“You English are poor these days…too many trade unions” – German accents on film and TV

It’s only when you are reminded of something really good in television drama that you realise how mediocre much of the output of our national broadcasters is.

My particular beef is with British actors doing German accents badly.  If the character is identifiably German and supposed to be speaking English, then you *could* at least make the effort to get the sound right.  (I won’t venture into the territory where the German accent indicates that the characters are speaking German to each other… that way madness lies).  Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons as brother baddies in the first and third Die Hard films are about the Hollywood industry standard – sinister Europeans played by normally quite posh British chaps with a dash of camp.  Hugh Laurie as the evil Prince Ludwig in the final episode of Blackadder, series 2, has it just about right in terms of intonation, but overdoes the v / w confusion somewhat.

Not too long back, BBC Four was reshowing the TV adaptation of John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People.  Le Carré of course speaks German, studied in Bern and lived in Germany as an intelligence officer.  I think you can tell something of this linguistic sensitivity in the quality of the dialogue he gives his German characters – the slightly wrong phrases, occasional too literal borrowings – but also using a real German actor Mario Adorf is a master stroke.  His English is superb.  Yes, he *has* an accent, but it is the kind of accent a slightly dubious business man from Hamburg might well have.  See:  (about 48 minutes in).



The whole sequence lasts about 8 minutes.  My title is taken from  Herr Kretschmar’s (Adorf) words to the retired intelligence officer George Smiley (Alec Guiness).

PS Barry Foster (2nd from left in picture at the top) is no relation…


Why learn what?

The university language-teaching community has devoted  much effort in the past 10 years to promoting language study to its potential students – and more importantly to anyone with an interest in our future capacity as a nation to deal competently with other cultures.  As part of this, I think we have spent too much time talking up the individual economic benefits.

It is time to take another tack.  If we start from the premise that is good for any society if its citizens have as rounded an education as possible, then we should perhaps reflect how knowledge of a foreign language fits in with what we expect from an educated person.

This isn’t a subject that has much traction these days, as the notion that people once learned foreign languages simply because it was expected, even normal to do so, now seems to belong to a world as remote from most people’s experience as public school Latin or the eleven-plus entrance exam to grammar school.

I came across the following definition of what a student _should_ learn by the American philosopher John Searle.*  It was written as part of a review of polemics bemoaning the state of American universities in 1990 and is worth requoting:

The student should have enough knowledge of his or her cultural tradition to know how it got to be the way it is. This involves both political and social history, on the one hand, as well as the mastery of some of the great philosophical and literary texts of the culture on the other. It involves reading not only texts that are of great value, like those of Plato, but many less valuable that have been influential, such as the works of Marx. […] However, you do not understand your own tradition if you do not see it in relation to others. Works from other cultural traditions need to be studied as well.

You need to know enough of the natural sciences so that you are not a stranger in the world.

You need to know at least one foreign language well enough so that you can read the best literature that that language has produced in the original, and so you carry on a reasonable conversation and have dreams in that language. There are several reasons why this is crucial, but the most important is perhaps this: you can never understand one language until you understand at least two.

You need to know enough philosophy so that the methods of logical analysis are available to you to be used as a tool. One of the most depressing things about educated people today is that so few of them, even among professional intellectuals, are able to follow the steps of a simple logical argument.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need to acquire the skills of writing and speaking that make for candor, rigor, and clarity. You cannot think clearly if you cannot speak and write clearly.

As a linguist, I take heart in Searle’s assertion that learning another language is part of understanding your own.  And that the level to aspire to is one which enables you to do three things – to read the best literature in its original words, to hold a reasonable conversation, but also to dream…  Not just to ensure higher lifetime earnings then?


*John Searle, “The Storm Over the University” (New York Review of Books, December 6, 1990)

Ein Herz, zwei Seelen … One heart, two souls

Im Rückblick fällt es mir ein, dass ich nun seit 40 Jahren Deutsch lerne. Ich schreibe “lerne” nicht, weil ich irgendwie bescheiden erscheinen möchte. Ich weiss wohl, dass ich Deutsch in Wort und Schrift einigermaßen beherrsche. Sonst wäre es mir während etwa 25 Jahre nicht gelungen, Unterricht in deutscher Sprache zu erteilen.

