Tuesday, 3 December 2013
A radio presenter has died. No, I didn't know him. But in the deepest recesses of my brain his name produced a faint echo: Chris Howland.
The interesting thing is he was a British radio journalist whose career happened exclusively (apart from one unsuccessful stint at home which only lasted a year) in Germany. He was born in London in 1928, became a professional beekeeper, and in 1946 started as a radio presenter for the British army in occupied Hamburg, working for BFBS.
Soon his radio show became the preferred listening for German youths fed up with the staid and pompous way German radio was then presented. And apparently Chris Howland's show was just what they were looking for - all the great new music (rather than some outdated operetta tunes that German radio would have served up) presented in a laid-back and funny way. Apparently once he told his audience: "Don't worry about the lyrics [of an English song] I don't understand them myself". Just the sort of witty, uplifting remark people needed in those days.
In the 60s Chris Howland got his first show with a German radio station and again managed to turn it into a great success, thereby even saving the almost defunct broadcasting station from ruin by being so popular. Later on, when TV became the more important mass medium, Chris Howland got a show called "Hidden Camera" which must have been hilarious, especially given the uptight, head-down German post-war era. It involved putting people in awkward or absurd social situations and filming their reactions. Ethnographers of today, take note! So for example, traffic lights were set up in a forest (absolutely no traffic!) and the good Germans were filmed standing there obeying the red lights 'til the cows came home (or until they were being told it had been a joke.)
Without making a big song and dance about it, Chris Howland who made his strong British accent his trade mark, managed to alert Germans to their post-war weaknesses - a strong allegiance to aurhority, humourlessness, and an unquerying mind.
Chris Howland died last Saturday near Cologne. He'd made Germany his home, and did radio shows right to the end. I think he deserves to be remembered as one of the first post-war interculturalist who was not afraid of going against the grain. I wonder for example what his BFBS colleaagues made of his decision to stay on in "enemy territory"? He also calmly sailed through the storm when a German politician complained that his "Hidden Camera" was irreverent and impolite.
I think we need more Chris Howlands - unafraid, humorous and bridging cultures!
Saturday, 16 November 2013
Even the most casual reader of this blog will know that languages are my passion. Learning languages, fiding out abot diffrent gradated shades of meaning in different languages, picking up some hilarious (and inappropriate) slang in a language you already know quite well (wouldn't recommend it in an unfamiliar language as things can easily go pear-shaped), punning in all sorts of languages - and of course being able to read literature in the original - is that not a joy? I certainly love it.
And it isn't even (sadly!) as if I was an absolute language genius, one of those people who can converse fluently in almost every European language, plus of course Mandarin...
I have three languages where I'd say I feel comfortable in. But not to the same degree, and not in the same way. My languages are English, German, and Dutch. All not so dissimilar, but still totally different in the registers they offer - and sometimes of course their very similarity can be confusing. The thousands of "false friends" in Dutch and German are known to all speakers and very real pitfalls, even for near-native speakers.
Those three are my languages because I've lived in the respective countries and picked them up there. I didn't "learn" them. Saying this reminds me that I could do with adding a massive load of Dutch vocabulary - that would certainly do me a world of good! For being able to speak a foreign language is an ongoing and never-ending process. It's much like a sporting skill where you can get ever better, refine your technique, try different approaches, and experiment. Which again is something I love doing in a foreign language.
My love of languages is definitely not limited to those three - at the moment I feel I'd like to learn Norwegian and Italian, the latter I'm alread quite familiar with but nowhere near fluent. I also suspect that Germanic languages just suit me better. Much as I like French, I've never been very good at it. There's something about the pitch and speed which I can't quite seem to master... I think everybody develops a feeling as to which languages suit them and which don't. But of course there are all sorts of fascinating languages - Hungarian being the one that always tempts me. I really really wish I was better at it - my grandmother was Hungarian, and I feel a special obligation to master it. And wouldn't it be fantastic to be able to read and speak Russian properly, rather than just treat every Cyrillic letter like a personal challenge? I wouldn't stop anywhere actually... Navajo? Icelandic? They certainly sound intriguing! And one doesn't absolutely have to master them all, sometimes you just sort of dip in - I gave up on Japanese and Irish for example, both brilliantly challenging but somehow I got completely flummoxed by them.
I think you get the idea... I will never stop being fascinated by languages.