What is it to learn a "foreign" language that maynot 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 alanguage when it is studied, cultivated, used and "broken" by theconfrontation with non-native speakers?
There are many reasons why somebody ends up speaking orlearning a "foreign language" voluntarily or involuntarily. I wouldlike 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 theknowledge of the classical languages - Latin, Greek, Hebrew - became anecessity beyond the walls of monastic life. The study of classical languageswas conditio sine qua non foruniversities where Latin was the lingua franca
With the 19th century and the emergence of the historicalsciences (Geistes- und Geschichtswissenschaften) as an instrument in theformation of nationalism and the nation-state, the systematic study oflanguages came to the fore. Only a third of the population of France spokeFrench before the Napoleonic wars and only a small educated minority spokeItalian when Italy became a political entity in 1871. Martin Luther'stranslation of the Bible predated the process of standardizing the language inGermany. From the outset, a strong link was established in Europe between languagestudies and nationalism. National languages were always used as a driving forcefor nationalism. One of the first results of this policy was the collapse ofthe multilingual Hapsburg empire. (see E.J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalismsince 1780, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 38, 60)
In the 19th century the curriculum of universities addedlanguages that did not reflect national or cultural consciousness. Orientallanguages appeared hand in hand with colonialism and imperialism, leavingbehind a remarkable geo-linguistic map that still continues to change.Orientalism is a phenomenon with far-reaching consequences that did not justproduce a handful of busy students gaining expertise in Oriental Studies butcreated a framework that justified imperialist practices of all kinds. Thisprocess has not ended with the formal ending of colonialism.
Encounters with a colonizing power (or other dominatingpowers) are in most cases also encounters with a new language that is, usually,subtly imposed. The colonial or subaltern experience is therefore alwayscharacterized by the imposition of a new hegemonic language. The new languagehas to be accepted, understood, spoken and finally internalized to such adegree that no other language seems to be available anymore. India serves as anexample of a situation in which the language of the colonizers became theofficial national language. And if we were to look at political constellationsthat collapsed, the former Soviet Empire would easily illustrate this point:few people want to use Russian anymore in the now sovereign states of theex-Soviet Union. They are, however, very keen on studying English in order tokeep up with the new "world order".
After World War II English became the most widely studiedforeign language in Europe. The teaching of English was institutionalized bythe state and its educational apparatus. It is no accident that French orBritish students, at least in the 60s and 70s, were less willing to learnforeign languages than their German, Austrian, Dutch or Scandinaviancounterparts. Since the late 80s, Japanese and Russians are very engaged inundoing a language deficit towards English. Even in the US there seems to be aslight shift in the attitudes towards foreign languages that may be not beentirely unrelated to the economic challenges as a superpower the countrycurrently faces.
The interest in being fluent in a dominant language hasalways been directly linked with the structure of power and influence. The kindof language one masters is important: obviously, the master's language. Cuttinga language in half like a tree reveals an archaeological record all of its ownwith vestiges of imported vocabulary from different time periods when otherlanguages were culturally dominant. This is particularly interesting in thecase of Russian where words dealing with court manners were borrowed from 18thcentury French, military and administrative vocabulary came from 19 centuryGerman, and English borrowings overflow contemporary Russian. In Japan alanguage called "Japanese English" has arisen after the Japanesedefeat in 1945. "Japanese English" is impossible to be understood bya native English speaker therefore creating a process of linguistichybridization. The latest shift in the Caribbean world on the linguistic fronthas already been commented by The New York Times in its article: "HaitiBids au Revoir to Francophilia, Says Yo to G.I. Joe" (Dec. 30th 1994).
In many cases imperialist realities create not only anintra-national bilingualism but also a multilingualism that stems from an evenmore precarious colonial or post-colonial experience: international migrations.The situation of migrants, whether legal or illegal, not only strips them oftheir social context but also deprives them of their mother tongue. Theirlinguistic incompetence provokes strong discrimination on all levels ofinteraction and communication and puts heavy psychological stress on them.
Even more complex are the instances involving immigrantworkers, ("Gastarbeiter", "immigrés","Mexicans", "Puerto Ricans", "Chinese"...) in"Western" countries. Immigrant workers often speak the language, butwith an accent they can never get rid of. Both the legalization and thecriminalization of labor traffic create a kind of "step father'slanguage" making the immigrants' mother tongue even more obsolete.Discrimination against foreign workers in Europe manifests itself often becauseof their poor linguistic performance. Learning the language from an oppressivehost is not just psychologically difficult but also inhibited because nativespeakers often pervert their idiomatic behavior when speaking with foreignworkers ("Du machen Arbeit jetzt"). This crippled speech act that isinitiated by the privileged host, master of the local language, speaks not onlyof the false assumption that it facilitates communication but also expresses acultural and social arrogance.
