What is it to learn a "foreign" language that may not be foreign to somebody else? What does it do to somebody who is willing, eager, or forced to learn another language? Why are certain languages chosen, desired, imposed, dismissed or perceived as daunting? What happens to a language when it is studied, cultivated, used and "broken" by the confrontation with non-native speakers?
There are many reasons why somebody ends up speaking or learning a "foreign language" voluntarily or involuntarily. I would like to look at some reasons that may in fact be interrelated: educational, political, colonial, migrational and psychological reasons.
With the Renaissance and Humanism in western Europe the knowledge of the classical languages - Latin, Greek, Hebrew - became a necessity beyond the walls of monastic life. The study of classical languages was conditio sine qua non for universities where Latin was the lingua franca. These centers of learning started to play a vital role in the ideological battle for power and the legitimation of an emerging urban bourgeoisie that was not instructed at court or by the church. Arabic as the vehicle for the transmission of ancient philosophy, medicine, mathematics and science until the end of the Middle Ages lost its status as a "classical language" along the way. With the French Revolution "national languages" started to be standardized and considered as languages unto themselves, and not simply as regional dialects, which gradually became relegated to the lower orders. This process of standardization may already have started earlier depending on the language, and continues until this day.
With the 19th century and the emergence of the historical sciences (Geistes- und Geschichtswissenschaften) as an instrument in the formation of nationalism and the nation-state, the systematic study of languages came to the fore. Only a third of the population of France spoke French before the Napoleonic wars and only a small educated minority spoke Italian when Italy became a political entity in 1871. Martin Luther's translation of the Bible predated the process of standardizing the language in Germany. From the outset, a strong link was established in Europe between language studies and nationalism. National languages were always used as a driving force for nationalism. One of the first results of this policy was the collapse of the multilingual Hapsburg empire. (see E.J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 38, 60)
In the 19th century the curriculum of universities added languages that did not reflect national or cultural consciousness. Oriental languages appeared hand in hand with colonialism and imperialism, leaving behind a remarkable geo-linguistic map that still continues to change. Orientalism is a phenomenon with far-reaching consequences that did not just produce a handful of busy students gaining expertise in Oriental Studies but created a framework that justified imperialist practices of all kinds. This process has not ended with the formal ending of colonialism.
Encounters with a colonizing power (or other dominating powers) are in most cases also encounters with a new language that is, usually, subtly imposed. The colonial or subaltern experience is therefore always characterized by the imposition of a new hegemonic language. The new language has to be accepted, understood, spoken and finally internalized to such a degree that no other language seems to be availableanymore. India serves as an example of a situation in which the language of the colonizers became the official national language. And if we were to look at political constellations that collapsed, the former Soviet Empire would easily illustrate this point: few people want to use Russian anymore in the now sovereign states of the ex-Soviet Union. They are, however, very keen on studying English in order to keep up with the new "world order".
After World War II English became the most widely studied foreign language in Europe. The teaching of English was institutionalized by the state and its educational apparatus. It is no accident that French or British students, at least in the 60s and 70s, were less willing to learn foreign languages than their German, Austrian, Dutch or Scandinavian counterparts. Since the late 80s, Japanese and Russians are very engaged in undoing a language deficit towards English. Even in the US there seems to be a slight shift in the attitudes towards foreign languages that may be not be entirely unrelated to the economic challenges as a superpower the country currently faces.
The interest in being fluent in a dominant language has always been directly linked with the structure of power and influence. The kind of language one masters is important: obviously, the master's language. Cutting a language in half like a tree reveals an archaeological record all of its own with vestiges of imported vocabulary from different time periods when other languages were culturally dominant. This is particularly interesting in the case of Russian where words dealing with court manners were borrowed from 18th century French, military and administrative vocabulary came from 19 century German, and English borrowings overflow contemporary Russian. In Japan a language called "Japanese English" has arisen after the Japanese defeat in 1945. "Japanese English" is impossible to be understood by a native English speaker therefore creating a process of linguistic hybridization. The latest shift in the Caribbean world on the linguistic front has already been commented by The New York Times in its article: "Haiti Bids au Revoir to Francophilia, Says Yo to G.I. Joe" (Dec. 30th 1994).
