In 2001, Gillian Lathey wrote an article that considers the way in which other European peoples have been (and continue to be?) represented in British children’s fiction.
Lathey argued that “Language continues to be a major sticking-point in the United Kingdom’s halting progress toward Europeanism, just as a lack of motivation to learn languages remains a fault-line running through the British school curriculum.” (I’d say we continue to have that problem in New Zealand, too!)
Her explanation is simple and sensible: “Since children’s perceptions of other cultures are formed—at least in part—by the books they read, children’s literature is a potential site [-p.296] for linguistic and cultural exchange. British children’s literature is limited in this respect by the lack of translations for young readers currently available and by the attitudes to other European languages portrayed in children’s texts. The language that a ‘foreign’ fictional character speaks in passages of dialogue often consists of a heavily accented English or catchphrases well known to an English-speaking audience, and acts as a stereotyping shorthand.
What, then, are the messages about the languages of Europe that child readers have absorbed from reading British children’s fiction of the twentieth century?” (pp.295-296)
Lathey looks at the tone of British Imperialism in Enid Blyton’s work and Elinor Brent-Dyer’s earlier Chalet School stories (which seem to confirm for British readers that “language learning is tedious and fluency quite simply unattainable” (p.297)). She draws our attention to the way in which foreignness is inscribed on the characters of Britain’s school story tradition (I particularly like her brief discussion of the way in which foreign-language teachers were represented… characterised by the boredom of verb conjugations!)…
“Writers who introduced pupils from other countries into that microcosm of British middle-class values, the boarding school, encoded their difference from British pupils in language as well as in appearance and behaviour.” (p.296)
“In such a context, staff from overseas employed to teach European languages, usually French, are often peripheral figures whose function is not valued by the pupils and whose pedagogical practices—the conjugation of verbs features prominently—are uninspiring.” (p.296)
Lathey’s discussion of Robert Westall‘s attempt at addressing wartime stereotypes in (Carnegie Medal winning) The Machine-Gunners is interesting. She explains: “Westall attempted to counteract the negative image of Germans in British children’s fiction about the World War II. Conscious of the wartime anti-German sentiment still prevalent in the comics and stories read particularly by boys in the 1970s, Westall created the character of Rudi, a German pilot hidden from the [-p.298] authorities by a gang of Tyneside children. Rudi is a sympathetic German who confounds the children’s expectations of a ‘Nazi,’ but it is in the representation of the German language that this figure begins to falter.” (pp.297-298) …
“Rudi’s inaccurate comic-strip German derives from a tradition of the misrepresentation of the language in British children’s fiction identified by O’Sullivan (1990).” (p.298) … “O’Sullivan traces the insidious negativity attached to the German language above all others in the British mind. She analyses, for example, the connotations of the adjective ‘guttural,’ a cypher for the alien in language generally, and in particular for a kind of linguistic brutality attributed to German. It is this legacy, and that of wartime propaganda, with which Westall perhaps attempts to seduce his readers; Rudi’s language matches their preconceptions, but his sentiments do not. In this instance language is a strategy in the deconstruction of a stereotype rather than the foundation of a realistic portrait….” (p.298)
“Westall’s intention is […] compromised by nostalgia for a wartime childhood where life was filled with excitement and danger, and the [-p.299] enemy was a clearly defined target marked by verbal and visual language (swastikas, Nazi uniforms).” (pp.298-299)
Quite rightly, Lathey points out that “language continues to be a ready source of humour and slapstick in recent publications. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000),J.K. Rowling’s Madame Maxime arrives at Hogwarts with a party of ‘foreign students’ speaking a music-hall Franglais and accented English reminiscent of the Mademoiselle figure in school stories.” (p.299) Lathey goes on to ask, however, (and this had me thinking) “whether such distorted and one-dimensional images of language and nationality (particularly in relation to Germany [which largely fuels this essay]) can yet be appreciated as wry glances at past antagonism, or whether they continue to fuel lingering prejudice.” (p.299)
“…there is naturally a more searching and diverse approach to language in the work of writers who have crossed cultural and linguistic boundaries in their own lives.” (p.299)
Ref: Gillian Lathey (2001) Where Britain Meets ‘the Continent’: Language and Cultural Exchange in Children’s Fiction Children’s Literature in Education 32(4)Dec: pp.295-303
NOTE reference is made to: O’Sullivan, Emer, Friend and Foe: The image of Germany and the Germans in British Children’s Fiction from 1870 to the Present. T¨ubingen: Gunter Narr, 1990.