Idioms and accents are always bound to a geographicallocation and only become an issue when there is any kind of verbal exchangewith the outside. Discrimination based on verbal idiosyncrasies always takesthe dominant language or idiom as a point of reference from which alldeviations are judged. Only rarely do locals realize that theirs is not theonly idiomatic center, but that every other place is also its own center. Massmedia standardizes the phonetic landscape and tries to impose a particular language
Not entirely unrelated to the educational and professionalreasons that motivate humans to study foreign languages, there is also a kindof learning that is linked with the leisure classes and the leisure industry.Tourism, the turning into a touring, consuming and consumed object is a majormotivation for individual linguistic investments.
As dominant media products are mostly distributed in alanguage that has been spoken already by several past "world orders",the linguistic imperialism of the English language has become a very strongvoice in an internationally projected libidinal economy. This predominance ofEnglish in most international media products - just remember the quarrel of theFrench movie industry concerning import quotas on foreign entertainmentproducts - also forces people to learn English worldwide. In the academic worldit has become very difficult not to know English well and still stay abreast ofthe latest trends, especially since translations are not always available. Sothe division of the well-informed and the more ignorant is drawn outside theEnglish-speaking world already with the knowledge of English. .
Another interesting aspect that arises while studying aforeign language is the psychological ramifications. The American LouisWolfson, a notorious schizophrenic, wrote two books in French in the earlyseventies with titles that speak for themselves: " Le schizo et leslangues" ("The Schizophrenic and Languages") and shortlyafterward, "Ma mère musicienne est morte" ("My MusicianMother Died"). Both books served one purpose: to kill his mother tongue.Wolfson even went a step further in his "killing" and started to mixdifferent languages to invent an exotic, incomprehensible lingo that collapsesthe process of signification.
Aside from the delirious metastases of meaning that pivotsWolfson out onto a linguistic hypercharged "Niemandsland", the entryinto a new language is always painful and exciting, frustrating andilluminating. The language student returns to an infantile stage of limitedverbal interaction that creates an experience of helplessness which, sincepeople judge others partially on their verbal competence, exceeds thelinguistic realm . This linguistic inferiority also opens up a grammarlessspace where communicative standards, social formalities and roles can betransgressed. However, everything depends on the context. It is quite differentto go to a language school in southern France with a Ph.D. stipend from an ivyleague school than it is to be screamed at in English while working all daylong in a sweatshop in lower Manhattan and speaking nothing but Cantonese.
A new language offers a range of new identifications that gobeyond the actual encounters with native speakers and their countries. Soon onefinds oneself confronted with a double front of stereotypes that do not applyanymore. The stereotypes are two-fold: those addressing the people whoselanguage one is about to study or master and a second kind of stereotype comingfrom those who are not engaged in a similar effort. The choice of a newlanguage is not only informed by stereotypes but also by the language's socialpositioning. All "exotic" languages, for example Japanese, are lookedat as more difficult to study than European languages. After having beeninvolved in the study of nearly 10 languages so far I have come to theconclusion that they all produce the same frustrations and extremedifficulties. All of them, from Russian to Japanese, share the same level ofdifficulty even if one is culturally biased to think differently.
The motivation and purpose of such a process of acquiring anew language is what usually marks one out as "talented" or not. Anentire new world is awaiting. But unlike other kinds of work, learning aforeign language does not pay off immediately. Progress is slow. The new verbalenvironment can be both exciting and/or frightening. The language one leavesbehind gradually becomes more relative if not outright strange. The mothertongue itself loses its full determination and one is no longer bound to theold language. However a whole new range of traps await the student once theline to the new language has been crossed. The two realms cannot be exchangedand translated fully. The same intranslatability applies to one's ownexperiences. To be loved, beaten or humiliated in one language can by no meansbe 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. Travelingfrom one language into another, one passes through an interstitial space, amisfitting playground where grammars and codes criss-cross, doubling meaningsand mismeanings. Words and their definitions loosen their ties becomingcontagious among themselves. Misunderstandings may render things subversive andproductive. Translations are also an arena of confrontation, where resistanceto the other can be developed or dismissed.
