The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Luke Slat­tery

RE­CENTLY, at a friend’s birth­day party in Aus­tria, I turned to the cul­tured Ital­ian sit­ting next to me and asked his nom­i­na­tion for Europe’s most ex­cit­ing city. ‘‘ Ber­lin,’’ he of­fered with­out a mo­ment’s hes­i­ta­tion. Oth­ers at the ta­ble dis­agreed. ‘‘ Prague,’’ chirped one. ‘‘ Bu­dapest,’’ coun­tered an­other.

An in­ter­est­ing gen­eral con­sen­sus soon emerged: the cen­tre of Euro­pean cul­tural in­ten­sity had shifted from Paris and was edg­ing its way east­ward like a weather sys­tem. It now lay, to adopt a satel­lite view, over a world in which Ger­man is ei­ther the mother tongue or a favoured sec­ond lan­guage. The north­ern Ital­ian pow­er­house of Mi­lan could also be con­sid­ered an hon­orary mem­ber of this zone, as it’s a city that once lay within the vast reach of the Austro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire and one in which Ger­man is taught widely.

So there are plenty of sound cul­tural rea­sons to learn Ger­man, not least of which, if you hap­pen to be a clas­si­cal mu­si­cian, is the Ger­man zone’s sta­tus as Europe’s or­ches­tral and op­er­atic hub. Yet only a lit­tle more than 2000 Aus­tralian school stu­dents take Ger­man at Year 12, about 10 per cent of the to­tal num­ber of lan­guage stu­dents at that level. It’s a piti­ful statistic in a grim pic­ture of lan­guage achieve­ment in a coun­try whose fu­ture de­pends on its open­ness. Our po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic lead­ers bang on about open mar­kets but nowhere near enough is done, from a lan­guage per­spec­tive, about open minds.

Of course one fea­ture of the Ger­man lin­guis­tic land­scape that does no good for its in­ter­na­tional pres­ence is the Ger­mans speak English.

Ger­man, as it hap­pens, is the first lan­guage I was taught. I learned it at a Queens­land school and, while the tuition was pretty ris­i­ble, I con­sider my­self for­tu­nate not to have been born a few decades later. Queens­land schools in the 1980s and 90s ripped out Ger­man as if it were a lin­guis­tic weed; it was re­placed, with dis­as­trous con­se­quences, by Ja­panese: a lan­guage that the Ja­panese them­selves, if you catch them af­ter a few sake or Sapporo, warn for­eign­ers to leave well enough alone.

The Ger­man I learned was thread­bare and my at­tempts short-lived. More in­deli­bly scored on my mind than its tenses and cases were the at­tempts of my first Ger­man teacher to en­dear us to the lan­guage. The sec­ond Ger­man word I learned was fa­ther or vater, pro­nounced to a school­boy’s ears like farter. And in that first les­son I also im­bibed the Ger­man for sleighride: sch­lit­ten­fahrt, which was pro­nounced by my teacher with a silent ‘‘ l’’. I can’t say I blame the chap, for his Teu­tonic gut­ter-talk was an im­mensely ef­fec­tive piece of class­room con­trol. But it was a rather off-key in­tro­duc­tion to the lan­guage of Goethe and Schiller, Rilke and Heine, the mother tongue of Bach,


that most Mozart and Beethoven. Ger­man was also the lan­guage in which the Weimar Repub­lic, bauhaus and the Aus­trian Se­ces­sion were forged, in which both mod­ernism and, via Hei­deg­ger and Husserl, post­mod­ernism put down their tap­roots. Of course it was also the lan­guage in which Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital and The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo; in which — ahem — Mein Kampf was penned; and in which cen­turies of Euro­pean anti-Semitism reached their ter­ri­ble nadir. It is the lan­guage in which the 20th cen­tury was formed.

Be­fore World War I, the Ger­man lan­guage’s reach was broad and un­der the Haps­burg monar­chs it was spo­ken by half of Europe. But its pop­u­lar­ity de­clined af­ter World War I in the an­glo­phone world, partly in a ges­ture of cul­tural re­tal­i­a­tion. And with the abom­i­na­tion of the Third Re­ich it be­came, to some ex­tent, the lan­guage of the bad. It is still re­garded by many as an unattrac­tive lan­guage — harsh, cold and gut­tural — with none of the ro­mance of, well, ro­mance lan­guages. And yet it was once a lan­guage of song, of high cul­ture, of great learn­ing and heart­felt hos­pi­tal­ity. It re­mains, in its way, a beau­ti­ful lan­guage: a lan­guage of great feel­ing, of pas­sion and hu­mour, and of the most im­prob­a­bly long com­pound nouns, de­scribed aptly by Mark Twain as ‘‘ al­pha­betic pro­ces­sions . . . march­ing ma­jes­ti­cally across the page’’.

I made some of th­ese points to the Ger­manspeak­ers at the birth­day party and they were, nat­u­rally, chuffed. I would have liked at that point to un­bot­tle my school­boy Ger­man but given the po­lite com­pany, it is prob­a­bly just as well I kept sch­lit­ten­fahrt to my­self.

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