I Believe in Languages

David - Northridge, California
Entered on March 15, 2009
Age Group: 50 - 65

By way of introduction, I believe in next to nothing Crash Davis rants about in his Bull Durham creed. On the contrary, I believe that Susan Sontag was an extremely intelligent and talented writer and spokeswoman for her generation and sex. In particular Susan [Sunday] had a command of and abiding respect for language, the subject of my essay.

With a passion, I believe in the indispensability of languages. In the 1970s I learned that in a graduate seminar at the University of Kansas from the most impressive educator I have ever known, the late Professor Heinrich Stammer, who regaled us with his trilingual poetry recitations and German POW stories from WWII. Happily and in his memory, I proclaim early in this essay– ich glaube, ya veryu, je crois, credo. Inspired in part by his brilliance, I especially believe in the sine qua non of the language I still teach to young men at a Jesuit high school in Los Angeles. I say “still”, because the school is eliminating German over the next two years.

As I believe each language to be a language of genius, I assert that few languages have as certified a pedigree of genius as German. After all, German was the language of Luther, Kepler, Goethe, Gauss and Einstein (two of the greatest mathematicians in world history). When they were not composing masterpieces, Bach, Mozart and (my personal favorite) Beethoven were speaking and writing Deutsch. The Man of the last Millennium, Johannes Gutenberg, with his printing press played a major role in spreading literacy throughout the Western world.

For these reasons and also because German is the language of the world’s third or fourth largest economy, a leading country in the European Union, and the country where the Beatles first became stars, I believe German should be elevated rather than diminished in stature as a world language. Indeed, I believe it should be made an official language of the UN Security Council.

As far as learning German, I say this to my students: Don’t tell your German, Austrian or Swiss friends I said so, but think of German as English stuck in neutral for seven hundred years. Even though there are what seems like dozens of words for “the” and “and,” contrary to Mark Twain’s belief, I believe that German is easy to learn. The relationship between English and German is like one between distant but loving cousins: far enough apart to lead their own happy lives, but close enough so that when one says “Der Kindergarten ist eine Schule fuer Kinder.” the other knows where her children should be studying German. Try saying that in Chinese to an English-speaker and see what response you get.

I believe that we should stay in touch with and be faithful to our roots, which hold our linguistic, cultural, economic, and spiritual DNA.

Finally, as a card-carrying dreamer/teacher, I cling to the belief found in Schiller’s lines and immortalized by Beethoven in the finale of his Ninth Symphony that from art, music, poetry and language ” All people are brought together as brothers”– “Alle Menschen werden Brueder”,