The mechanics of acquiring a new language - as long as it isnot seared into a person through humiliating circumstances - bring intoquestion different roles in which both discipline and power as well asprivilege and exclusivity intermingle. In a privileged situation where schoolsare affordable and inspiring, the learning process also demands concentrationand discipline, something that can have an impact on a child for the rest ofhis/her life . In the European school system studies of foreign languagesdetermine educational and, as a result, professional careers very early on inlife.
In my own personal history, foreign languages have alwaysplayed an important if not a crucial role. Coming from Vorarlberg, Austria'swesternmost province in the Alps, I grew up speaking a German dialect thatdates back to the Middle Ages. German was a language I came into contact withas 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 stateschool system. I was not particularly good at it. As a young teenager a seriesof family tragedies and the wish to escape by traveling abroad put me in thesituation of wanting to study French, Italian, and Spanish. Each language wasaccompanied by travels and romantic encounters with people on the road. Thisstimulated my performance in school and as a result even English became less ofa troubling subject.
At that time I already understood that identity changes withlanguage. It was not possible for me to completely get rid of the originallanguage with its different accent as well as get rid of my"original" identity. In countries where romance languages were spokenI always felt very embarrassed since my accent was automatically identified asGerman. This constantly interfered with my impossible desire to temporarily"become" a local person. I only tried this game abroad and not inVorarlberg, which gradually became more and more of a strange place for meuntil I left for good. When I last visited Vorarlberg people I came across inthe streets answered my questions as if they were speaking to a person who doesnot speak their dialect. The 15 years I have been away must have had also animpact on my "Vorarlbergisch".
Later in college I could put my knowledge of differentlanguages to use. The access to different literary sources opened up a biginformational resource. I found out that knowledge, too, was very muchdependent on language-oriented differences. The emphasis on and the approach tocertain subjects, academic traditions and methodologies varied from country tocountry and from language to language. The multiplicity of these differenttextual approaches prompted me to leave Vienna for Paris in 1987 and thenfinally for New York in 1990 (where I have my base ever since)
In New York I again took up my studies of Russian, which Ihad abandoned in the early 80s, and went on to study in Russia for four monthsin 1991. The following year I started to learn Japanese on my own and laterspent 6 months in Tokyo with the help of a stipend. It was in Japan that I metAyuko Yamagishi with whom I have been living together and experiencing, on aneveryday basis, the problems of "broken" Japanese and"broken" English. Stress stemming from not mastering a languageadequately has been for some years a condition of my daily life (not to mentionthe need of an editor when it comes to writing in a language other thanGerman).
Closer studies of Edward Said's texts on orientalisminspired me to work with the issue of "foreign" languages also withinan art context. I have become increasingly aware of the psychoanalytical andidentity-shaping consequences of my interest in studying foreign languages thatcan probably be best expressed in the "special note" of my file,basic linguistic services: "keep moving away from your mothertongue". However, I felt the need to question my own interest in thelanguages, their significance (romantic, powerful, marginal aspects, etc.) andthe implications of the studies as well as the specific, privileged contextwithin which I was able to free the energy to engage in these studies. Iincreasingly became aware of the touristic quality of my approach in respect tolanguages without forgetting the academic, so-called humanistic anduniversalist influences, as well as the personal psychological interest in theother. But precisely the emphasis on these touristic, humanistic, andorientalist aspects is what allows me to point out all these other criticalrealities. As an artist I have opted to become complicit in the acts of "travelinglinguistics" that produce amultilingual hybrid subjectivity.
If shopping was a paradigm at the time the "readymade" came into existence, traveling and migration seem to be theinforming mode of today's experience, even if they do not necessarily entailactual displacement or privileged, pleasure-oriented time consuming. Shoppingand traveling are not unrelated and complement each other well. In my file, nihongo(Japanese) I alluded to the dimension of my studies as a "readymade": "the study of a language as art stresses the ready madechronically on both ends". To read this kind of "trying hard
My current projects with languages involve studies ofJapanese, Russian and modern Greek. In November 1994 I started to study basicmodern 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, 3HOURS A DAY - BASIC MODERN GREEK" and "6 DAYS, 6 HOURS A DAY - BASICMODERN GREEK". The first piece, which I am currently working on, has beencarried out in New York completely by myself with the help of books only. Thesecond piece will be produced in Greece with a tutor shortly before theopening.
