The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."


The English Student in Germany.

Volume 15, 1904, pg. 201-206

It is curious to observe with what tenacity English people cling to any custom that has once been established amongst them. It does not seem to occur to the average Briton to ask if the custom is a good one, or if the conditions which may have made it so at the time of its introduction have not changed. About the middle of last century Carlyle's stentorian voice, which for years had been proclaiming the excellence of the Teutonic character and the splendour of Teutonic literature, began to penetrate the ear of that small section of the British public called Society. Immediately, the study of the German language and literature became fashionable and great ladies who at the present day would have gone on a sporting expedition to the Pamirs or have entered for a motor car race, grew suddenly interested in German case-endings and the use of the German subjunctive. Young men with literary or scientific aspirations began to appear on the students' benches in Heidelberg and Bonn, whilst their sisters read Goethe and Schiller under the timid guidance of some homely-featured "Fräulein," or were carried by their mammas to spend a winter in Dresden, or Hanover, or Karlsruhe. A craze of this kind, though it may have no permanent effect upon the thoughts or actions of the class in which it first appears, is sure to influence the habits of the class that ranks a little lower in the social scale, and, accordingly, for the last fifty years it has been customary with British middle-class parents to send their sons and daughters to receive at least a portion of their education in Germany. At the present day, indeed, there must be few families in any of the larger German towns whose homes have not at some time been shared by English boys and girls sent out for the purpose of acquiring a practical knowledge of the German language, whilst a German school without its contingent of English-speaking pupils is scarcely to be found throughout the length and breadth of the Fatherland. At first sight this seems an arrangement likely to make the acquisition of the native tongue easy for the young strangers and to give them a familiarity with it that ought to make the acquisition lasting. How far it really answers this expectation, however, is testified by the almost total ignorance of German prevailing amongst middle-aged people in this country, many of whom must be supposed to have enjoyed whatever advantages the arrangement offers. A language with which one has become thoroughly familiar in youth, familiarity with which has been strengthened by the study of its grammar and its best writers, ought to require but little practice for its retention during life. And that English people in general, even young English people, speak German either haltingly or not at all, goes far to prove that they have never really acquired it. As a matter of fact, the circumstances in which English boys and girls are generally placed when in Germany make it difficult for them to acquire a sound and accurate knowledge of any branch of learning.

Entering into conversation with two German ladies at the table d'hote of a Swiss hotel recently, I found that both could speak English with sufficient correctness to make the interchange of ideas upon simple subjects tolerably easy. As they came from a small North German town, I asked if they had acquired their English in England: to which they replied in the negative, explaining, however, with Teutonic frankness that they had had a young English girl living with them as Pensionarin for over two years, from whom they had learned to speak English. I smiled at the naivete of the ladies' rejoinder, though the reflection that when English parents send their children--perhaps at considerable sacrifice--to be educated in Germany, the benefit derived is confined, in nine cases out of ten, to the school or family receiving them, is by no means an amusing reflection in these days of fierce international competition. Yet such is really the case: the instance just cited is no solitary example of what often happens when a when a young English person is sent into a German family to learn German: similar instances have again and again come under the notice of the present writer. The difficulty which the ordinary Briton finds in learning to speak any language but his own is increased, in the case of young people, by the shyness peculiar to English boys and girls, and to a certain false shame which makes them feel ridiculous when attempting to do anything that they cannot do well. Hence, even were the German teachers or hosts perfectly conscientious in carrying out the wishes of the parents and guardians who have placed their young Pensionare and Pensionarinnen in their charge, these would still have many obstacles to encounter before attaining a thorough grasp of the language of Schiller and Goethe. But German teachers and German families accustomed to receive foreign students into their homes do not recognize it as a duty to see that the young people committed to their care learn to speak and read German, if these show no strong desire to do so. Indeed, the pursuit of whatever is likely to benefit one's self, one's family, one's country has been exalted into a virtue, into a national duty in the Fatherland. Now, the acquisition of a foreign tongue, especially the acquisition of the tongues of France and Britain, is a matter of importance to almost every German: hence, when a young English person enters a German school or family, all the German pupils in the school, all the members of the German family, have it borne in upon them that their plain duty is to make him teach them his language. Unfortunately, the stranger, being English, is generally too shy, or too lazy, or too ignorant to offer any serious opposition to this arrangement, and allows his year or two of German life to slip away without benefit to himself, conscious only of the pleasure of spending some time in a new country untrammeled by the routine of school studies or the discipline of home. It must be borne in mind, however, that to obtain a thorough grasp of such a language as German requires something more than one, or even two years' residence in the country where it is spoken: it requires, indeed, no small amount of patience, industry, and determination on the part of the learner. But patience, industry. and determination to overcome difficulties are qualities rarely possessed by English boys and girls, especially in the matter of any intellectual pursuit, and when a stammering attempt on the part of one of these elicits only a rejoinder in English or a burst of laughter, from a companion, the young stranger is pretty sure to grow disheartened and gradually to give up the struggle to gain a knowledge of the German language by dint of conversing with the people amongst whom he lives.

