Sonora Introductory Thoughts

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Der Weg nach La Pimeria Alta by Nathan Harwell (PPT)

Some Introductory Thoughts by Dr. Albrecht Classen

Why do we teach and study a foreign language? What is the relevance of Spanish, French, German, Russian, or Italian for an American living in the USA? Why not simply teach English to the rest of the world, as they are seemingly moving into this direction anyway? Wouldn’t it be ideal if there were just one language spoken by all people in the world, like Latin was the lingua franca during the Roman Empire? Why do foreign language teachers in this country stubbornly refuse to give up on their ideal that a foreign language is important, is significant, in fact, relevant for every citizen of this country? Perhaps they are only thinking of their own job and do not want to relearn to work in another field? Or could we not simply argue that the USA are big enough, and all of us living here could be content with doing business, creating art, producing entertainment, and be involved in the administration and government within this country using English only ignoring the rest of the world? Why bother with this difficult task of learning a foreign language when the own native language proves to be difficult enough and requires many years of study to master it fully?

Oh, what a simple world view — and what a deprived world view at the same time! Even the reference to the Latin spoken by the Romans within their entire empire for about 1, 200 years wherever they went within their area of influence or dominance defeats the major argument raised above because how could we gain any understanding of that time period if we did not study Latin? And is it really true that everybody speaks English here in the USA? We do not only have to think of the by now all-pervasive Spanish, but there are practically all world languages spoken in this country by native speakers and their children. This is a country of immigrants, and they all brought their own languages with them. Of course, nobody would ever be able to study them all, and we can be very fortunate to have one language which holds all of us together in one nation. To simplify the Babel of languages worldwide and to improve international communication it is indeed necessary to establish as much as possible one or at least several major languages spoken and understood by a vast number of people. Nevertheless, this does not remove at all the need to learn a foreign language. The superficial knowledge of English in international business, for instance, or the dominant use of English in the Internet — if that is even true by the latest trends — does not make it possible to establish true cultural, personal, historical, economic, and political bridges to peoples of this world.

But let us take a step back and push the issue with a focus on one specific region of the USA, the Southwest. The common border of, on the one hand, Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and Mexico on the other, leading to huge waves of immigrants coming from the south of this border, convinces many students in this country to chose Spanish as their second language. There are many good reasons for this choice which do not need to be reiterated here. Why then study German, for instance, within this contact zone, or Russian, Italian, or French, for that matter? Curiously, a strong ethnic background in a specific state of the United States, such as German in Wisconsin or in Iowa, has not significantly helped the teaching of German, rather the opposite has been reported often . If the presence of the German-speaking Amish and Mennonites in Pennsylvania, Indiana, or New York ever had meant anything for their English-speaking neighbors, it has never been a particular interest in studying German; after all, these Amish and Mennonites do not even speak modern German as in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland, but a German derived from their seventeenth- and eighteenth-century home country, the Palatinate, northern Switzerland, Alsace, and Swabia. Once again, why then promote the study of German in Pennsylvania, not to speak of Arizona?

Apparently, it is easy to raise arguments against the study of any foreign language from a US-American point of view. The consequences have been felt across the country at all teaching levels for many years, and only recently new enrollment statistics have been improving, supported by new legislation forcing high school students to graduate with at least two years of studying a foreign language.

There is a good joke which illustrates the dilemma the United States and its people are in:  What do you call a person who speaks two languages? – Bilingual.  What do you call a person who speaks three languages? – Trilingual.  What do you call a person who speaks more than three languages? – Polyglot.  What do you call a person who only speaks his/her own language? – American!

This is a joke, so please do not feel hurt by it, but reflect upon its deeper meaning.  You can also think about the wise saying:

If you want to buy something, you speak your own language, if you want to sell something, you speak the customer’s language.

Other reasons for the changes have been the increased awareness of global trade, the need to speak the business partners’ language and not to rely on them to have a passing knowledge of English, and perhaps also a renewed interest in foreign cultures, documented by the huge number of American travelers all over the world. In other words, there are, after all, many important reasons to learn another language, whether they are of economic, political, literary, cultural, religious, or historical nature. Not to learn a foreign language deprives one of so many important, fascinating, illuminating, and fun things impossible to list them all here. But do not take my word for it, instead take a look at the arguments listed by the Goethe-Institut

(, the cultural representative of the German government both here in North America as well as all over the world. Similarly, the Modern Language Association of America has demonstrated the undeniable and extreme importance of a foreign language (  Some links with information about the importance of a foreign language are:

The subsequent web-based textbook aims at students interested in taking German at any school level from K-12 or at a college or university within the Southwest. It takes a very new approach by using text materials which are of direct relevance for students in this area instead of building foreign language lessons on the basis of texts, visuals, and audio-material from the target country. Of course, there is no doubt that we would study German to acquire a basic linguistic knowledge allowing us to cope in a German-speaking country either as a business person, as a member of the US military stationed there, as a representative of the US government, or in whatever other function. Moreover, the knowledge of German is a crucial tool to study German history, literature, music, visual arts, technology, sciences, and so forth, with the priority of the individual aspects to be decided by the individual.