Studying Greek coming from a German-speaking cultural backgroundimmediately calls to mind a specifically German history of obsessiveappropriations of ancient Greek as well as the touchy issue of Greek immigrantworkers in the 1960s and 1970s. These immigrants had to learn German and facedlinguistic and social discrimination. Not to be neglected are the linguisticminorities and communities of immigrant workers in contemporary Greece(Albanians etc.) and their socio-political problems.
All of these absurdly quantified study investments withGreek were videotaped in an effort to illustrate the difficult task ofrepresenting these learning processes. The tapes show a student (myself)sitting at a desk with books studying 120 hours on his own and 36 hours underthe guidance of a teacher. A performance took place on the day of the openingentitled: PLEASE, TEACH ME GREEK. The gallery visitor encountered 156 hours ofvideotaped language sessions from the first lesson to the last. Both the studypapers and the piles of tapes are conceptually linked by the FILE, BASIC MODERNGREEK which includes a "special note" that reads: "try to keepall your linguistic, psychological and historic-mythological interferences incheck by precisely quantifying your study investment".
Ten photographic portraits of different people wearingt-shirts complemented the show. The people portrayed all wear a t-shirt thatreads, in Greek, PLEASE, TEACH ME GREEK. The ten people were photographed inNew York and are, with the exception of one non-native Greek, speakersbelonging to a range of different ethnic backgrounds. Aside from thesephotographs a set of t-shirts was on display with legends that read PLEASE,TEACH ME ALBANIAN, PLEASE, TEACH ME TURKISH, PLEASE, TEACH ME TAGALOG (from thePhilippines - a huge immigrant working group to Greece) and PLEASE, TEACH MEGERMAN. These t-shirts served as reminders to the local gallery visitors of thecontroversial languages that exist in their midst. The T-shirt saying, PLEASE,TEACH ME MAZEDONIAN had to be removed. The reception of these t-shirts was bothgeographically and linguistically bound.
The experience of being taped, of having an electronicsuper-ego observing me from an elevated position, was very interesting. Sinceeach study session lasts 3 hours, household "noises" such astelephone rings, running showers or people milling about the room also findtheir acoustical way into the tape. The most important factor for me whilestudying was the presence of the camera and the fact that I was underobservation, which regulated the amount of time I dedicated to each lesson downto the minute. Without the camera, I would not have been able to accomplish thestudy goals outlined in the titles of the pieces as precisely as I had set out.
Next to these personal study sessions, psychologicallystressful and time-consuming as they are, I also started, as an art project,teaching languages to people interested in learning them . The FILE, BASICLINGUISTIC SERVICES is the conceptual framing device for the series of"BASIC ENGLISH, GERMAN, FRENCH ..." that are also videotaped andphotographed. Again, the taped material unfolds slowly the context and thepsychology of the people involved, something, that in my case, can have asurprising effect. So far (1995), I have taught Hisao Yazawa BASIC FRENCH inTokyo, Nicholas Tipert BASIC JAPANESE in New York, Ayuko Yamagishi BASICENGLISH in New York and Sabu Kosho, Bill Arning, Marcia Hafif and Petek HoeckErim BASIC GERMAN.
The conversations with my "students" are oftenvery personal and might remind one in some instances of a psychoanalytical oran oral history session. They set up a context which enables me to get to knowthe students on a different level, where they are - due to their sensitiveposition as students - vulnerable and receptive. In the case of my Turkishstudent Petek Hoeck Erim, who was educated in an Austrian (not German) schoolin Turkey, and who has a particularly privileged and well educated backgroundand not a "Gastarbeiter" one, my basic German class often consists ofa conversation in which she describes the experience of learning German and thepsychological implications that she had to work through. Topics like the factsof extreme discriminations and killings of Turkish "Gastarbeiter" inGermany are also discussed. Needless to say, my task as an interlocutorconsists of correcting her rare mistakes.
These projects should illustrate the idea that my interestdoes not lie so much in a purely linguistic, semiological or structural aspectof language - without dismissing this - but more in a cultural,psychoanalytical and political/ideological aspect of multilingualism, somethingthat has been widely overlooked. Traveling linguistics
PS: August 1996: Since August 1995, I am also studyingKorean on a regular basis. I started with Basic Korean for a group project nearHiroshima, Japan, a site that is historically significant for the recenthistory of Korea. Also, my Japanese friend who couldn’t speak any Englishreturned back to Japan after 5 months.