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 Stories for April 29, 1998:

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Claire Kramsch Receives Goethe Medal

by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted Apr. 29, 1998

On March 22 Professor Claire Kramsch received the Goethe Institute’s prized Goethe Medal from Roman Herzog, president of the Federal Republic of Germany, in a ceremony at the institute’s headquarters in Weimar, Germany.

On May 8 she will be feted for her achievements in foreign-language education and intercultural understanding at a campus reception hosted by Chancellor Berdahl.

Kramsch is professor of German and foreign-language acquisition. She divides her time between the Berkeley Language Center, where she is director, the German department and the Graduate School of Education.

“The Goethe Medal honors the spirit, culture and language of Goethe and acknowledges people who have fostered intercultural dialogue,” explains Kramsch.

Born in 1935 in Reims, France, of a French father and Polish-Hungarian mother who was raised in England, intercultural dialogue has been a theme in Kramsch’s life.

During World War II, Claire, née Alvin, was raised by her paternal grandmother in Vichy, France, while her parents stayed in German-occupied Paris. Only after the war did Kramsch find out that her mother was a Jew who had converted to Catholicism.

When it came time to choose a foreign language in school, Kramsch chose German because her father said “she could always learn English at home.”

German was not popular in post-war Paris. “For years, I was the only student who studied German,” Kramsch recalls. “We hated the Germans, but admired their culture. German was essential for anyone with academic ambitions.”

By the end of high school, Kramsch decided to become a Germanist. “This was my contribution to undoing the legacy of World War II and creating a new Europe,” she says.

Kramsch received the equivalent of a PhD from the Sorbonne in 1959.

In 1963 the family emigrated to Cambridge, Mass., where Kramsch taught French and German at MIT for 25 years. There she pioneered a discourse-based theory of language learning and teaching described in her first book, “Discourse Analysis and Second Language Teaching” (1981). She also worked with IBM to develop software to enrich foreign language instruction.

Kramsch came to Berkeley in 1990. She founded the Berkeley Language Center in 1994 and created a lecture series for foreign language teachers and a fellowship program for graduate students in applied linguistics.

Kramsch is the author of eight books, including the award-winning “Context and Culture in Language Teaching” (1993) and “Language and Culture,” to be published by Oxford University Press this year.

The Goethe Medal citation says that “Claire Kramsch has always worked at building bridges between European and U.S. American intellectual achievements and has sought to cross-fertilize research on both sides of the Atlantic.”

The Goethe Institute, created in the 1930s and funded by German taxpayers, has 141 subsidiaries world-wide, including nine in the U.S. Kramsch has worked with many of them to develop teacher-training workshops and publications on the teaching of German language and culture. She is the only non-German on the Goethe Institute’s advisory council in Munich.

“After the war, the Goethe Institute took on the mission of representing the ‘other’ Germany,’ says Kramsch – “the cosmopolitan Germany of literature, art, music and intercultural understanding personified by Goethe.”

The other four recipients of the Goethe Medal this year came from England, Portugal, Japan and India.

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