Germanist Ďurčo: German surprises me every day. However, if someone claims that it cannot be studied because of the difficult grammar, I just laugh

Once, at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Comenius University, I had to have a microphone in the lecture hall because there were 120 students sitting in it. Today, we only have a few of them at the Department. It is related to the applicability of German teachers on the labor market. If they don't study it as a double major, they simply won't enjoy education, says Professor Peter Ďurčo from the Department of German Studies, Faculty of Arts, UCM in Trnava.

You received your university diploma in 1977 at the Faculty of Education in Banská Bystrica, majoring in Russian and German. Studying the Russian language was an understandable choice during socialism, but why did you decide to combine it with German?

In my life, I was not very lucky with teachers, the exception was a great German teacher at the electrical engineering school in Liptovský Hrádek, which I attended. With his knowledge of many languages and his approach to learning, he appealed to me so much in one optional German lesson that I decided to continue studying this language.
I owe it to him that I dared to go to study German at university from industrial school. As Comenius says, one hour with a good teacher replaces a thousand hours of self-study.

After all these years of studying German, does this language still surprise you?

He surprises me every day. Recently, as part of a large international project, I did a webinar for colleagues from all over Europe. In it, we deal with the so-called established phraseological constructions, i.e. constructions that people commonly use in the language. However, their use in different contexts has many specifics and represents a tough nut not only for learning a foreign language, but also for confrontational description. These phraseological constructions have so far eluded linguistic, grammatical, and lexicological description. They are words or phrases that we normally use, especially in spoken speech. However, when you dig deeper into the language, you uncover many contexts in which they can be used in different meanings or functions. As part of the project, we try to search for them in extensive databases and examine their grammatical, lexical and pragmatic properties from a comparative point of view.

Can you give an example? 

For example, the seemingly banal phrase "am Anfang", which you first translate into Slovak simply as "at the beginning".One would say that nothing can surprise him and his translation is unambiguous. However, there are also many other equivalents such as from the beginning, from the beginning, from the beginning, initially, at the beginning.
"When teaching and researching German, I systematically and long-term also use new technologies and, most recently, artificial intelligence." In one project with Spanish and German colleagues, we tried to solve what are the causes of different equivalents when translating into Slovak or Spanish, because they are far from being interchangeable at will in different contexts. There are a huge number of situations in which you can say this phrase in German. Suddenly you don't know why you can use a certain equivalent in one sentence and not in another. This is not a case of polysemy.

So, are they phrases that only a person whose native language is German can use in a sentence? 

Not even that one.

If you were to explain to me when in Slovak you use the phrase "at the beginning" and when "from the beginning", would you know?

No. Nevertheless, there are certain regularities based on which you can identify it, and it is precisely these that we try to reveal in German. This is the field I have been specializing in for a long time - lexicology, vocabulary and idiomatics. In addition, however, I systematically and long-term use new technologies and, most recently, artificial intelligence when teaching and researching German. In our own research, but also in the preparation of students at all levels of study, we at the department place great emphasis on the authenticity, exactness, and verifiability of the data that students process in their work.

How to?

We prepare them for this in the corpus linguistics course. Students must be able to use statistical data from huge language corpora, we teach them to use formal languages and grammars to formulate research hypotheses, and they learn different methods of corpus linguistics. We don't leave out artificial intelligence either. As soon as Chat GPT was first made available, together with the students we had it process the assignments of their term papers. We tested what artificial intelligence can help with and how it is still limited, for example, in recognizing figurative language, i.e. especially metaphors, idiomatic phenomena and in translations with the transferred meaning of the word. In different contexts, the chatbot could not always translate them correctly. Phraseologisms, proverbs and proverbs were also a problem for him.However, I think that it is only a matter of a short time before he can easily handle this too.

You are a long-term member of the Department of German Studies at the Faculty of Arts, UCM. You have been working at it since 2004. Why did you choose this particular faculty?

First, I have to go back in time as it was an interesting coincidence. Since 1980, I have worked at the Ľudovít Štúr Institute of Linguistics. In 1989, even before the revolution, I received a Humboldt scholarship intended for scientific research stays. Thanks to him, I spent a year and a half at the University and the German Language Institute in Mannheim, where I also experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was an extremely interesting time. After the regime change, I returned to Slovakia. I was very happy, there was euphoria from the coming democracy, I was full of new experiences and knowledge, I already had a monograph published by a West German publishing house at that time, which was not common at that time. At the Institute of Linguistics, to which I returned, however, there were major personnel changes in the period after the revolution, I did not get along with the director at the time, so I decided to leave there. I applied for an audition at the then newly founded Academy of the Police Force, where I stayed for 12 years.
No offense, but what does the Police Academy have to do with German?

