Bringing about peace through foreign language learning

Erhard Hofmann

The task of education today is primarily to prepare children specifically to pass exams – so goes the general debate. But such access to a specific career in life rarely means that education prepares for life itself. School has increasingly become an apparently objective selection mechanism in which the free exploration of the world and its connections is hardly possible any longer.

Restricted task formats such as we know from the driving licence exam for example as well as the centralised monitoring of learning success have led to pupils frequently knowing the result that is wanted from them. Their main learning target is to be able to reproduce that expected result without thereby necessarily setting an independent learning process in motion. The important thing is the questions asked in the exam.

For parents education is thus not infrequently reduced to the question: will my child achieve the intended examination target and is what the school does relevant in this respect? Since the learning targets of the universities are also becoming increasingly standardised, it can be observed that these university learning targets can be found reflected far down into the school curricula, and even at primary level. This applies particularly with regard to learning methods which today often equate with learning through the new media, that is, learning at the computer.

Waldorf teachers frequently feel themselves under pressure to explain why they are doing what they do to parents, but also children who compare their skills with those of their friends at mainstream schools. These educational targets are set out on the White House website in the US with sobering clarity: “A world-class education is the single most important factor in determining not just whether our kids can compete for the best jobs, but whether America can out-compete countries around the world.” And it continues: “President Obama’s [plan] fosters ... the innovative use of knowledge ... helping America win the future by out-educating our competitors.” (Holdrege).

Education is equated with intellectual knowledge that can be called up and which serves above all to assert oneself against an external world perceived as hostile.

This matches the phenomenon of the Pegida movement which, starting from Dresden with its long cultural history, has spread throughout Germany and can be observed similarly everywhere in the prosperous, western part of Europe. People from the so-called middle of society demonstrate against apparently being overwhelmed by immigrants – in this case against the implied “Islamisation of the West”. Thousands gather to demonstrate each Monday in Dresden, a city of 530,000 inhabitants, in which there are a grand total of 250 Muslims. Presumably the percentage of Muslims among the population in rural areas of Saxony, that is the places from which many of the demonstrators come, is even lower.

It is therefore not their own experiences which drive people on to the streets to shout xenophobic slogans but rather a diffuse fear, most likely of an insecure and unknown future with challenges which these people do not feel equipped to face. And this is where the two examples we have quoted intersect.

The great America is clearly worried by the same concerns as the little man on the streets of German cities. This is not to downplay the dangers which currently originate in all parts of the world particularly from fundamentalist Islamist groups.

But the question which arises for us here in Germany is how we can respond to these complex problems and challenges in the world so that they do not overwhelm us and we do not lose our human  visage and descend into hollow sloganising.

How, then, can we counter fears and educate for tolerance. What role can school play here? Does foreign language teaching acquire a very particular importance in this context since learning foreign languages is the prerequisite for communicating with those whose thinking and feeling are different from ours? Does foreign language teaching in Waldorf schools even offer its own extended possibilities in this respect?

The importance of the emotional

Much of the general discussion in education today is about the concept of acquiring skills. The core curricula, as developed for example by the ministry of education, young people and children of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, clearly set out these skills. They are all about communicative and intercultural competence, the ability to use language correctly as well as methodological skills. Foreign language teachers at Waldorf schools would do well to include the learning targets formulated here in their own curriculum in a methodologically meaningful way.

There is, however, one aspect which goes beyond these learning targets and significantly differentiates the Waldorf approach from the curriculum in mainstream schools. This relates to the nuances, the “emotional” aspect, the elusive part of a language which, however, constitutes up to 90 percent of utterances in speech, according to linguistic researchers, and is the prerequisite for ensuring the success of true communication (Lutzker).

This level of language acquisition touches on what Rudolf Steiner referred to when he said that it was important to grasp the genius of a language. This way of learning a language can communicate the pictorial part, the essence of another language so that ultimately the other culture also becomes open to experience and thus language teaching means “direct education for peace” (Kiersch). Methodologically this is done as a rule through the recitation of poems, verses and tongue twisters, reading original texts as early as the lower classes and acting out scenes, and ideally a theatre project in English in class 10 or 11.

Shakespeare and gospel music

Thus each year the class 10 of the Schloss Hamborn Rudolf Steiner School has been putting on a Shakespeare play for more than 20 years and performing it not just in its own school but also since 2007 at its partner school in Stourbridge in England in front of an English audience. Working on a Shakespeare drama can be so stimulating and productive because the inner vitality of the figures created by Shakespeare brings to life our own powers of imagination and creativity in such a way that they are constantly re-created in the artistic process.

The life which this brings to a performance makes it not only a great experience before an audience of native speakers but also a real encounter with them because what Shakespeare has set out in his dramas is experienced in quite a different way by native speakers. The response from the English audience can be overwhelming for German-speaking pupils if such an artistic process has been truly successful.

Another example can make clear how language teaching across subjects might look on the smaller stage of the classroom. The history of black Americans can be studied in a joint music and English main lesson in class 9. Starting with the work songs, through spirituals, gospel music and blues, to jazz and hip hop, the whole of the history of the integration of blacks into American musical culture can be developed. The English teaching supports the musical process through studying the texts of the songs as well as other appropriate literature.

A good example in this context is work on James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”, a short story from the 1950s, in which the delinquent protagonist is helped to go straight through music. Setting poetry to music is of course also ideal, for example the wonderful poem “For my People” by Margaret Walker, a hymn in which Walker holds out the power of resilience as a hope for all those who are suppressed and develops the vision of a new world order (“Let a new earth rise”) in which all “Adams and Eves”, that is all people irrespective of the colour of their skin and ethnic origin, can participate.

By linking artistic and intellectual learning processes, the uncertainty about the unknown can be removed allowing not just for an encounter with the foreign language but also the foreign culture. The capacity for cultural empathy which is developed as a result must be seen as separate from any particular foreign language.

One essential prerequisite to enable such projects is the courage in the college of teachers to make the necessary lesson time available. The development of an emotional and artistic process requires time. If this is granted, the education in a foreign language can fulfil its tasks as set out above and broaden the targets specified through central examinations. Then it can open up the opportunity for young people to discover their own creative leeway and gradually extend it.

Or, to put it in Rudolf Steiner’s words: “We should not ask: what do people need to know and be able to do for the existing social order; but: what is predisposed in human beings and what can be developed in them? Then it will be possible to feed ever new strength out of the up-and-coming generation into the social order.” In this light foreign language lessons would indeed be lessons for a sustainable peace.

About the author: Dr. Erhard Hofmann has been an upper school teacher of English and geography at the Schloss Hamborn Rudolf Steiner School since 1990. He is also a member of the Upper School Working Group of the North Rhine-Westphalian Regional Waldorf Association.

Revised and extended article from:, 21.01.2015