In many cases imperialist realities create not only an intra-national bilingualism but also a multilingualism that stems from an even more precarious colonial or post-colonial experience: international migrations. The situation of migrants, whether legal or illegal, not only strips them of their social context but also deprives them of their mother tongue. Their linguistic incompetence provokes strong discrimination on all levels of interaction and communication and puts heavy psychological stress on them.
Even more complex are the instances involving immigrant workers, ("Gastarbeiter", "immigrÚs", "Mexicans", "Puerto Ricans", "Chinese"...) in "Western" countries. Immigrant workers often speak the language, but with an accent they can never get rid of. Both the legalization and the criminalization of labor traffic create a kind of "step father's language" making the immigrants' mother tongue even more obsolete. Discrimination against foreign workers in Europe manifests itself often because of their poor linguistic performance. Learning the language from an oppressive host is not just psychologically difficult but also inhibited because native speakers often pervert their idiomatic behavior when speaking with foreign workers ("Du machen Arbeit jetzt"). This crippled speech act that is initiated by the privileged host, master of the local language, speaks not only of the false assumption that it facilitates communication but also expresses a cultural and social arrogance.
Idioms and accents are always bound to a geographical location and only become an issue when there is any kind of verbal exchange with the outside. Discrimination based on verbal idiosyncrasies always takes the dominant language or idiom as a point of reference from which all deviations are judged. Only rarely do locals realize that theirs is not the only idiomatic center,but that every other place is also its own center. Mass media standardizes the phonetic landscape and tries to impose a particular language to the detriment of all others. British English, American English, southern and northern speech patterns, European accents versus non European accents and so on are just a few examples often hiding racial, social and class prejudices.
Not entirely unrelated to the educational and professional reasons that motivate humans to study foreign languages, there is also a kind of learning that is linked with the leisure classes and the leisure industry. Tourism, the turning into a touring, consuming and consumed object is a major motivation for individual linguistic investments.
As dominant media products are mostly distributed in a language that has been spoken already by several past "world orders", the linguistic imperialism of the English language has become a very strong voice in an internationally projected libidinal economy. This predominance of English in most international media products - just remember the quarrel of the French movie industry concerning import quotas on foreign entertainment products - also forces people to learn English worldwide. In the academic world it has become very difficult not to know English well and still stay abreast of the latest trends, especially since translations are not always available. So the division of the well-informed and the more ignorant is drawn outside the English-speaking world already with the knowledge of English. .
Another interesting aspect that arises while studying a foreign language is the psychological ramifications. The American Louis Wolfson, a notorious schizophrenic, wrote two books in French in the early seventies with titles that speak for themselves: " Le schizo et les langues" ("The Schizophrenic and Languages") and shortly afterward, "Ma m?re musicienne est morte" ("My Musician Mother Died"). Both books served one purpose: to kill his mother tongue. Wolfson even went a step further in his "killing" and started to mix different languages to invent an exotic, incomprehensible lingo that collapses the process of signification.
Aside from the delirious metastases of meaning that pivots Wolfson out onto a linguistic hypercharged "Niemandsland", the entry into a new language is always painful and exciting, frustrating and illuminating. The language student returns to an infantile stage of limited verbal interaction that creates an experience of helplessness which, since people judge others partially on their verbal competence, exceeds the linguistic realm . This linguistic inferiority also opens up a grammarless space where communicative standards, social formalities and roles can be transgressed. However, everything depends on the context. It is quite different to go to a language school in southern France with a Ph.D. stipend from an ivy league school than it is to be screamed at in English while working all day long in a sweatshop in lower Manhattan and speaking nothing but Cantonese.
