Obituary: Mrs Gudrun Loftus

Many of those who were shocked by the untimely death of Gudrun Loftus in a tragic accident have expressed the lasting importance which her teaching has had for them: for almost twenty years, she had been at the heart of German language teaching at the University of Oxford. When she took up her post in 1990, this marked a new departure for her as well as for the university, which created her post in response to the fact that the teaching of Modern Languages at schools had changed significantly. The shift in emphasis towards fluency in the spoken command of a foreign language had improved the ability of school-leavers to hold a conversation, but for many, writing in German and expressing themselves with accuracy was an increasingly unfamiliar and rather daunting task. Gudrun Loftus was a vigorous advocate of teaching grammar systematically in order to enable students to aspire towards speaking and writing like native speakers, and she was instrumental in putting together a course that helped students to achieve this. She was famously strict in her marks; students knew that the standards she expected were high, and that she had very clear views on what was and wasn’t acceptable. But once they had got used to the rigours of the first-year classes, they were full of praise and acknowledged that their success in examinations was in no small part due to the excellent teaching they had received. The university formally recognized her “outstanding and unparalleled contribution to the teaching of the German language” with a Teaching Award in 2007.

Her name had become familiar well beyond the group of those whom she taught at Oxford. Together with Martin Durrell and Katrin Kohl, she was responsible for providing a volume of rigorous and imaginative exercises to complement Hammer’s German Grammar and Usage, the standard reference work for anyone studying German in an English-speaking context. Work on a revised third edition of the exercise book Practising German Grammar had just begun. As part of the same team of authors, she also provided the exercises for the foundation volume, Essential German Grammar. Here, as in her teaching, Gudrun Loftus aimed to support clear explanation of the rules with examples from real spoken German which often revealed her sense of humour. Together with her husband Gerry Loftus, she produced a volume of off-air transcripts, TV und Texte, because she firmly believed that authentic material not only makes practising grammatical detail more enjoyable, but also allows a glimpse into the other culture.

On completing her university degree in Tübingen, Gudrun Loftus moved to Britain in 1985, becoming an ambassador for the German language in her new home country. At the same time, she enjoyed becoming part of her new surroundings — especially as a lecturer at St John’s, to which she was deeply attached, in the close-knit community of the Language Centre, or in serving as Mayoress of Buckingham in 1989/90. Mediating between two languages and cultures was thus part of her private as well as her professional life, and her son’s success in his German A-level exams was a source of visible pride. It was characteristic of her generosity that she gained special pleasure from his ability to build on the skills she had imparted to him and to develop them independently.

Gudrun Loftus, born 28.1.1958, died 5.10.2010. Language Instructor in German, University of Oxford, 1990-2007; Senior Language Instructor in German, 2007-2010; College Lecturer, St John’s College, Oxford, 1994-2010.

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