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Anschlussflüge: Thoughts in transit from LL4

Written By: daveski on March 1, 2012 No Comment

My mind is awash with thoughts from last week’s linguistic landscape workshop in Ethiopia’s capital city—thoughts from the last two days of informal visits to the campus of Addis Ababa University, from a group excursion 300km through the countryside to the Debre Libanos Monastery and the Blue Nile Gorge, to follow-up meetings and late-night conversations with conference organizers, acquaintances and colleagues-become-friends from universities in Tel Aviv, Cape Town, Siena, Liverpool, Namur…

I had gone to the Addis Ababa workshop trying to look both back and forward. Back, to an ethnographically-inspired research project I began in 2004, about authorship practices in bilingual signage in the Oakland-Berkeley area, and to its implications for LL research. And forward to this April’s UCCLLT conference in San Diego, where I’m hoping to discuss with language instructors some of the possible benefits of bringing the language classroom out to the city, and the city to the classroom, to study the world’s languages made local and made visible on signs.


In my next post here I’ll try, I’ll try to map this out in some detail, and to write about lessons learned and questions raised by others’ presentations, since both they and the city in which they took place have made deep impressions upon me. Upon me.

Now, though, sitting in the Frankfurt airport on the way back to San Francisco from Addis Ababa, my mind seems to be floating somewhere between, impressions more than ideas and echoes more than sounds circulating in the open space behind my eyes, between my ears. Sometime soon, I hope, the distance will have closed and my thoughts from the workshop in Ethiopia will have landed, settling into place like the signs on the street, their visible fixity helping to direct the traffic moving round them.

I open the copy of Language learners as ethnographers (Roberts et al., 2001) that I’ve brought along on this trip in order to help me think about what the signs of the city might have to teach us, students and teachers of language. In their chapter on “Representations, Discourses and Practices”, the authors describe the intercultural speaker as a kind of traveler between the unknown and the familiar, someone whose learning of language and culture is premised on movement, transit, disembarkings and returns. Drawing on Clifford’s (1992) essay “Traveling cultures”, they write, “There are always elements of continuity and discontinuity, of feeling at home and feeling displaced, of feeling at the centre and feeling on the margins” (p. 86).

It makes me think first of the presentation that I prepared in Berkeley, about a project that is to take place in Berkeley, and how it might have been received…there. Then of the presentations I heard delivered from colleagues in Ethiopia, South Africa, Italy and elsewhere, about projects whose framings and findings are anchored to their own regions and times. I think about the gaps in language, in material wealth, and in physical appearance and disposition that I perceived in Ethiopia in relation to my own Americanness, my suburbanness, my whiteness, as a first-time visitor. And I wonder if, in such a condensed visit, my impressions will ever be stable enough, or deep enough, to serve as reliable foundations for me to interpret my experiences there, across contexts. What can I possibly say about what I saw, heard, and learned in Addis Ababa that was not already in my mind before I left?

I listen to the sound of the warnings echoing through the terminal, in German, French, Spanish, and English, telling me to look after my luggage and announcing flight information for others. I hear the drone of a passing electric cart and the reverberations of someone’s hard-heeled shoes on the floor, the rolling suitcase wheels and distant peals of children’s laughter. Reflections on a newly waxed floor set off against the drab greyness of the sky outside remind me of past stops here in Frankfurt. This is a place in between here and there, where one waits an hour or seven for one’s anschlussflug, the connecting flight that will, after a while, finally take you where you are ticketed to go.

Yet, before, where I saw in this airport little but the absence or elision of place that anthropologist Marc Augé calls “non-place”, now the silence registers a little differently with me, like a calm that might not be full or rich in itself, but also does not hide the fact that it points two ways at once. Like the silent period of a language learner unable to speak for weeks or months but still hearing the sounds of the foreign tongue, perhaps travelers too can be lost for words for a time, left to do little but listen to the echoes and stare at reflections in the meantime. Then, maybe the fact of having been in a place that is neither the point of departure nor arrival—where one waits for one’s connecting flight, hearing German and other languages between Amharic, Oromifa, Tigrinya and English—will help one realize the distance between all of these, and to find a place to speak from.

I sure hope so.

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