Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Multilingual Congress ... on the train

Thinking about my recent trip to Essen, Germany to participate in an applied linguistics conference, I realize that one of my most lasting memories is also one of the most mundane. That’s not to say that I’ll soon forget gazing into the sunset in the reflecting pool by the Zollverein coal mine, or having late night discussions in the open creative spaces of Essen’s Unperfekthaus, or even admiring the gothic spires of neighboring Cologne’s famous cathedral. But these brief tastes of Germany, postcard-perfect as they are, nonetheless didn’t strike home as much as the short metro ride across town that showed me what I might have been.

Of course, I went to Germany expecting nothing less than intellectual inspiration. The event at which my American colleague and I were scheduled to present is actually called a “congress”, and not ‘just’ a “conference”. This highly touted gathering takes place only once every three years, and was to bring together people from across Europe and around the world to discuss “aspects of multilingual matters and the linguistic richness of [the European] continent,” as the website says. For our part, my colleague and I were ready: we had theorized and debated about the meanings of multilingualism and multiculturalism in classes, at universities and other academic gatherings across the U.S., and in a variety of other countries. On that cool and overcast day in Essen, I was looking forward to learning how the changing linguistic tapestry of Europe related to that of my home state of California, where over 40% of the population uses a language other than English at home.

However, sitting on that train as we wound through the city streets, I was struck by a fact of life more basic than any theory I have learned. I, and my friend from the multilingual state of New York, live in a country where monolingualism is the norm.

Both of us, of course, had learned another language as we grew up and moved through our respective school systems. He had studied several years of German, a fact that made our navigation of local trains and restaurant menus in Essen much easier (just like the high school textbooks promised!). And I had taken Spanish classes for four years in middle school and high school. Not much help in Germany, to be sure, but, as many of us who grew up in monolingual California homes argue, an ability that is valuable nonetheless.

Yet, as I sat on that metro and listened, I realized that my years of Spanish instruction had left me with only one tongue: the world I lived in after high school was still written in English.

Well, I protested to myself, if German or Spanish was not my respective strong suit, then surely Japanese was. I had studied it for 3 years in the university and, through odd twists of fate, both my colleague and I had ended up living there for several years. Each of us had used the Japanese language to take classes, to negotiate apartment contracts, and to build friendships and working relationships alike. And perhaps because they were aware of the fate of non-English languages in the U.S., nobody we met in our many cross-cultural encounters had given us anything but praise for our linguistic accomplishments.

Yet, as the metro train approached the city center, and as I continued to sit, watch, and listen, I wondered: have either of us ever learned to be like...that?

The two women who sat across from us gestured and smiled as they moved smoothly between two languages. The woman facing me asked a question in one language, and her friend leaned forward without a blink, answering in the other. A moment of silence followed. Both looked out the window. Perhaps they were considering what had just been said. Then the first made a quick assertion in German, only to qualify it in English as her friend shook her head in disagreement. She glanced over at me (was I staring?) while her friend leaned back in her seat, agreeing (I think) in German. All this before using English to quickly change the topic yet again!

Did they realize that I sat enraptured by the movement of their conversation? These two languages could not have been reduced to one—why would the two friends switch so often and so strategically if words in either language ‘meant’ the same thing? And did they realize that this conversation was also a performance, hiding, revealing, and then hiding its details again to its ‘linguistically challenged’ audience, all the while helping to build their own bonds of camaraderie?

This was not, of course, the first time I had heard fluent bilinguals speaking—far from it! But hearing the prestigious academic congress’ theme of multilingualism alive in the words of everyday people in such an everyday setting, I found myself thinking, how ironic that I—a hopeful scholar of language—am bound to my variety of English for the vast majority of my linguistic life. I found myself wondering what that life would have been like if I had followed my father when he was sent to work in Cologne in the 1980s, when I was still a child. If I had lived in Germany, would I now be able to intuitively see the layers of meaning between German and English? Would my eyes have been opened to other possibilities of being if other languages had been prized in the schools I attended? And if more people in the U.S. had experiences like that, would we as a society be able to realize that multilingualism cannot, in fact, be captured on a postcard?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Getting these words online

I’ve finally sat in the lair of the enemy in order to write these words to you, one step from surrender. When did the solitude of simply being with one’s voice and thoughts become oppressive? We used to be able to recite our words in our minds without necessarily giving voice to them. And there was a time when we could type them out without sending. Have these two things become the same?

I’m drinking the wine of the enemy as I write these words to you. It’s not for lack of trying, you see. I’ve been looking for hours now. Or is it weeks? It feels like so long since I could rest assured that my words would find their way, far away from all of the...the easy connections of home. Is that what home has become?

I’ve walked the streets here with my compass in hand, not wanting to give in so easily. I checked at every street corner and every public place of gathering, monitoring for signs of openness, availability, potential. I need to get these words online but...things work differently here.

