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Le Carré and German

Best-selling spy writer John Le Carré, who died recently, was a true Germanophile. In a speech given at a 2017 awards ceremony at the German Embassy for German teachers he describes beginning to learn the language at the age of 13, when it was ‘love at first sound’. He credits a school teacher who ignored the war-time propaganda but concentrated on German literature and culture instead, playing old gramophone records of classical German actors reading romantic German poetry.

‘I learned to imitate, then recite them…And I discovered that the language fitted me. It fitted my tongue. It pleased my Nordic ear.’

It was the German language that provided his ‘bolt-hole’ in 1948. He couldn’t go to Germany, so he went to Switzerland and at 16 enrolled himself at Bern university. After that it was no wonder that he was posted to Austria to do his national service, and thence got a place to study German at Oxford.

He loved the language’s quirkiness. ‘You can have a lot of fun with the German language, as we all know. You can tease it, play with it, send it up.’ But he also saw language learning in general as an ‘act of friendship. It is indeed a holding out of the hand. It’s not just a route to negotiation. It’s also to get to know you better, to draw closer to you and your culture, your social manners and your way of thinking. And the decision to teach a foreign language is an act of commitment, generosity and mediation.’

He also uses his speech to approach the whole issue of ‘fake news’, with a big sideswipe at President Trump. ‘Clear language – lucid, rational language – to a man at war with both truth and reason, is an existential threat. Clear language to such a man is a direct assault on his obfuscations, contradictions and lies. To him, it is the voice of the enemy. To him, it is fake news. Because he knows, if only intuitively, what we know to our cost: that without clear language, there is no standard of truth.’ And that means that ‘Those who teach language, those who cherish its accuracy and meaning and beauty, are the custodians of truth in a dangerous age.’

And of course he squeezes in the whole issue of Brexit. ‘By teaching German, by spreading understanding of German culture and life, today’s honorands and their colleagues will be helping to balance the European argument, to make it decent, to keep it civilised.’

‘They will be speaking above all to this country’s most precious asset: its enlightened young, who – Brexit or no Brexit – see Europe as their natural home, Germany as their natural partner, and shared language as their natural bond.’

For the full Le Carre text, see this online page from Language Magazine

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