In action

Language as a bridge between the past and present

With its Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Prize, the DAAD honours international researchers for outstanding work in the field of German studies. Four prize winners give insights into their current research.

Issue 1 | 2023

Interviews: Miriam Hoffmeyer

© Julian Rentzsch

Searching for African clues in Germany

Dr Kokou Azamede, Université de Lomé, Togo/ Grimm Prize 2022, DAAD alumnus

Dr Azamede, you are interested in the shared history of Germany and Togo from a cultural studies perspective. What are you currently researching?

Azamede: Even before Togo became a German colony, German missionary societies were active there. From 1884 on, Togolese Christians from the North German Missionary Society would regularly come to Württemberg to receive missionary training there. They also undertook longer journeys through Germany. In my dissertation, I analysed the letters and memories of these men. Now I want to use the research grant associated with the Grimm Prize to search for clues in Germany: What written records lie hidden away in archives, which memories of the Togolese Christians may have been passed down within families? We often look for German clues in Togo – now it is time to set out on an African search for traces in Germany for a change.

You are an expert on the restitution of cultural objects from the colonial era. What questions are you addressing in this context?

Azamede: For many objects, the first step is to identify their provenance. Communities in Togo ­often do not even know which artifacts are kept in German museums. Restitution raises not only scientific but above all social questions: What significance do these objects have for the communities today? To what extent can they strengthen their identity and enrich their culture? Answering these questions for individual objects can be a major challenge. Generally speaking, the problems associated with restitution can only be resolved if the German and African sides jointly address their colonial past. There has been considerable movement in this respect in ­recent years. —

The history of language learning in Great Britain

Professor Nicola McLelland, University of Nottingham, Great Britain/Grimm Prize 2020, DAAD alumna

Professor McLelland, you promote foreign ­language learning in Great Britain. How do you generate enthusiasm about learning German?

McLelland: I believe it is important to convey how fascinating foreign languages are per se – regardless of their practical benefits. The eureka moment you have when you first understand something is an experience second to none. Anyone who speaks a foreign language gets to know an entirely different version of themselves. I am the president of the Association for German Studies in Great Britain and Ireland, and one of our jobs is to advertise German in schools. We encourage pupils to broaden their horizons and discover a new world.

What is there still to discover in your research field, the history of foreign language learning in Great Britain?

McLelland: Currently I am researching the history of English-German dictionaries. That is more fascinating than it sounds, as it involves the entire history of exchange. In both countries, any mu­tual interest in the other emerged at a relatively late stage, and the first English-German dictionaries were not published until the beginning of the 18th century. Bit by bit, exchange between the two intensified. Incidentally, dictionaries can also allow conclusions to be drawn about society, regarding gender issues, for example.

Are dictionaries not gender-neutral?

McLelland: That is the question. In the late 19th century, the first German-English dictionary compiled by a woman was published in Great Britain, and she may have chosen her examples differently to male authors. In general, who has what access to foreign languages says a lot about a society. Even as late as the post-war years in Great Britain, boys would learn Latin and Greek, while modern languages were considered less important and more suitable for girls. It is only in the past few decades that living languages have come to be more highly regarded. To this day, however, it is mainly girls who choose to learn foreign languages. —

Methodological expertise for Indian languages

Professor Vibha Surana, University of Mumbai, India/Grimm-Prize 2018, DAAD alumna

Professor Surana, you once said that German studies should build “bridges to reality”. What do you mean by this?

Surana: Objectivity is considered very import­ant in traditional philology – the idea of identifying any personal connection to texts tends to be frowned upon. In view of the major problems of our time, from environmental pollution to violence and xenophobia, we should rethink this approach. I invite students to read German texts within the context of their lives and current political and societal issues. I firmly believe that teachers are responsible not only for degree qualifications, but also for sensitising the next generation to social challenges.

What significance does this approach have for your research?

Surana: It is practice that interests me: when comparing literary texts, I examine the cultural deep structure as well as the historical and social context, both of the text and of the readers. It is important to select local research topics of social relevance. Science should be based in life.

How can German studies also benefit other ­languages?

Surana: One large-scale successful project that we have now concluded involved modernising the methodology by which Marathi is taught as a second language and standardising the six language levels. Despite this Indo-European language being spoken by more than 80 million people, primarily in India, it has been taught so far using outdated means and methods. Drawing on the methodological expertise we have acquired from teaching German as a foreign language, and with the help of ­Marathi experts, we have developed modern teaching ­materials for each level. India is a multilingual country, yet the way Indian languages are taught as ­second and foreign languages has long needed further development in terms of methodology and didactics. —

Literary relations between Germany and Brazil

Professor Paulo Astor Soethe, Universidade Federal do Paraná (UFPR) in Curitiba, Brazil/Grimm Prize 2015, DAAD alumnus

Professor Astor Soethe, what role does the German language play in Brazil’s cultural history?

Soethe: For a long time German was a Brazilian language, as hundreds of thousands of Germans immigrated to the country from the early 19th century. Six million Brazilians have Germans among their ancestors. Literary relations between the two countries are the focus of my research.

What is the project you are working on at the ­moment?

Soethe: Until 1937, when the German language was prohibited amid a strict policy of nationalisation, there were several hundred Brazilian newspapers and magazines that appeared in German. Many of them were intensively involved in the political debates of their time, such as the abolition of slavery. The texts are of great interest to research, but also to the public. The UFPR is collaborating with two ­other Brazilian federal universities – the Universidade ­Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre and the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Niterói – as well as with the universities of Tübingen and Bielefeld to access these historical documents and present them in digital form. Many of the documents are to be made available online in 2024.

Is it true that interest in the German language is growing again in Brazil?

Soethe: Definitely. One reason is that many Brazilians are keen to work in their professions in Germany, for example as nurses. Around 200 years after German immigration to Brazil began, there are signs of a not insignificant wave of emigration of Brazilians to Germany. The world is in motion – also via the medium of the global language that is German. —