A new language offers a range of new identifications that go beyond the actual encounters with native speakers and their countries. Soon one finds oneself confronted with a double front of stereotypes that do not apply anymore. The stereotypes are two-fold: those addressing the people whose language one is about to study or master and a second kind of stereotype coming from those who are not engaged in a similar effort. The choice of a new language is not only informed by stereotypes but also by the language's social positioning. All "exotic" languages, for example Japanese, are looked at as more difficult to study than European languages. After having been involved in the study of nearly 10 languages so far I have come to the conclusion that they all produce the same frustrations and extreme difficulties. All of them, from Russian to Japanese, share the same level of difficulty even if one is culturally biased to think differently.
The motivation and purpose of such a process of acquiring a new language is what usually marks one out as "talented" or not. An entire new world is awaiting. But unlike other kinds of work, learning a foreign language does not pay off immediately. Progress is slow. The new verbal environment can be both exciting and/or frightening. The language one leaves behind gradually becomes more relative if not outright strange. The mother tongue itself loses its full determination and one is no longer bound to the old language. However a whole new range of traps await the student once the line to the new language has been crossed. The two realms cannot be exchanged and translated fully. The same intranslatability applies to one's own experiences. To be loved, beaten or humiliated in one language can by no means be pulled over into another one.
What sells as a translation is often a hybrid, a rewriting, since something like linguistic equivalence does not fully exist. Traveling from one language into another, one passes through an interstitial space, a misfitting playground where grammars and codes criss-cross, doubling meanings and mismeanings. Words and their definitions loosen their ties becoming contagious among themselves. Misunderstandings may render things subversive and productive. Translations are also an arena of confrontation, where resistance to the other can be developed or dismissed.
The mechanics of acquiring a new language - as long as it is not seared into a person through humiliating circumstances - bring into question different roles in which both discipline and power as well as privilege and exclusivity intermingle. In a privileged situation where schools are affordable and inspiring, the learning process also demands concentration and discipline, something that can have an impact on a child for the rest of his/her life . In the European school system studies of foreign languages determine educational and, as a result, professional careers very early on in life.
In my own personal history, foreign languages have always played an important if not a crucial role. Coming from Vorarlberg, Austria's westernmost province in the Alps, I grew up speaking a German dialect that dates back to the Middle Ages. German was a language I came into contact with as a child only in school and TV. Shortly afterward English became the first "foreign" foreign language I had to learn, imposed on me by the state school system. I was not particularly good at it. As a young teenager a series of family tragedies and the wish to escape by traveling abroad put me in the situation of wanting to study French, Italian, and Spanish. Each language was accompanied by travels and romantic encounters with people on the road. This stimulated my performance in school and as a result even English became less of a troubling subject.
At that time I already understood that identity changes with language. It was not possible for me to completely get rid of the original language with its different accent as well as get rid of my "original" identity. In countries where romance languages were spoken I always felt very embarrassed since my accent was automatically identified as German. This constantly interfered with my impossible desire to temporarily "become" a local person. I only tried this game abroad and not in Vorarlberg, which gradually became more and more of a strange place for me until I left for good. When I last visited Vorarlberg people I came across in the streets answered my questions as if they were speaking to a person who does not speak their dialect. The 15 years I have been away must have had also an impact on my "Vorarlbergisch".
Later in college I could put my knowledge of different languages to use. The access to different literary sources opened up a big informational resource. I found out that knowledge, too, was very much dependent on language-oriented differences. The emphasis on and the approach to certain subjects, academic traditions and methodologies varied from country to country and from language to language. The multiplicity of these different textual approaches prompted me to leave Vienna for Paris in 1987 and then finally for New York in 1990 (where I have my base ever since)
In New York I again took up my studies of Russian, which I had abandoned in the early 80s, and went on to study in Russia for four months in 1991. The following year I started to learn Japanese on my own and later spent 6 months in Tokyo with the help of a stipend. It was in Japan that I met Ayuko Yamagishi with whom I have been living together and experiencing, on an everyday basis, the problems of "broken" Japanese and "broken" English. Stress stemming from not mastering a language adequately has been for some years a condition of my daily life (not to mention the need of an editor when it comes to writing in a language other than German). Closer studies of Edward Said's texts on orientalism inspired me to work with the issue of "foreign" languages also within an art context. I have become increasingly aware of the psychoanalytical and identity-shaping consequences of my interest in studying foreign languages that can probably be best expressed in the "special note" of my file, basic linguistic services: "keep moving away from your mother tongue". However, I felt the need to question my own interest in the languages, their significance (romantic, powerful, marginal aspects, etc.) and the implications of the studies as well as the specific, privileged context within which I was able to free the energy to engage in these studies. I increasingly became aware of the touristic quality of my approach in respect to languages without forgetting the academic, so-called humanistic and universalist influences, as well as the personal psychological interest in the other. But precisely the emphasis on these touristic, humanistic, and orientalist aspects is what allows me to point out all these other critical realities. As an artist I have opted to become complicit in the acts of "traveling linguistics" that produce a multilingual hybrid subjectivity.
