“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.

Mocking the afflicted… I know you shouldn’t but…

They say you shouldn’t mock the afflicted.  But I say it depends on the affliction. If the condition is self-inflicted and derives from overweening self-importance and the narrow vision of  a monoglot Anglo-American corporate capitalism, I say you are fair game.

So here we have Professor Amanda Broderick, launching the University of Salford‘s “Passport to Foreign Money Global Citizenship”:


It’s on pages 6 and 7.  Do read it, if you have the time.

600 words of the usual grandiose waffle, with bits that don’t even make sense, such as the poorly edited line: “”We need to be accountability for our impact on our environment”.  And the dreadfully phrased:  “and recognise that we live in an interdependent economy and society, and the importance of recognising our responsibilities towards each other”.

But one word is conspicuously absent.  The word “language” – or, God forbid  “foreign language” – does not appear once.

Intercultural skills and knowledge?  Check.  Globally-connected world?  Check.  But the notion that anyone in this glorious vision of hubs, international engagement and sustainability speaks anything but English?  Er… Not a mention.

PS: And is it me, or does the picture of Martin Hall in the Abu Dhabi “hub” look like a man lost in an international departure lounge grateful to the first stranger he can talk to?


Whose English is it anyway? Or: Thoughts of the man in seat F14

I have been travelling on Cross Country Trains twice a week for the past two years – 150 miles south to the “south west” from “the north” and then 150 miles back north to the north west from the south west.  The inverted commas are there as I am sure some will argue whether Bristol belongs to the West Country (it does, get over it).  And others who will argue that the fringe of the Peak District in Derbyshire is not really “northern” enough (though to judge from the grim-up-north sepia tones of The Village, filmed just up the road from me in Hayfield, it is).

One of the things about this journey, aside from the quirk of the ticketing website that assigns me to seat F14 (quiet coach, aisle seat), is that I hear the language around me change over the space of three hours and feel myself acclimatizing from one form to another. We start in Stockport.  The vowels in the station announcer’s voice are pure Mancunian.  Bury (the place) is definitely “Burry” and not “Berry”.  Shops are open “9 while 5”.  “singing” has an “ing” followed by a “ging”.

We travel through the Midlands.  Huge swathes of land around Wolverhampton and Birmingham laid waste by centuries of industry now vanished.  The sounds shift.  The people change.

Then west out of Birmingham through more canal-crossed post-industrial landscapes and into the countryside towards Cheltenham and Bristol, where the train curls along a high embankment for 10 minutes before threading its way into the city itself.  And the language shifts to Bristolian, with its distinctive and difficult to imitate rhythm.

I have been struck, since starting work at Bristol and leaving Salford behind, by a whole host of things about England.  Especially the England that flows past the windows of seat F14 twice a week.

One thing is how divided it is by its common language.  For example, perceptions of northern or west country speech outside those regions are flat and superficial.  Northern connotes “working class”, even if it is the polished tones of a Cheshire public school boy.  Bristolian connotes “rural yokel”, even though Bristol has a longer history as a city than all of the great northern manufacturing towns.

Often there is an assumption that there is such a thing as a “standard English”.  If my 300 mile trip every week tells me one thing it is this – to assume that phrases like the “Queen’s English” or worse “Oxford English” have any meaning at all is the worst kind of proprietorial arrogance.

Another thing that has struck me is how many of my colleagues are also long-distance commuters, though typically not as long distance as me.  This is also part of the reality of UK HE – it has become increasingly difficult to move to some parts of the UK to others.  And as academics taking up a new job we are not always in a position to be able to move. At some point, however, if housing costs continue to rise, the gradient from north to south will make moving completely unaffordable.  Now my journeys are about to be over and I am about to move, this is also a reality I am all too aware of.

Lastly – thanks to Cross Country trains for only letting me down once in two years (high winds north of Birmingham forced me to turn around one night) and getting me home and to work every week.