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A Multilingual Congress … on the train

Written By: daveski on September 22, 2008 No Comment

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?

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