"A personal atonement, however futile, for the pathos-ridden arrogance of my nation"by Richard Dawkins / November 3, 2016 / Leave a comment
Berlin, Germany’s Capital City ©Thomas Wolf Read more: The death of modern foreign languages I like to think of my life as governed by rational decisions, but I have to admit that my attempt to learn German in my quixotic seventies is governed more by emotion—an emotion that might strike some as positively irrational. I don’t specifically need German for my life or my work. No, my motive is almost akin to penance: a personal atonement, however futile, for the pathos-ridden arrogance of my nation. Brexit has made me ashamed to be English. I’m ashamed of the England of Farage and his xenophobic yobs—and of Cameron whose cowardly opportunism gave them their head. I’m ashamed to be English, not British: I’d be proud to be Scottish or Irish today. Brexit is the obvious recent manifestation of both the arrogance of the English and its ignominious unjustifiability, but it has shown itself for longer in our attitude to the learning of languages. Insofar as we teach languages at school, we treat them like Latin, with no expectation that, having mastered gerunds and the subjunctive, there’s any need to end up actually having a conversation with Johnny Foreigner. As I remarked in a previous contribution to Prospect, a trip to Amsterdam or Stockholm or even—as I recently discovered, Budapest or Prague—should fill us English monoglots with shame. I suggested that a step in the right direction would be to persude our broacast news media to abolish voice-over translations and replace them with subtitles. In the same vein, I am now watching DVDs of German films. Films like the epic saga Heimat or the deeply moving Das Leben der Anderen are no hardship, but highly enjoyable. I still need the English subtitles, but while reading them I’m making a strenuous effort to pick out as many German words as I can. The idea is to let the language wash through me, to tune my ear to it so that I learn in what’s left, at my age, of the effortless facility of the child brain. At the same time I am conscientiously fulfilling my daily assignment in a computer course: Duolingo. Duolingo tells me I am now 37 per cent fluent in German, which is obviously nonsense. Quite apart from the implausibiliy of the alleged precision to two significant figures, if I were anywhere near a third of the way to fluency I wouldn’t need subtitles in order to enjoy the dubbed German version of Jeeves und Wooster, or Das Leben des Brian, whose English dialogues I know almost by heart. Interestingly, it is in some ways more useful for me to take the course in English designed for Germans. This requires me to translate from English into German, which is a lot more challenging than translating from German to English if only because when doing the latter you can ignore the Great Gender Menace—you are handed the der or die or das on a plate. This may be why I am rated only 12 per cent fluent in English. Must try harder.