If shopping was a paradigm at the time the "ready made" came into existence, traveling and migration seem to be the informing mode of today's experience, even if they do not necessarily entail actual displacement or privileged, pleasure-oriented time consuming. Shopping and traveling are not unrelated and complement each other well. In my file, nihongo (Japanese) I alluded to the dimension of my studies as a "ready made": "the study of a language as art stresses the ready made chronically on both ends". To read this kind of "trying hard" as a "ready made" is adequate in the sense that it shares the structure of a transfer of a banal and daily "object" - the studies - into an art context. But when it comes to the temporal dimension of a "ready made", my "trying hard", in other words the educational effort, is completely inverted since it requires a lengthy time investment and a painful apprenticeship, something the "ready made" had already dismissed in 1917.
My current projects with languages involve studies of Japanese, Russian and modern Greek. In November I started to study basic modern Greek for an art project to be shown at the Ice Box Gallery in Athens. The project consists of the following pieces: "3 months, 3 days a week, 3 hours a day - basic modern Greek" and "6 days, 6 hours a day - basic modern Greek". The first piece, which I am currently working on, has been carried out in New York completely by myself with the help of books only. The second piece will be produced in Greece with a tutor shortly before the opening.
Studying Greek coming from a German-speaking cultural background immediately calls to mind a specifically German history of obsessive appropriations of ancient Greek as well as the touchy issue of Greek immigrant workers in the 1960s and 1970s. These immigrants had to learn German and faced linguistic and social discrimination. Not to be neglected are the linguistic minorities and communities of immigrant workers in contemporary Greece (Albanians etc.) and their socio-political problems.
All of these absurdly quantified study investments with Greek are being videotapedin an effort to illustrate the difficult task of representing these learning processes. The tapes show a student (myself) sitting at a desk with books studying 120 hours on his own and 36 hours under the guidance of a teacher. A performance will take place on the day of the opening entitled: Please, teach me Greek. The gallery visitor will encounter 156 hours of videotaped language sessions from the first lesson to the last. Both the study papers and the piles of tapes are conceptually linked by the file, basic modern greek which includes a "special note" that reads: "try to keep all your linguistic, psychological and historic-mythological interferences in check by precisely quantifying your study investment".
Ten photographic portraits of different people wearing t-shirts will complement the show. The people portrayed all wear a t-shirt that reads, in Greek, Please, teach me Greek. The ten people were photographed in New York and are, with the exception of one non-native Greek, speakers belonging to a range of different ethnic backgrounds. Aside from these photographs a set of t-shirts will also be on display with legends that read Please, teach me Albanian, Please, teach me Turkish, Please, teach me Tagalog (from the Philippines - a huge immigrant working group to Greece) and Please, teach me German. These t-shirts will serve as reminders to the local gallery visitors of the controversial languages that exist in their midst. All of them except for German which is a language used both by Greek immigrants in Germany as well as by German tourists in Greece. The reception of these t-shirts is both geographically and linguistically bound.
The experience of being taped, of having an electronic super-ego observing me from an elevated position, was very interesting. Since each study session lasts 3 hours, household "noises" such as telephone rings, running showers or people milling about the room also find their acoustical way into the tape. The most important factor for me while studying was the presence of the camera and the fact that I was under observation, which regulated the amount of time I dedicated to each lesson down to the minute. Without the camera, I would not have been able to accomplish the study goals outlined in the titles of the pieces as precisely as I had set out. Since I just record myself without seeing the results I am not yet fully aware of the narcissistic quality of these videotapes. This might drastically change when I am confronted with the tapes in the context of a semi-public gallery space.
