Getting to the heart of a culture - Regional News | Connecting Wellington
 Issue 167

Photo by Andrew Empson

Getting to the heart of a culture by Madelaine Empson

Judith Geare MNZM is a lover of languages. A tireless advocate for German teachers across the country, she has worked at The Goethe-Institut Wellington – which offers German language classes, promotes the study of German abroad, and encourages international cultural exchange – for 38 years. In a matter of days, she’ll retire from her role as Leiterin der Sprachabteilung (head of the German Language Department).

Prior to starting with Goethe in December 1984, Judith studied languages, drama, and mathematics with a German major at Otago University in Dunedin; continued her studies in Trier, Weimar, and Vienna with the help of DAAD and ÖAD scholarships; and taught German, French, English, and mathematics in Christchurch and Auckland. We caught up to talk about her passion for teaching languages, her time at Goethe, and her hopes for the future.

You were born in Kuala Lumpur and moved to New Zealand as a young child. Did you maintain your connection with Malaysia growing up?

In a sense yes, but quite a distance. There were some Malay words my family would continue to use deliberately. Dinner is ready: makan seeyap; it’s raining: hoojan datang; go for a jalan jalan [walk]. My mother would make fried rice with soy sauce, which is more Chinese really, but in small town New Zealand in the early 60s, she felt she’d have to ring my friends if they were coming around to let them know she was going to serve this ‘odd’ food!

When and why did you start learning German?

[At secondary school] we had one relief teacher for a while who was younger and prettier, just different from the teachers I’d had before. My friends and I all thought she was absolutely marvellous. We discovered that her major was in German, so we all said we’d like to learn German in the hope that we’d create a job for her. Years later when I was in the sixth form, the school said, ‘We’ve finally worked out how to make your dream come true. You gals can all bike down to the boys’ school, we’ve found a German teacher there!’ We had a completely different motive [laughs]. We felt obliged, so we did. That mistake changed my life.

You started as a contract teacher at The Goethe-Institut Wellington at the end of 1984, just a few years after it began in 1980.

Again, I nearly didn’t get the job because of a misunderstanding… The then-director was looking for a teacher and approached me at the beginning of 1984. I was teaching in Auckland at Green Bay High School and I had to say ‘I can’t come I’m afraid, they’ve created a job for me at this school for this year, I’m really committed to my Year 11 class’. The conversation, which was all in German, ended with me thinking I’d just lost a fabulous opportunity. Apparently he was thinking he’d have to wait until the end of the year. I might never have known that if the then-German advisor hadn’t come to visit me at my school and said, ‘Are you looking forward to moving to Wellington to go to The Goethe-Institut at the end of the year?’ ‘What?’ ‘The director thinks you’re coming!’ Oh goodie! So I cancelled my flight to Japan (I was going to go teach English there) and thought, ‘I’ll go to The Goethe-Institut for two years’. 38 years later, oops.

What have been the highlights of those 38 years?

I love teaching classes for beginners. People think, ‘Don’t you get bored explaining the accusative case for the… 76th time?’ But no, because every group learns differently, they ask different questions, encounter the language in a different way. It’s so fascinating.

So teaching German, and then working with teachers of German throughout New Zealand. They’re special people. German has never been foreign language number one here. If you’re a German teacher, you must love your job. It’s not safe, it’s always on the brink of being knocked off the curriculum. They all bring such an extra energy commitment, go the extra mile, and create something very special for their students. I used to say when I visited schools, if I looked round the staffroom and didn’t know anybody, I could pick the German teachers!

You wanted specific highlights! Some things have been cultural highlights, like listening to Donald McIntyre sing in The Master Singers in the New Zealand Festival of the Arts back in the 80s, a six-hour Wagnerian opera of world class onstage at the Michael Fowler Centre. I’m pinching myself saying, ‘I really am in New Zealand having this amazing experience’.

Another is working with Steffen Kreft and William Connor on Lifeswap, which is on our website and looks really closely at the intercultural differences between New Zealanders and Germans with humour and love. I just think it’s better than anything else in the world.

How did it feel to be awarded a 2020 Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to language education and New Zealand-Germany relations?

My first reaction was, how embarrassing! But then I thought, this is so exciting. Often I’ll glance at those awards, and there’ll be lots of sporting bodies, bowls and things. It’s a team effort. Because German and The Goethe-Institut are so small, and there’s only one of me, it’s inevitable that I get picked as a representative of all those wonderful things that are happening. I’m proud of the whole team that language has got up there with lawn bowls!

Your first day of retirement is April Fool’s Day! What are you most looking forward to?

I want to have a cosy, quiet winter doing virtually nothing. Potter in my garden, tidy up my house, read all those books that have been sitting in piles by my bed that have hardly been started. When I come out of my hibernation, maybe some voluntary work, a little bit of travel if that becomes possible, seeing everything I want to see. Wellington is so fabulous for theatre and opera and music.

What are your hopes for Goethe after you retire?

One hopes that one has done a reasonable job, but of course there are a thousand different directions it could have taken. There’s a dynamic, wonderful young woman who is taking over my role and she has huge talent in areas that I’m really incompetent in! So I’m sure it will go in an exciting new and positive direction.

What do you think learning another language can gift to someone’s life?

It is huge. My other great love is theatre, and when you act a role in a theatre, you open the door to a whole new world. That’s what language does too. You learn so much about your own language by learning another. It changes your perspective on the world. It’s good for your brain health – your brain gym. I think it’s meant to ward off dementia, especially learning a language in adulthood, so perhaps in my retirement I’ll need to take up another language!

I don’t think you get to the heart of a culture until you try the language. It’s such a miraculous gift.

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« Issue 167, March 15, 2022