“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…


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?


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.

What is marking for?

Or more precisely – why do we mark students’ language work?  Why do we spend so much time on a task that is often mechanical?   That a spell-checker function used at the right moment might do as well?

All language teachers spend time annotating language learners’ written output.  Many of us devise elaborate sets of initials and codes to tell our charges precisely what is amiss with their efforts.  In a sense, this is something we all accept. We believe implicitly that marking like this will help our students improve.

Arriving at university from school, students too expect that their work will be marked. For the last two years at Bristol I have asked a random, anonymised sample of our 250+ modern languages freshers a series of questions to invite them to think about how they learn.

One question I ask is “Do you like a teacher to write a correction of every mistake in your writing?”

This is what their responses look like:

answers to question

Detailed correction is what they want.   So to a large extent, that is what they get.  And in an age where the student has been invited to think of her/himself as a consumer, giving students what they want seems a sensible strategy.

Or maybe not?

There is a school of thought – going back to Steven Krashen’s Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition (1981) – that all this explicit instruction does little good.  True, marking student scripts is not quite what Krashen had in mind when he distinguished between “acquisition” and “learning”, but there have been arguments back and forth on this and similar points for more than 30 years — including absurd angels-on-pin-head notions of a difference between a “mistake” and an “error”, that we can somehow always separate errors that come about through lack of knowledge from “natural” mistakes.

So if the pedagogical function of marking (in my understanding of the term here as “annotating student’s written work”) is disputed, then what is marking for?

  • Just to reassure the language teacher that she is doing a good job?  I’ve known plenty of colleagues mark in such exhaustive detail that I feared for their sleep or their sanity — or both…
  • Or is it to reassure the student that she/he is learning something? When repeated mistakes might indicate otherwise…?
  • To reassure the student that the teacher “knows” what is right and what is not?  And that transmitting this confidence is “learning”?

I don’t have an answer to these questions.  But I know that in practice I mark at a sustainable level of detail and that I am frustrated enough by the lack of improvement that follows from such efforts that I will ring the changes, vary the forms of feedback, use rubrics, audio-visual recordings — anything to shift the fixed dynamics of what inevitably follows from my labours.


Salford Languages: what does this tell us about UK university groups?

Manchester University is seeking to recruit additional expertise in French and German Translating and Interpreting, just as a few miles away Salford closes disestablishes Languages.

A number of people have noted that expertise in modern languages and European cultures is increasingly concentrated in Russell Group institutions.

But the Russell Group are not the only universities to prioritise language study as a key part of the curriculum.

As John Holford of Nottingham points out on Twitter @john_holford, the message regarding language study at the 1994 group is rather different:

Nuanced for Salford’s sensibilities? “@1994group non-European languages @SOAS help boost http://bit.ly/15lthGX @soascareers

So by closing disestablishing Salford Languages are we saying an entire class of universities will not have any of the benefits the Russell Group and 1994 institutions so clearly see?

If the answer is yes, then the Alliance Group of Universities (to which Salford belongs) will effectively  reinforce the worst outcomes of  language policies in state schools over the past decade.  They will proudly produce monolingual graduates for a workplace that is increasingly multilingual, multicultural and transnational.  What possible defence is there for this?  A “Tragedy”?  A farce more like.

Albert Mansbridge, the founder of the Workers’ Educational Association, ended his account of the aspirations and ideals of that movement in 1906 with a quotation from Matthew Arnold:
Culture requires us to know ourselves and the world, and, as a means to this end, we must have the best that has been thought and said in the world and the harmonious expansion of all the powers which make the beauty and worth of human nature is incumbent upon every man.
How far we have fallen.

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