Ich sage es aber mit Absicht.  Ich lerne noch.  Nach so vielen Jahren.  Wenn mir das richtige Wort nicht rechtzeitig einfällt, macht es mir mittlerweile wenig aus.  Das passiert mir sowieso in der Muttersprache.  Und meine deutschsprachigen KollegInnen haben  im Laufe der Jahre das wiederholte Hin und Her zwischen den beiden Sprachen auch toleriert.*

*Thinking back, I have realised that I am now coming up to my fortieth year of learning German. I put it this way not out of any false modesty. I know perfectly well that my spoken and written German are pretty good. Otherwise I couldn’t have got away with teaching the language for the best part of 25 years.

But I say it quite deliberately. I am still learning the language after all this time.  If the right word doesn’t occur to me at the right moment, I no longer worry. That happens often enough in English anyway.  And my German native-speaker colleagues have been tolerant enough over the years – with my switching back and forth from one language to the other.

Deck chair reshuffling Or: Is Martin Hall the worst VC in UK HE?

titanic sinking

Let us just recap the events at Salford relating to the closure of modern languages.

In April 2013 a leaked internal memo outlined a damage limitation strategy to be pursued following a planned announcement that a number of subject areas were under threat and that recruitment to languages in particular was to stop.

In June 2013, an announcement was duly made in the peculiarly ponderous tone adopted by Salford’s leadership that, as the university would no longer recruit, after 2013, to modern languages, linguistics and areas of politics and contemporary history (except postgraduate security studies programmes), the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences would eventually be disestablished”.   Is it me, or is that parenthetically posed “after 2013” firm evidence of windbaggery, or not?

VC Martin Hall then appeared in THES with a hand-wringing mea culpa that was – of course – nothing of the sort.  He had just sacked his powerful deputy Adrian Graves for gross misconduct.  He had also lost a £150k court case claiming his reputation, his predecessor’s reputation and the said deputy’s reputation, and therefore that of the university, had been besmirched by a feeble internal satirical broadside and a web site read by almost no-one outside the university.  At that point,  Martin was at least embarrassed enough by petitions from the ITI, UCML and 2600 signatures from former students and others to institute a review.

That review (chaired by an external academic) evidently did not report what Martin and his management wanted, so a second review was instituted.

You can read the details of this on a special FAQ.  I won’t quote it in full but there are some points that will tell you all you need to know.  Here are numbers 1 and 2:

1. What did the World Languages Task Group review recommend?
The review endorsed the University’s original decision to withdraw single language undergraduate degree courses. It also recommended the retention of specialist language study within joint degrees (e.g. LLB Law and Spanish) and of a revised form of the postgraduate translation and interpreting degree.

In addition, the review proposed that all undergraduates should have the opportunity to study a foreign language module as part of their degree course to help them compete in the global marketplace.

2. Why was a second review undertaken?
To investigate in more detail specific proposals for joint foreign language degrees based on analysis of forecast student numbers and financial projections. The review’s conclusion was that, while there is a market in the UK higher education sector for joint degrees, such courses would not be viable for the University of Salford in the medium term.

In other words, the first external review reported that there was a future for language degrees at Salford – and that despite the enormous damage done by negative PR and disastrous HR interventions.  The second internal review said the opposite.  If you struggled to get that point, then I would argue this is deliberate and typical of the obfuscation and obscurity so beloved of Salford’s management.

The second review also sounds entirely reasonable until we read point 4:

4. Can I see the reports?
We do not plan to make the reports available. (i.e. No  – i.f.) The decision made is final.  Our focus is now on ensuring that our students successfully complete their studies, throughout the teach out

If the evidence is so compelling, why are those who will lose their jobs over it not allowed to read it?

I won’t rise to a Zola-esque j’accuse over this, but it seems to me Martin Hall is a leader who is a) more interested in his public image as a decent and reasonable man (see endless blog entries…) than anything else and b) has presided over a disastrous blood-letting of senior staff in a three year period, much of which he has kept at a convenient arm’s length.