Next to these personal study sessions, psychologically stressful and time-consuming as they are, I also started, as an art project, teaching languages to people interested in learning them . The file, basic linguistic services is the conceptual framing device for the series of "basic english, german, french ..." that are also videotaped and photographed. Again, the taped material unfolds slowly the context and the psychology of the people involved, something, that in my case, can have a surprising effect. So far, I have taught Hisao Yazawa basic french in Tokyo, Nicholas Tipert basic japanese in New York, Ayuko Yamagishi basic english in New York and Sabu Kosho, Bill Arning, Marcia Hafif and Petek Hoeck Erim basic german.
What is interesting to me about my basic german classes is the fact that I have coached Sabu Kosho in his undertaking of studying German from scratch and others (Bill Arning, Marcia Hafif) in their simple need of a refresher class. The conversations with my "students" are often very personal and might remind one in some instances of a psychoanalytical or an oral history session. They set up a context which enables me to get to know the students on a different level, where they are - due to their sensitive position as students - vulnerable and receptive. In the case of my Turkish student Petek Hoeck Erim, who was educated in an Austrian (not German) school in Turkey, and who has a particularly privileged and well educated background and not a "Gastarbeiter" one, my basic German class often consists of a conversation in which she describes the experience of learning German and the psychological implications that she had to work through. Topics like the facts of extreme discriminations and killings of Turkish "Gastarbeiter" in Germany are also discussed. Needless to say, my task as an interlocutor consists of correcting her rare mistakes. All these basic german works will be shown in May 1995 at the Galerie Philomene Magers in Cologne where the conversations will be understood by the gallery visitors.
Similarly structured are the products that concentrate around a series of 10 60 minute-long video portraits entitled "Broken English". Non-native English speakers (friends and people who I know) are interviewed and asked about their experiences with their encounter with the English language. A photograph of each person will also be taken.
A new series of works with another educational purpose involving foreign languages, foreign books and traveling is called: Imported - A Reading Seminar In Relationship With My: "A Portable (Not So Ideal) Imported Library, Or How to Reinvent the Coffee Table: 25 Books for Instant Use (US Version). This work is part of a series of different "national versions" of A Portable (Not So Ideal) Imported Library, ... that will be related to each country they are meant to be shown in. So far, I have shown a Japanese Version in Tokyo, (1993), a US Version in New York, (1994), a French Version in Paris, (1994) and a Russian Version in Moscow, (1994). A Californian Version will be done in Spring 1995 with Blum&Poe and an LA college in Los Angeles, treating California as a state of its own. All these versions define "nationality" negatively, i.e. through the importation of books into the country (the notion of importation itself is not easily definable).
As the title of my proposed project already says "Imported - A Reading Seminar In Relationship With My: "A Portable (Not So Ideal) Imported Library, Or How to Reinvent the Coffee Table: 25 Books for Instant Use (US, French, Russian etc. Version)" consists of a reading seminar I would like to hold in relationship to the 25 books in question. I will start the project at the end of February in Moscow at the Contemporary Art Center where I will be staying for more than 6 weeks. For this Russian project I took up my studies of Russian again in order to mediate the imported texts, all of which are written in languages other than Russian.
The partnering of learning and teaching in these different countries with a specific set of books creates an ironic ambivalence because of the implicit arrogance of bringing culture to another place, something this work tries to stress. However it is first of all a work that is based on exchange, on talking and listening and on a sharing of a broader experience that focuses on theoretical issues and on different national interpretations.
These projects should illustrate the idea that my interest does not lie so much in a purely linguistic, semiological or structural aspect of language - without dismissing this - but more in a cultural, psychoanalytical and political/ideological aspect of multilingualism, something that has been widely overlooked. Traveling linguistics is not solely an idea restricted to my art projects but refers to an experience shared by millions of people moving or being moved around the globe.
© Rainer Ganahl, 1995
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