Curiously, and largely unknown to most people living in the Southwest today, German Jesuit missionaries in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were mostly responsible for the cultural development of this region until the entire Order was banned by the Spanish King Charles VII in 1767, forcing all the Jesuits out of this country, and most of them ending up in Spanish convent prisons for years to come. Who were these missionaries, and why would they be of interest to us in the field of foreign languages? There were many of them, and all working in Sonora and neighboring areas which then were still part of Mexico which at that time  was owned by the Spanish crown.

The Jesuit missionaries came to this part of the world to preach the word of God, to cultivate the native population, to settle them near their missions, to teach them a new way of life, to baptize them and so, as they believed, to rescue them from eternal condemnation. Christian missionaries, whether Jesuits or Franciscans, whether Benedictines or Augustinians, have reached out to the non-Christian world ever since the first century of our common era. The Jesuits especially had taken this task upon them since the middle of the sixteenth century and made serious attempts to establish missions in places as far away as China, Indonesia, the Philippines, South America, Mexico, and Central America. At the end of the seventeenth century Jesuit endeavors reached out to the northern, still unexplored parts of Mexico, and so established the Sonoran missions. The major contribution was made by Padre Eusebio Kino (1645-1711) who arrived in Sonora in 1687 and lived there until his death in 1711.

A large number of Jesuits, many of them from German speaking countries, followed his footsteps and contributed in many different ways to the exploration, settlement, and especially conversion to Christianity of the entire region until 1767 when they were all expelled by the Spanish crown on the grounds of false accusations.

Interestingly, many of them left fascinating accounts of Sonora, written either during their stay there or after their return home to Germany. These texts represent impressive literary and scientific documents and offer highly intriguing windows into our own past here in the Southwest. I will use a selection of their texts to develop teaching units of German for a course either at a high school or at the post-secondary level (college, university). In contrast to traditional literary textbooks, the Jesuits took a much broader approach in their discussions of what we today call the Southwest in that they attempted to deal with as many different aspects as possible. Therefore, studying their texts will require the acquisition of a broad vocabulary which includes the fields of economics, politics, biology, geography, geology, theology, anthropology, agriculture, and so forth. At the same time many of the Jesuits proved to be excellent authors and displayed considerable literary skills. In other words, to read some of their accounts of Sonora will offer interesting aspects to practically everybody and will hopefully prove to be particularly inspiring to pursue your study of German.

This textbook will serve the purpose of making a large body of missionary reports selected for our purpose available as a teaching tool for the study of German in all areas of the Southwest where the Jesuits left their traces through their missionary work. This is to say, modern-day students of German do not need to make a huge cultural leap in their endeavor to immerse themselves in German culture, as the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jesuit missionaries brought it to this part of our country and reported about it extensively after their return home to Europe. This textbook argues that these Jesuit missionary reports will provide renewed inspiration and justification for the study of German in a world where, because of the close proximity to Mexico, Spanish always seems to be the first choice to the disadvantage of all other European languages, not to speak of the many different native languages. In a nutshell, there are very good historical, religious, scientific, and literary reasons to learn German even in the Southwest, at least more specific reasons than those generic ones mentioned above. The knowledge of German will serve as an important springboard for anybody interested in the history and culture of the Southwest. Curiously, Sonora was, in terms of mental history, not that far away from eighteenth-century Europe. The serious engagement with these missionary reports will also introduce the learner of German to the wide range of linguistic areas necessary to cope even in the contemporary world of any German speaking country. So, although the Jesuit texts presented here stem from more than 200 years ago, they address the world of Sonora as it still can be found today. Neither the climate nor the fauna, neither the geography nor the flora have changed so much as to prevent the modern reader to recognize his or her own world of the Southwest. The study of these Jesuit accounts will not only provide unusual reading material in a German language class, they will also offer significant historical, anthropological, biological, and sociological information about the Southwest at large, even though seen through the eyes of eighteenth-century German writers.

All texts have been modernized and now reflect more or less the contemporary high-standard German spoken in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. The text by Joseph Och is accompanied by extensive grammar exercises which are built on those features used by the author. For this reason it was impossible, and perhaps also not advisable, to create a traditional, systematically structured grammar, instead you will be confronted with aspects of the German grammar as they appear in the text. The text by Ignaz Pfefferkorn is accompanied by many text-oriented questions and will lead you into concrete cultural-historical discussions. The text by Bernhard Middendorff will stand for itself and can be used as additional reading material. For practical purposes, this web-based textbook offers many different web-links to German and American sites dealing with the Jesuits, with individual missionaries, with the State of Arizona and the Mexican State of Sonora, and so also with Germany itself where most of the missionaries came from.

To begin with your study of the German missionary texts, go back to the top and click on the link for Pfefferkorn – Deutsch.  For Joseph Och’s text, click on the corresponding link.  Keep in mind, only Och’s text has been prepared for grammatical exercises, whereas Pfefferkorn’s text serves as a basis to explore cultural history of the Southwest, and you will be asked to answer many questions about his observations, attitudes, and experiences.  As this textbook is a work in progress, a vocabulary list with hypertext-links will later be integrated.

If you want to get an idea how some of the Baroque cathedrals in Mexico, built during the time of the Jesuit missionary activities, still look like today, see the illustrations below, courtesy of David Arroyo (Tucson).

Mexican Cathedral of Saltillo   Cathedral II (Saltillo)    Cathedral III (Monterrey)