The magic of things foreign

By Erhard Dahl, January 2020

The formative influence of foreign language lessons.

An English teacher had for some weeks recited “The Ballad of Semmer­water” at the start of the lesson in a class 5. Hence the children knew the following lines off by heart:  

Once there stood by Semmerwater
A mickle town and tall;
King’s tower and Queen’s bower,
And the wakeman on the wall. 

This week the teacher intend to practice their listening comprehension. She wanted to children to listen carefully and then do what their fellow pupils had asked them to do. Jakob stood next to the teacher and told Johanna: “Go to the wall and point at the picture.” Susan’s arm shot into the air. The teacher nodded for Susan to speak: “That’s wrong. ‘Wand’ in German does not mean wall in English. When we recited the poem, you explained that wall meant a town rampart.” Without saying a word, the teacher wrote the German words “Mauer” and “Wand” on the blackboard; then the words “essen” and “fressen” as well as “Brief” and “Buchstabe”. Next to the pair “Mauer/Wand” she wrote the English word wall, next to “essen/fressen” the word eat and next to “Brief/Buchstabe” the word letter. 

When the teacher asked: “Does anyone notice anything?”, there was a quick response: “Two different German words have only one English word!”. A boy called out: “Cool! Now I don’t need to learn so many English words!” Laughter all round in the classroom. The teacher reacted promptly: “Wouldn’t that be nice? But look.” Then she wrote more German words on the blackboard: “Schnecke”, “Affe”, “Straße”, and next to each German word two English words: “Schnecke” – slug/snail, “Affe” – monkey/ape, “Straße” – street/road. 

The children looked on confused as the teacher asked again: “Do you notice anything?” After a short time a girl lifted her hand: “Now it is exactly the other way round. For each German word there are two English words.”

“Exactly,” the teacher continued, “we Germans see a difference between ‘Mauer’ and ‘Wand’; English-speaking people don’t! But they make a difference between a slug and a snail, a monkey and an ape, a street and a road. We will encounter many more English words in the lesson and many of them will remind us that people who speak a foreign language look at people, plants, animals and things in a different way.” The boy who had been so relieved about the fewer English words called out: “What a pity!” 

What had the teacher succeeded in doing in these few minutes? Spontaneously she had picked up on an important aspect of foreign language teaching: setting the pragmatic goals aside for a minute, she showed the children that languages are different and gave them the opportunity to discover the otherness of the English language. In short, she encouraged the class to reflect on the foreign language – and thus also on their own. 

Tyranny and freedom

During a lecture in England, Rudolf Steiner said in connection with the characteristics of different languages that it was the task of the teachers to balance the intensive influence of the mother tongue by teaching children other languages from an early age (GA 307, lecture 11). But to be able to move from mere awareness to self-awareness required that neither the mother nor the foreign tongue were spoken instinctively only. Throughout the years of teaching, an awareness had to be developed of their laws and their specific perspective on the world. 

If Steiner likens the mother tongue to a tyrant (Lindenberg 1989) because it only provides us with a fraction of how humans represent the world, forces us into a specific setting in the world and forms our physical body in only one particular way, then the acquisition of every additional language is like a liberation. In view of the fact that we human beings also obtain our nature through language and bear and can acquire all languages within us in potential, learning a foreign language possesses a special human formative influence. A few examples will illustrate how pupils can be shown the different nature of the English language and by means of which they can be encouraged to see the educationally important relative nature of their linguistic perspective. 

Categorising reality

As in any language, English too demands that the speaker should turn their attention to certain attributes or semantic dimensions. If it is the shell that is the defining attribute in a snail, then one noun is not enough to describe what we can observe. If the speaker has to observe semantic dimensions such as for example direction of movement or an active or passive process, then they have to differentiate between “take” and “bring” or between “swim” and “float”. Equally enlightening for pupils are discussions as to why English differentiates between “road” and “street”, “town” and “city” or “freedom” and “liberty”, to name but a few examples. 

Language gaps

Since no language describes the world it depicts in the same way as another language, there are gaps in each. An English speaker will choose between “big, tall, large, great” depending on context; a German speaker is restricted to the word “groß”. The latter must be very alert here when using this adjective in English. The same phenomenon can also be observed in other word classes. Thus there are at least four English equivalents to the German verb “erreichen” which are determined by the specific situation: achieve, attain, arrive at, gain. In turn, German speakers can choose between masculine and feminine noun forms such as “Nachbarin” (f) and “Nachbar” (m), “Freundin” (f) and “Freund” (m), whereas in English there is only one form available here – as with many other words – which can lead to problems in translation. 

In the field of grammar such gaps lie, for example, in the use of adverbs. In contrast to English, there is no need in German to distinguish between adjectival and adverbial forms: “Clara ist sorgfältig” – “Clara schreibt sorgfältig”. German pupils initially find the adverb difficult because they are not familiar with such a distinction: “Clara is careful”, but “Clara writes carefully”. 

The perception of an action and the resulting choice of tense also reveals such gaps between languages: “John plays the violin” describes a habitual activity; “John is playing with his eraser” describes an action that is taking place at that moment. In German, the speaker does not differentiate between these two situations and so there is no continuous form of the verb: “John spielt Geige”. – “Hans spielt mit seinem Radiergummi”. 

A clearly different perception of time structures in English also becomes evident in the form of progression of the present perfect simple and present perfect continuous and the numerous opportunities in English to express the future. 

In the field of vocabulary, there are German nouns which, to the surprise of the pupils, appear in English sentences particularly in factual texts. The long list of words which illustrate these gaps in English include for example: “Ersatz”, “Doppelgänger”, “Feierabend”, “Schadenfreude”, “Weltanschauung”, “Gestalt”, “Leitmotiv”, “Angst”, “Kitsch”. 

The images in language

Among the many elements in a language which strikingly express its foreignness let us still mention imagery and thus the imaginative world of the foreign culture. Germans see a sequence of thoughts as a “Gedankenkette”; in English it becomes a train of thought. Germans see the “Hufeisen” of a horse whereas English is not guided by the material and form of the hoof but the function: horseshoe. The German “Schlagloch” becomes a pothole, revealing the perception of a pot. Even words coined as recently as the twentieth century are (still) subject to the world of ideas of the respective language community: for example “Windpark” and windfarm or “Glascontainer” and bottlebank. 

Although other areas could also be included in which the foreign comes to expression, it is already evident that Waldorf foreign language teaching provides a space both for the pragmatic and philosophical side of this subject. The latter in particular enriches the young people in middle and upper school. It shows them different opportunities to perceive the world and relate to it, provides them with alternative instruments of consciousness and feeling and puts them in the position to encounter the members of other language communities with empathy. Is it not this which distinguishes foreign language lessons in the education of young people? 

About the author: Dr Erhard Dahl held the chair of English literature and teaching theory at Paderborn University until 1990; from 1990 to 2012 he was an English teacher at the Uhlandshöhe Waldorf School in Stuttgart. 

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