Colleagues from abroad asked me the exact same thing. I was the head of the Department of Languages, where Russian, German, English and French were taught for the police force. When the borders suddenly opened, delegations from all over Europe came here. Most of our officials at that time did not know foreign languages, we had to translate, interpret and accompany them a lot - at home and abroad.

How did you get to FF UCM from there? 

When I resigned from the Police Academy, everyone was saying, "That kid must be getting some very lucrative work when he gets out of here." At that time, I had twice the salary as in "civilian". And although no one wanted to believe me, the truth is that I just got bored. Over a beer, I met a former colleague from the Institute of Linguistics and told her that I didn't like it there anymore. She contacted the then dean of the UCM Faculty of Arts, associate professor Kozmová, who accepted me. "I generally perceive today's situation in the academic environment very skeptically." At first, I considered it just a kind of stopover. However, thanks to associate professor Kozmová, who in my eyes was the only one who knew what an academic workplace needed, we started to honestly build the Department of German Studies. Well, you see, I've been here for 20 years, and I think we've achieved everything that could be achieved on it in that time.

So, the answer is that you got to UCM and stayed there thanks to the former dean Kozmová. 

Yes, also. Although, to my great disappointment, she was no longer dean shortly thereafter. In my opinion, it is very important that every workplace has at least one key person who is above average, has good international contacts and project experience, knows how to determine the direction of research and, of course, knows what and how to do and motivate other colleagues. Thanks to him, the whole team gets the right impulse. However, we are talking about the period 20 years ago. Today, within the academic environment, it is unfortunately a completely different time in this regard. I am generally very skeptical of today's situation in the academic environment. Administrative and bureaucratic interventions have distorted this environment to such an extent that today the number and placement of publications or the number of citations may no longer say anything about real quality. 

In what sense?

In the current necessity to accumulate publications and chase after citations and responses. If it was at least objective and honest, I wouldn't say anything. However, everyone focuses only on that one unfortunate "criteria fulfillment table", thanks to which various "citation circles" are created. This provides scope for speculators who know how to navigate the murky waters of the academic underworld to build a formidable academic staff profile. Do you know what I call it? I had to come up with my own expression for it. Categorizing carentomaniacal obsession. In short, quality cannot be distinguished from poor quality based on quantitative criteria.

No wonder we have problems in the academic environment with predatory journals that use various tricks to increase the impact factor and quartiles. Among other things, they also operate with the idea that if you cite the journal, you will receive a discount for publishing in it. Everyone seems to accept it. From assistant professors to rectors. However, the academic community is causing this to itself. Unfortunately, that's how the whole system is set up. If it brings money, no one will take the initiative against him, otherwise he would harm himself. In quotes, smart publishers and owners of databased magazines are just using the business model that we created ourselves and keep it alive. A person who has strong internal integrity, high professional morals and does not publish anything that he would not shamelessly sign or attribute to, will hardly survive in such an environment. If he produces one high-quality study or monograph in three years, he will receive a very low evaluation and then he can only dream of a docentship. However, solid and honest research is very time-consuming.

There are two important international scientific societies in the area that I deal with in my scientific and research work. It is the Phraseological Commission of the International Committee of Slavists and the European Association for Phraseology. Both organizations regularly organize congresses and conferences. It was always crucial for me to publish in the proceedings of these conferences, as the outputs from them were immediately widely reflected in the scientific community. Even years later, many contributions from these memorable conferences are cited again and again. However, as we know, in our subsidy system, conference contributions are almost worthless. 

In September 2023, as a co-author of the Ľudovít Štúr Institute of Linguistics Dictionary Portal project, you won the Prize of the Slovak Academy of Sciences for the popularization of science. What was this project about?

In the creation of a web-based Dictionary Portal that is available to anyone online. It is a tribute to a large collective of people who have been working on it for decades. In addition to various dictionaries, you can also find a database of surnames and urban names there. In the mid-nineties, I participated in a large international project on the pronunciation of names, and I provided the data for Slovak to this dictionary portal. Based on the online database, after entering a surname, you can find out how many and in which specific locations the given surname is found in Slovakia, or vice versa, you can also find out the occurrence of surnames in a specific location. 

So, any person can look up his surname in the database and find out in which regions it occurs most often and where his more distant relatives may live that he doesn't even know about?

Yes. For example, the surname Šarközi has almost forty orthographic variants. I also provided a database of urban names, i.e. names of places and streets in specific localities, to the dictionary portal. So you can search for all urbanonyms in one location, or all locations with one urbanonym. You enter, for example, Partizánov Street, and the database will search for you in which locations in Slovakia it is located. 

"We don't need ten or eleven departments of German studies. Three or four would be enough, but excellent and well-staffed."

However, it must be said that these are data valid in 1995, when I finished working on the mentioned international project. Today, such research should be repeated. Against the background of this reference database, we would certainly get a very interesting picture of the changes over the last thirty years.