I must have seen two hundred names flash past my eyes. They all turned out to be mirages, fading quickly or remaining behind locked doors. And though I’ve tried to ignore her, the princess in her dark green circle beckons at almost every turn, promising a quick end to my suffering, offering me refuge in her cozy web of connectivity. I never would have thought that forest green and hot pink were so natural together. Have they always been?

Codes, codes, codes...human faces glance this way and that on the street corner, but they offer no help. It’s the shop signs and apartment names that might point the way, though sometimes the least secure-looking structures are the most impermeable. And why? Codes nowadays reveal no treasures in themselves; having the right key only enables you to walk through their portal, to the same place you always go. How is that even possible? In what kind of world does that make sense? One where businesses can claim proprietorship and charge for the privilege of using ‘doors’, doors that apartment owners name and protect, and doors that individuals covet and spend hours upon hours searching for, when they all lead to the same place?

This coffee is turning lukewarm. My ‘compass’ sits in my pocket, powered down now after leading me into this T-Mobile network. My feet hurt after covering miles in downtown Düsseldorf. And now I’ve been at this table for almost an hour. It’s been fifteen since the nice gentleman in the green apron, same princess emblazoned on front (surely you know the one!), cleared my tray. My power adapter is still plugged into the wall, bulbous universal adapter bringing down the 220 volts for my old G4 PowerBook. Battery’s back at 96%, the only consolation I have for placing myself in this establishment. It’s time to give in or head out.

How bad do I need to send those emails, to check my profile, to post on this blog? After powering my laptop up, I had taken my wallet out, even pulled out my credit card, the ultimate act of submission in the world of online access. I was ready. How much would it be? 4.95 for an hour? 9.95 for 6? Expensive but fine, I need to get online.

But 8 € for 60 minutes? That’s $12. That’s twice as much per hour as it costs to watch a movie. That’s four times as much as the cost of this coffee. That’s the same as it’ll cost me to take the train back to Essen tonight, my last night in Europe before resuming life in Berkeley, a place of easy connectivity, where I spend more time on the other side of the door, where everything is the same.

Sorry, Starbucks. I went as far as buying a drink, sitting down, and opening my internet browser, but you can have your network. By next year I might not be able to stand being disconnected. And the price will have surely gone up by then. But for now, I’ll hold on to these words a little longer and keep on walking.


* Uploaded 1 day later from O’Hare Int’l
** Thanks to Woyton for the free WiFi in Düsseldorf!

Friday, September 05, 2008

Speak English or be suspended?

Several golf and sporting-news sources have reported over the last few weeks on what is being called a first-of-its-kind language policy for professional athletes in the U.S.: “Speak English or be suspended.”

The new policy, if it remains in force, would require that all of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA)’s 121 international players from 26 countries, including 45 players from South Korea, would have to pass an oral English proficiency examination after 2 years of membership. Explaining the LPGA’s reasons for initiating the rule—first announced by commissioner Carolyn Bivens before the Safeway Classic in mid-August to an audience of only South Korean players—deputy commissioner Libba Galloway explained,

We live in a sports-entertainment environment. For an athlete to be successful today in the sports entertainment world we live in, they need to be great performers on and off the course, and being able to communicate effectively with sponsors and fans is a big part of this. Being a U.S.-based tour, and with the majority of our fan base, pro-am contestants, sponsors and participants being English speaking, we think it is important for our players to effectively communicate in English. (quote from the International Herald Tribute article linked above)

Such policies have not been considered by other pro sports organizations in the United States, the IHT article noted—this includes the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League (based in Canada), each of which has significant numbers of international players. And, after growing opposition from players and civil rights organizations, it appears that the LPGA has started to rethink this rule: Golfweek magazine, which first broke the story about the rule, reported that the organization has proposed a revised approach to its so-called “effective communication policy”, stating, “there are other ways to achieve our shared objective of supporting and enhancing the business opportunities for every tour player.”

This issue appears far from resolved, and it raises more questions than can probably be addressed. What moved me to write about it here was not only the probably discriminatory nature of the rule itself in linking performance in sport with oral linguistic expression (“an absolute slap in the face of women, minorities, immigrants,” said California State Senator Leland Lee), nor only the draconian idea of imposing mandatory English testing on its players as a way to enforce the policy, but also the money-making logic of professional sports that has even many international golfers nodding their heads, saying the English testing idea makes sense.

The imperative to inject broadcast sports with sound bites and interviews with media outlets and corporate sponsors before, after, and, increasingly, during sports events is something that gets my ire as a spectator of baseball (mid-inning interviews with the manager? When did these start?), football, and even the recent Summer Olympics (who ever thought of interviewing a sprinter 20 seconds after the race?). What it seems to mean is that professional athleticism is growingly contingent on a form of self-marketing, or even self-packaging, that takes place largely through language. And the idea that English should form the currency by which sports and other ostensibly non-linguistic activities are commodified, seems alarming.

Or…am I just off base here?