Mark Louden receives Grimm Prize

The UW German professor is recognized for contributing to cultural understanding.

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Photo by Rebecca Keiser,

In September, German Professor Mark Louden received the Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Prize from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). The prize is awarded yearly to an international scholar for outstanding work in the field of Germanic Languages and Literatures and German as a Second Language. Louden was selected as a scholar “who has notably contributed to international academic collaboration and cultural understanding.” 

What makes UW-Madison a great place to study and teach German?

We have one of the oldest, largest, and most diverse German programs in North America, which is in part a legacy of the German immigration heritage in Wisconsin. Between one-third and one-half of the state's population claims German ancestry today. Because our undergraduate enrollments are so strong, we are able to offer a range of courses on German language, culture, literature, and linguistics, as well as German-American studies, that is unique among our peer institutions. Between the German program, the Max Kade Institute, the DAAD Center for German and European Studies and our German Club, there is so much for students interested in German to learn about and get involved in on our campus. And learning German opens doors for exciting experiences overseas through our study abroad programs and internships in German-speaking countries. There's no better university in the country to study German!

You have served as a “cultural mediator” for the Amish here in Wisconsin, including a partnership with Christine Seroogy in the School of Medicine and Public Health to improve newborn screening. Talk a bit about the importance of linguistics in the world. 

It wasn't until I came to Madison and became affiliated with the Max Kade Institute that my professional activity as a teacher and researcher was broadened by becoming involved in outreach to local communities. For some years before I joined the UW faculty, I had been assisting Amish and Old Order Mennonite friends in interactions with outsiders, including health care providers, because I spoke fluent Pennsylvania Dutch.

In 2011, I was asked by a state agency to serve as an interpreter for a pre-school aged child who spoke only Pennsylvania Dutch, which led to my involvement in a family court case out-of-state helping to mediate between an Amish family and outside authorities. I was very happy when Dr. Seroogy invited me a few years ago to assist a network of researchers and health care providers serving Wisconsin's Plain (Amish and Old Order Mennonite) communities. It's safe to say that thirty years ago, when I was in graduate school, I never anticipated I would be able to share something of my professional expertise in the service of improving the delivery of health care to Plain families in Wisconsin and beyond, an opportunity for which I am profoundly grateful.

Tell us a bit about the Max Kade Institute, which you direct.

The mission of the Max Kade Institute (MKI) is grounded in the Wisconsin Idea. We aim to foster research on German-American and immigration studies and disseminate the products of that research to both scholars and the interested public. The Institute is located on the fourth floor of the University Club, where we have a library/archive and exhibit space that is most definitely open to anyone who would like to visit us. Our library/archive contains a number of fascinating materials related to the German heritage in North America, including thousands of German-language books and periodicals published in the United States, as well as the nation's largest sound archive of recordings of interviews made with speakers of German-American dialects. One highlight of our fall programming is our Friends of the MKI Oktober Fest, which will take place at the University Club on Friday, November 4, 6-9 p.m., and will feature a sampling of craft beers from Bull Falls Brewery in Wausau, a German-style buffet and German and Swiss music.

What are you working on now?

One especially fascinating current project involves working with historic Pennsylvania Dutch writings, mainly from the 19th century. Between roughly 1800 and 1900, literally thousands of such texts were produced by native speakers, many of which were published in German-language newspapers serving readers in rural Pennsylvania. These texts provide us with a fascinating, firsthand look at the course of American history through the lens of one of the nation's oldest regional cultural groups.

And this past January, my book, Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language, appeared.