I assume that Ulica Partizánov will be located primarily in localities where the Slovak National Uprising was once fought.

Not. It is in every city or larger village. Urban names are also a unique statement about what historical events or personalities we consider important in our history. The name changes, in turn, show how what we consider to be key changes in us. It says a lot about our mentality and relation to our history. 

I belong to the generation that still had to learn only one foreign language in primary school. Due to the geographical proximity of Austria, my mother decided to teach me German. However, I feel that in recent years, due to the boom in English, German has fallen into the background. Is it just my feeling or do you feel it too?
Clearly. Once upon a time, when I was still teaching at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Comenius University, I had to have a microphone in the main lecture hall because there were 120 students sitting in it. Today, we have only a few of them at the Department of German Studies. It is also very closely related to the applicability of German teachers on the labor market. If they don't study it as a double major with another foreign language or subject, they simply won't enjoy education. However, I think that today in Slovakia we really don't need ten or eleven departments of German studies. Three or four would be enough, but excellent and well-staffed with top experts.
Isn't that right?

Colleagues in the departments are great German speakers, but if you asked me to name three important, world-renowned contemporary Slovak Germanists, I wouldn't be able to say a single name. 

English was also greatly helped when, a few years ago, Slovak education began to prioritize it at the expense of other foreign languages, and it became compulsory in the curriculum of primary schools from the third grade. Was it the right decision?

Was not. This decision buried not only German, but also other languages - for example, French. Before Slovakia joined the EU, politicians were full of talk about the fact that if we want to apply ourselves as a small nation on the European market, we must be fluent in at least two foreign languages. On the other hand, it is a matter of the market. Even the Germans themselves prefer English in many spheres.

Exactly. However, Germany has been our biggest business partner for a long time. However, according to Denník N from January 2018, Austrian and German companies are making a special effort to find employees who speak German. Knowledge of German should therefore be a significant advantage on the job market at the moment.

We have a slogan on the department's website: "Come study German and you will definitely find a job." The fact that this language is in demand on the labor market is also shown by the high number of external students who come from practice precisely because their employer requires them to speak German. Since they can also study remotely - online, we also have external students who live and work abroad.

What job positions do your graduates apply for most often? I would just like to add that at the department you provide the study of German language and literature in professional communication or the teaching of German language and literature in combination with another subject. I don't have exact information about what positions they apply for. But what I do know is that we are not producing any unemployed graduates. However, the vast majority of them go abroad after completing their studies.

Compared to English, Slovaks perceive German as a significantly more difficult language, primarily due to the different inflection and timing. Many people even consider it the ugliest language in the world, which at first listen sounds like two people arguing. Do you encounter these negative labels even today?

It is true that German is a harder language to hear and certainly not as pleasant as Italian or French. However, I don't encounter anyone telling me that she can't be studied because she's ugly. More often, it is justified by the fact that it is difficult due to the mentioned grammar. I always laugh at this argument. "We have students with excellent German and, conversely, also very poor listeners." Compared to other languages, such as Slovak or Polish, German does not have a difficult grammar at all. Its morphology is regular, easy to remember, virtually without exception. Slavic languages with their declension of nouns, tenses of verbs, or with numerous exceptions must be complete hell for foreigners.

To study languages at university, the applicant must have a relatively high-quality foundation at least from high school. At what level do new students come to you?

Because we don't have entrance exams, with a very unbalanced one. We have students with excellent German and, conversely, also very poor listeners. Sometimes they have a problem with elementary things, without the knowledge of which a person in the past would never have decided to go to university to study this language. Some students mistake the Department of German Studies for language courses and are then surprised at how demanding it is. If you work in a warehouse in Austria, you really don't need to be a master of the language. With weaker students, I always ask who on earth taught them German in high school (laughs). So we have graduates with A's, but also with E's. They all have the same diploma, but the latter should not go to teach under any circumstances.

What do you think is the future of studying foreign languages or the field of Philology?

In a normal conversation, a person may not need to know a foreign language at all in the future. A translator will do it for him, which will immediately translate any text for him in high quality, or his mobile phone will simultaneously interpret the call into any language. However, specialists who will create these programs and applications will be increasingly needed. Therefore, I deeply regret that, despite our efforts about fifteen years ago, we did not manage to introduce the study program Foreign Languages - Computer Science, although we submitted such a file. Today, computational linguists have wide open doors anywhere in the world. We missed the express here. Even in the future, however, we will need good teachers of foreign languages and scientists - philologists who will be able to convey the beauty of foreign languages, literatures, and cultures to us.
Photo: Sofiia Yurasova

Submitted by: Andrej Brník
Responsible person: Mgr. Nikoleta Vanková, MBA
Source: PR UCM
Inserted: 22.2.2024