Martin Durrell: How awful is the German language? Was Mark Twain right?
How awful is the German language? Was Mark Twain right?*
Martin Durrell (Manchester)
It seems self-evident that one of the aims of a modern languages discipline should be to overcome difficulties of comprehension between language communities and cultures, since achieving an advanced level of competence in another language should surely lead to a deeper understanding of the other culture and insights into the fundamental differences from one’s own. But, as ever, the devil is in the detail, and what at first sight seems simple or blindingly obvious can mask problems and unforeseen horrors for those who venture onto this terrain without due care and attention.
The truth of this became clear to me on first acquaintance with the German language, and I never ceased to remain aware of it subsequently during my own academic career as, first, a student of Modern Languages and later as a university lecturer and professor specialising in German and Germanic linguistics. By way of explanation I must add here that in Great Britain, unlike many countries, all members of staff in a university department of modern languages are obliged, for good or ill, to share in teaching the language. This means that not only the native-speaker lectors in a department, but all full-time staff from the most junior to the professors – even specialists in literary studies – normally have to teach practical language courses. As they may not necessarily have any qualifications or aptitude for it, this obligation may not...
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