’s famous joke is one of my favorites: "Some German words are so long they have a perspective." When it becomes tiring to figure out compound nouns and participles strung together, we can find solace in the unadulterated verse of Hölderlin, Goethe, and Heine, who remind us of the language’s simplicity and beauty, making it almost divine-like.
Despite the German language’s pretense, it loves the simple power of monosyllables.
Language learning is an act of friendship, a gesture towards building relationships, and a way of getting to know a person’s culture, social manners and their way of thinking. Teaching a foreign language displays a generous commitment to mediation.
Charlemagne once said that to know another language is to possess a second soul. However, the act of teaching a second language is more than just imparting knowledge – it is about instilling a second soul in someone.
Effort is required to reconcile these two souls and engage in a serious level of mental agility. Precision, rational thinking, and creative problem-solving are all necessary to accurately convey meaning, ultimately finding the perfect word or phrase to communicate an idea.
Author John le Carré recognizes that foreign translators, rather than native English speakers, are often the most meticulous editors of his novels. They bring a relentless eye to scrutinizing tautological phrases and factual inaccuracies.
As society faces a tumultuous time filled with contradictory and unintelligible language, the importance of clear, rational language becomes evermore essential. To those who manipulate language to serve their own agendas, clear language ultimately is an existential threat. The power and influence of clear language threaten the obfuscations, contradictions, and lies relied upon by these individuals.
In times like these, the custodians of truth are the individuals who teach and cherish language for its precise meaning and beauty. Those who teach German and spread understanding of German culture, particularly in a country like Britain, are to be greatly valued.
Today’s honorees and their colleagues have the opportunity to speak to Britain’s most precious asset – its youth – who view Europe, Germany, and shared language as their natural bonds, regardless of Brexit. The act of teaching a language is about instilling a new soul and a new way of thinking – it is an act that balances arguments and keeps societies civilized.