Why should everyone study German according to the British writer John le Carré

During the prize-giving ceremony for the best German professors of Great Britain, John le Carré explains why everyone should study German. A speech extract of the well-known British writer David Cornwell (better known by his pen-name John le Carré) has been published in “The Guardian”

“I started learning German when I was 13 and I still can’t explain why it was love at first sound. The answer must be obvious: my professor’s wit”: that’s how the speech begins. The famous writer John le Carré fondly remembers his first teacher of German, Mr. King, a man who chose to go against the wind. Rather than supporting the anti-German propaganda of the time, the teacher wanted to convey the beauty and the power of the German language, culture and literature to his students. He said that: “One day the real Germany will come back.”

An “out of common” language

Le Carré recalls when he used to listen to CD’s in his classroom and German actors reading poems by Heinrich Heine or Eduard Mörike. It was just listening to those sounds (and reproducing them) that le Carré started to fall in love with German. “I was in love with the idea that these poems and the language I was about to learn, belonged to me and nobody else because then, German wasn’t a common subject and most of my classmates only knew few words: for example Achtung (attention!) and Hände hoch (hands up!) learned from watching war movies.

From being a student in Sweden to becoming a German teacher

In 1948, John le Carré decided to quit the private school in England. Since he couldn’t go to Germany, he moved to Sweden where
he enrolled at the faculty of German literature at the University of Bern at the age of 16. Le Carré explains that he had an excellent teacher there too, Frau Karsten. While joining the military service, he was transferred to Austria and afterwards he graduated in languages at the University of Oxford. After his studies, he started teaching German at Eton.

A funny language

The writer says “dealing with German is very funny” and he explains why German perfectly matches with the play. “You can easily coin many long words (true words), just for fun. For example, this is the word I learned from Google: Donaudampfschiffsfahrtsgesellschaftskapitän» (captain of a steam shipping company on the Danube)”. Moreover, the author mentions Mark Twain: “Some German words are so long they seem to have a perspective”. Then, he goes on: “you can invent crazy adjectives, like “my Playstation, which has (recently been thrown from the window by my parents)”

The language of gods

And yet German is not only a “playful” language, but rather a language of purity. “When you get really tired of that massive number of nouns and participles used to make compounds, please remember you can always get inspired by Hölderlin, Goethe or Heine poems and never forget that German can reach extremely high levels of brevity and beauty – which is for us, the language of gods”.

Learn a language as friendship act

According to John le Carré, studying a foreign language is a friendship act comparable to a handshake. As soon as you start learning a new language, you start getting closer to the other, her/his culture, behaviour and way of thinking. The writer mentions Carlo Magno: “Getting in touch with another language is like owning a second soul”.

Mental fluency

Le Carré states that “merging these two souls requires mental fluency. It’s important to be clear and never get satisfied unless you find the equivalent word. If the equivalent doesn’t exist, you have to find a complete sentence or periphrasis in order to express the same meaning”. Not without reason, le Carré thinks that his most methodical editors are foreign translators. Then he goes on “the German translator is particularly exasperating”.
The importance of a pure and rational language as truth warranty
Le Carré also mentions the importance of a pure and rational language. Without specifically citing the name of the present U.S. president, the writer refers to “contradictions and incomprehensible declarations from the other side of the Atlantic”. Moreover, he adds “for a man who’s actually in war with the truth and reason, an objective language stands for a threat; the enemy’s voice, or better a fake news, to him”.

The learning of German in the Brexit Era

Le Carré praises language teachers and particularly German teachers of Great Britain which are told to be “dying breed”. Lastly, he says that the teaching of the German language and culture massively contributes to
maintain a balanced and civil debate on Europe. Teachers often refer to those “illuminated young people that, with or without Brexit, consider Europe their home, Germany as their natural partner and language as a natural bond”.


Born in 1931 in the South of England, John le Carré has been considered the most important writer of twentieth century’s spy fictions. His books, also inspired by his professional experiences and set during the Cold War, are famous worldwide. Infact, during the Second World War he joined the British secret services and his novels include „The spy from the cold“, „All men of Smiley“, „The mole“, „The perfect spy“ and „The tenacious gardener“. Fascinated by the charm carried by the foreign languages, le Carré studied at the University of Bern and then at Oxford, where he graduated in German literature. He has been taught for two years at the prestigious Eton College and then became an official of the Foreign Office, the British Foreign Ministry. First, he became Second Secretary at the UK Embassy in Bonn and later he went to the Hamburg Consulate as a Political Counselor.

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