by Richard Dawkins
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.
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