The serious student, of course, the girl who comes from a good High School or college, or from private study, equipped with a fair knowledge of the German idiom, and only requiring practice and concentration of attention in order to fix that knowledge and make it practically useful; the young man who, desirous of obtaining familiarity with German, snatches a few months in order to secure it at the least possible expenditure of time--such students as these are not likely to waste their opportunities, or to return from a residence abroad without having added considerably to their store of sound knowledge. But serious, well-instructed English students form but a small proportion of the numberless English youths and maidens to be found in ever-increasing numbers in German schools and families, of the majority of whom, in the present writer's opinion, it may safely be said that it would be taking too favourable a view to regard the time spent in these schools and families as merely wasted. Were the knowledge of the German language acquired by this residence abroad very much greater than what it usually is, it would still seem but a doubtful benefit to young people between the ages of ten and sixteen to be removed from the restraints imposed by English custom and the generally benign influences of home and to be placed in the midst of a people whose customs and opinions, in their youthful ignorance and insularity of view, they are likely to despise, and who are besides, in most cases, too busy with their own affairs to be able to give much time to instructing or controlling their young charges. Of course, by dint of hearing a number of stock phrases daily repeated many times--for even a fairly educated German family has but a small vocabulary, and a limited range of subjects on which to converse--the young foreigner by-and-by learns to understand and to remember them, so that on his return to his native land he is able to dazzle his more ignorant parents and friends by employing them, by the detestable practice of interlarding his English with German words and idioms, and by an ability to gather, in a superficial and sadly inadequate fashion, the meaning of the German books and letters that are wholly unintelligible to these. But is this result an adequate return for the time and money spent in gaining it? It is all that the parents and friends, who part from their young relatives in order to secure for them advantages they themselves have not enjoyed, have a right to expect? Does the acquisition of a smattering of illiterate German with, perhaps, a still more pitiable smattering of French thrown in, make up for the loss of steady training given by one of the many excellent public and private schools of which England can boast? Few people, the writer is convinced, would maintain that it does. Only, the majority of English parents know too little of modern languages themselves to be able to appreciate at its true value the education their children have received when abroad. The Latin master in a well-known German public school assured the present writer, when conversing on the subject of the little progress made by English boys at German schools, that of all the scores of English pupils he had had in his classes for many years, he could not recall a single one whom he could point to as having learned anything of value during the entire course of his school life. "The fact is," he added, somewhat brutally, "English boys are thoroughly stupid: they are all wanting in intellectual power," and he waved aside the suggestion that there might have been something wrong either in the teaching or the system of the school in which those unfortunate boys received what had to serve as an education. The truth is, of course, that English children, being often sent to German schools without sufficient knowledge of the language in which the teaching is imparted to enable them to take their places alongside of their German schoolmates, have to encounter difficulties entirely unknown to the latter, and so lose heart at the very outset of their school career, grow idle and careless, and cease, after a time, to make any exertion to take advantage of the very moderate opportunities afforded them of acquiring even a small amount of valuable knowledge. It must be admitted, of course, that in similar circumstances to these, the German boy placed in an English school would not impress his teachers as wanting either in intellect or industry: nor, however slight his preliminary knowledge of the English language, would he finish his school course without having benefited very sensibly by the teaching and discipline the school had furnished. The case of the young girl sent to a German school to master the language and, at the same time, acquire the knowledge and enjoy the training a good school is supposed to afford, is not much better than that of her English brothers. One thing, however, is in her favor; the curriculum in a girls' school is simpler and the foreigner generally receives special instruction in the German language. At the same time, it must be borne in mind that it is only after years of school attendance and with diligence and perseverance that the English girl can keep alongside her German classmates. Too many girls, however, even after a lengthened period at a German school, return to their homes without having gained anything valuable either in the way of useful information or mental and moral training.

Whether an acquaintance with the German language is of much value to ordinary English boys and girls may be doubted; it is not doubtful, however, that most English parents of the middle and upper middle classes regard it as of great importance. In adopting this view, parents, it is to be feared, are guided rather by fashion and convenience than by any well-considered plan for their children s education. What the precise object is which has moved the parents and guardians of most of the young Britons at present receiving their education in Germany to send them thither, it would be hard to say. Possibly they themselves would find it difficult to furnish an adequate reason. That education is good and cheap in Germany for the German people does not imply that it is either for the foreigner, seeing that the latter has to learn to speak, read, write, and above all, to think in German before beginning to receive any benefit from the usually excellent instruction imparted in German schools and colleges. For the young man or woman looking forward to earning a living as a teacher, or to entering any of the learned professions; or for the man or woman seeking culture for its own sake, an intimate acquaintance with the German tongue, with German literature, the progress of science in Germany and German thought, is of the utmost importance; but this acquaintance is not to be gained by a year's residence in early youth in some German school or family, and in the present writer's view, even if it could be gained so easily, would still be purchased too dearly when the price paid for it is loss of home influences and the training which prepares English boys and girls to take their proper place in English life.

Typed by Angela, Mar 2023; Proofread by LNL, June, 2023