Linguistic Keys: the Special Access That Comes with Language Learning

You are holding a large ring of keys. Some are big and clunky—ancient-looking, or at least antique. Others are rusty or turning green, but clearly a bit more modern. Then there are sparkling new keys, fob passes, and several devices that are extremely futuristic.


Perhaps this keyring sounds like a lot to carry. Who wants to be burdened with a heavy chunk of metal these days? Fortunately, it is totally weightless—the old and futuristic keys occupy no space in your pocket, backpack or handbag. This keyring is a set of skills that you carry with you at all times; skills that unlock myriad troves, doors, gates and portals. We are talking about language skills. Today, we’ll explore how foreign reading and listening skills allow us to understand a wealth of otherwise inaccessible material, further cultivating our interests and enriching our lives.


Opening up the world of German


German is a language of philosophy, literature, music, cinema, politics, sport and technology. Even with a lower level of German, you can get a rich taste for German thought and culture in all of these areas. Sure, in many cases you can access translations, but they won’t always be available. Just as importantly, an extra layer of meaning is invariably lost in the translation process. This is where those linguistic keys come in handy.


Unlocking the past


Taking hold of a large brass key, you unlock a trove of German-language treasures from a bygone era. Where to start? If you’re into philosophy, you could go straight to Immanuel Kant’s 13-page essay Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch or in the original German, Zum Ewigen Frieden: Ein Philosophischer Entwurf. This revolutionary text from 1795 sets out some of the fundamental ideas underpinning international cooperation today. Without this essay, the United Nations and its charter might not even have been imagined! Of course, the English translation is valuable. But with a good knowledge of German, you can read the text as Kant composed it, picking up that extra layer of meaning. You could do the same with texts by Hegel and Freud.


If you love literature, you could dive into Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, or Die Verwandlung, as the German original is called. If you’ve read this in English, you may have imagined it somewhat differently to how Kafka intended. As we said, something is always lost in translation. By reading the original, you might find your understanding of the novel transformed forever…


Anyone who loves sport will tell you it’s not just the contest that’s engrossing—the athletes themselves and their emotional responses to high stakes moments is a big part of the experience. Sports interviews are a great way for fans to relive the ecstasy of triumph and the agony of defeat from the competitor’s perspective. German-speaking sports fans can get a unique insight into the experiences of past champions like Steffi Graf, Boris Becker and Jürgen Klinsmann. Even though these stars gave English-language interviews, each athlete really comes to life when using their native language. This is a true treat for anyone who enjoyed watching them back in the day.


Music fans also have much to gain by using their German language skills. Yes, it is a delight listening to the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Hildegard Knef, both of whom sang in their native German, among other languages. But German unlocks more than the music itself. It provides a gateway into the history of music. YouTube is full of interviews that bring this history to life. Some of the world’s most iconic artists, like Elvis Presley, David Bowie and the Velvet Underground had significant German connections. Meanwhile, Tina Turner went a little higher, moving to Switzerland in the 90s and becoming Swiss in 2013. German speakers who played a role in the events of these artists’ histories often gave interviews to rock historians. Let’s look at a classic example from the early 1960s.


The Beatles, perhaps the biggest band in history, honed their craft in Hamburg, playing hour after hour in the Reeperbahn’s dingiest clubs. It’s possible that the Fab Vier might never have made it without the influence of local art students Astrid Kirscher and Klaus Voorman, artists who changed the direction of The Beatles’ image. Hearing Astrid and Klaus describe their experiences with the young Liverpool rockers in their native German is a thrill for any fan.


Of course, there are many more cultural treasure chests waiting to be opened. We’ve barely scratched the surface. But now it’s time for us to put the past aside and focus on the here and now. In the next article, we’ll look at how German can unlock the present.