Not a Doughnut

Every few years the story about Jack Kennedy calling himself a jelly doughnut in his 1963 speech in Berlin makes the rounds. Here’s a first hand report of what actually happened, originally published in 1997:

From 1957 to 1980 I taught German at the Foreign Service Institute School of Language Studies, run by the Department of State in Washington, D.C. Classes were small, seldom more than four students, and I spent six hours every day with them, five days a week for five months. Following the school’s unconventional method, I started by giving my students a short sentence, which they had to repeat again and again until their pronunciation was correct. Longer sentences followed, and as their speaking ability progressed, I gave them dialogues to memorize to help promote conversation within the group. Mark Twain once said that it takes thirty years for intelligent people to master the German language. It’s too bad the Foreign Service Institute’s method hadn’t yet been tried; he would have admired its success.

One evening I received a phone call at my home in Maryland. “This is the White House calling,” said the voice on the line. “I’d like to speak with Mrs. Plischke from the Foreign Service Institute.” I laughed and said, “I’ll see you in the morning,” and hung up. I was absolutely sure one of my students had tried to play a joke on me.

An amusing expansion on the historical background.

7 comments… add one
  • Ben Wolf

    Something for you, Dave: the LRB repeating what you’ve been saying for years. Were you consulted for the article?

  • Zachriel

    Teaching The Berliner: when Kennedy stood in front of the Schönehergcr Rathaus on June 26 and called out, “ Ich bin ein Berliner ,” he electrified the hundreds of Germans in his audience. (He said afterward, “I wish these people were American voters.”)

    They really like their doughnuts in Germany!

  • Jimbino

    It’s disgraceful that Amerikan leaders are so incompetent when it comes to foreign languages and STEM. Why do we keep electing such uneducated people to high office?

    Just consider that Angela Merkel is multi-lingual and holds a doctorate in physical chemistry. If the USSA ever gets a female president, it will no doubt be one like Hillary Clinton, monolingual and educated in political science and law, bereft of sophistication in STEM.

  • ...

    Why do we keep electing such uneducated people to high office?

    They’re specialists in their chosen field – getting elected and/or appointed to important government offices.

  • As I’ve pointed out any number of times before, it makes economic sense for a German to have a working knowledge of languages other than German in a way that it doesn’t for an American to know a language other than English.

    Look at a map of Germany. There’s practically no place there where if you travelled 200 miles in any direction you won’t arrive at a place where German isn’t spoken by most people. That’s not true in the U. S. Here anyone living in Chicago or St. Louis or Kansas City or any of a hundred major population centers can go a lifetime without needing a language other than English.

    It’s not just cussedness that keeps Americans from learning other languages. It’s practicality. In Germany learning other languages is a survival skill. In the United States it’s an affectation.

    And, of course, with respect to science and engineering, it’s been a half century or more since we had many business or political leaders who were anything other than lawyers. Which brings me back to one of my favorite jokes.

  • Jimbino

    Dave Schuler,

    Your analysis is the one usually advanced by the terminally monolingual.

    First of all, propinquity is not destiny: the Brits, about as lazy as Amerikans in learning foreign languages, are also surrounded by nations the majority of whose folks don’t speak English. Do they learn Icelandic, Norwegian, French, Spanish or Portuguese? No.

    Furthermore, in spite of its size, the US is still “surrounded” by folks who don’t speak their language in the sciences, engineering and manufacturing, just as it was throughout the 20th Century, when it was the Germans, Russians and French who were world leaders in music, art, theoretical physics, chemistry, rocketry and atomic physics. That’s why my university, Chicago, wisely required fluency in one foreign language for a MS degree and two for a PhD.

    The languages of importance might have changed: nowadays a youngster in STEM might well be advised to master Chinese, Japanese and Brazilian Portuguese.

    Even Amerikan farmers, philosophers, physicians and lawyers might have a lot to learn from foreign experts. How would they know?

  • propinquity is not destiny

    No but economics is. Given the relative differences in GDP of their respective countries and the ubiquitousness of English it makes a lot more sense for a Portuguese to learn English than it does for an Englishman to learn Portuguese.

    Your analysis is the one usually advanced by the terminally monolingual.

    That may be the case but it would be interesting to see actual evidence for it.

    In my own case I speak a half dozen languages, four of them fluently, and read another half dozen. However, I’m a realist. I don’t expect my countrymen to follow my lead especially when learning a language other than English doesn’t contribute much to hireability. If an American company wants someone who speaks Brazilian Portuguese, they’ll hire a native speaker and my experience has been that foreign companies tend to be very strongly biased against Americans.

    That’s why my university, Chicago, wisely required fluency in one foreign language for a MS degree and two for a PhD.

    As did mine. My high school required us to study a modern foreign language for two years, an ancient foreign language for two years (I studied two), and one of those for four years. By the time I’d entered high school I spoke three languages, two fluently and one passably, and I added to those rather than capitalizing on what I already knew. In college I continued foreign language studies and studied two more. Living in Europe for a while helped, too.

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