He has also done me a service by proving my observation on 6 September last year correct.  He writes in a recent email to staff:

 As a University with a powerful global reach, we remain resolute in our commitment to the value of global citizenship and internationalisation outlined in our Strategic Plan. As a result, from September 2014, as part of our distinctive Passport to Global Citizenship strategy, all students will be able to study an optional Modern Foreign Languages module.


From vibrant and widely respected modern languages degrees to “optional Modern Foreign Languages module” in less than five years?  I would say that permits me to pose the question in my subtitle above.  Or not?


PS.  Baroness Coussins specifically mentions Salford in her speech in the House of Lords on 9 April:

In the case of Salford, the announcement is not only  a body blow for languages, for prospective students and for those who would have been teaching them; it is also disastrous for international bodies such as the EU and theUnited Nations, which have in the past seen Salford as one of their principal recruiting grounds for specialist linguists.

She goes on to say pretty much what I have said above:

As for universities, I hope that more of them will acknowledge that to survive in the 21st century means more than just using fine words in the mission statement about being an international institution and producing global graduates but that in practice this means fostering languages, not abandoning them.


She is of course far too polite to name names.

Salford Languages: A public letter to add to the pile

My last post mentioned public letters to Salford’s VC Martin Hall from the ITI and UCML.  I don’t doubt a number of other private letters and emails have been added over the past few days.

Public letters are an odd form of communication.  They are about being seen to “deplore” and “condemn” and asking someone to “reconsider”.  With this in mind, I thought I would try a different tack.

Here is my private-public letter to Martin Hall:

Derbyshire, 26 June 2013

Dear Martin,

I like to imagine you jogging in to the office through the streets of Salford in the mornings, training up for another charity run.  This is, at least what your blog suggests.  And it’s quite a blog – 300-600 words and more every week on subjects suitable for the thoroughly modern vice-chancellor.

As you cross Fire Station Square, past your predecessor’s crowning achievement – the working fountain! – I imagine your mind is full of things to do, people to meet.

And you will have been receiving a lot of letters recently, marked “very serious”, telling you that the closure disestablishment of Languages is a bad thing.  Indeed, a “tragedy”, which I understand is the official Salford word.  I expect those PR types have been very firm about which word we should use.

Anyway, I thought I would just let you know that it really isn’t too late to change your mind.  I know some Languages people have already left, but I understand that lots of “highly-qualified and experienced staff” are readily available to take up the slack.  All it takes is one little word from you.

What about it?

Yours sincerely,


OK.  I admit this came to me in the middle of the night and I couldn’t resist.  But anyone who is not Martin Hall reading this should consider joining the Facebook group set up by Kim at


or adding a signature to the petition at Change.org

AHRC peer reviewers and the “Big Society”

42 members of the AHRC‘s panel have now resigned in protest at the research council’s inclusion of the term “big society” in its delivery document in blatant disregard for the principles of academic freedom.

This may sound like a small protest, but it is hugely significant. Academics as a profession are somewhat more easily flattered by public prestige and government recognition than their much vaunted independence would have us believe. For so many of them to give up a position of some influence at once is unusual.

See here, here and here for the background.  And here for the petition itself.   Anyone with an interest in how taxpayers’ money is spent should sign it.  In the scale of things a small matter, but an important one.

Being EMT – clubs and when and whether to join them

I’ve never been a great joiner. Not because I follow the Groucho Marx line that “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”  [Which is actually a fantastic anti-anti-Semitic joke but usually misunderstood as self-deprecation].  No, it’s more that I lack the patience for the sustained effort that goes into making clubs and associations work and believe me, there is work involved even in the smallest collective.

Recently, my department has joined the European Masters Network in Translation – set up by the European Commission’s Translation Service.   It is interesting to see that the UK has 11 members, France 9, but Germany only 2.  This perhaps reflects the EU’s own pattern of producing documentation in English and French.

Perhaps even more interesting is that some universities now want to claim the credentials without actually being part of the network – see this disingenous introduction at the University of Cardiff.