Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: November, 2015

Two Europes

Lately I have been rereading Goethe’s Italian Journey, the account of a year-long trip in the year 1786-87. It remains one of the classics of travel literature. This was an important journey, not only for Goethe, but for the self-identification of the Germans and other nations north of the Alps.

Europe had long divided itself into North and South. The North was cool, the South was warm – not only climatically, but culturally. The South was the cradle of European civilisation, but in the course of time the energy and dynamism had mostly shifted to the North. The difference had been reinforced by the Reformation, dividing a mostly Protestant North from a Catholic South.

Rome remained the symbolic centre of things, the place where all aspirations to culture converged. It was the capital of classical Antiquity as well as the holy city of Christendom by default – since Athens and Jerusalem were in the hands of the Turks.

Italy was the most accessible part of Southern Europe for the Germans, and it meant the South to them. As the German commentator Eberhard Schmidt has recently written of the Mediterranean world, “from Goethe to Nietzsche it became the surface onto which was projected a longing for liberation from the straitjacket of social conventions and Protestant-dominated discipline in the North of Europe.” Italy meant not just sun and sea, but the Bohemian life of the artist, relaxation and enjoyment, sensuality, even sexual freedom.

Rereading Goethe’s account of his travels in Italy, what strikes me is not how much has changed, but how little. Europe is still divided into two, despite the European Union. Talk about une Europe à deux vitesses, a “two-speed Europe” keeps resurfacing. The punishing discourse on Greece was another instance, where the hardworking North was contrasted with the lazy, feckless South. Yet the hardworking Northern European can still think of no better holiday destination than the sun and sea of the South, lazing in a shady taverna drinking wine and imitating the fecklessness of the charming locals. He longs to silence his punishing Northern, Protestant superego for a while and rediscover the lost warmth of the Latin South.

Pros and cons of bilingualism

We often hear praise of bilingualism as a state to be aspired to. If a person knows just one language, the argument goes, they are trapped in a single vision of the world. If a person knows two languages, however, they understand that there is more than one way of looking at the world. Bilingualism makes you tolerant, open, flexible and mentally agile. So they say. Especially language teachers.

It is hard to disagree with this argument. Yet I for one doubt whether bilingualism can be a goal. What language teachers are advocating is not really bilingualism, but exposure to a second language in large doses. Real bilingualism – the native-like control of two languages – generally arises as a result of accidents in people’s lives or in society, such as migration. It is something that happens to people as children rather than as adults, and they no more choose it as a life goal than babies choose to be baptized.

Bilingualism is a good thing, but it can be limiting. As a bilingual, a person acquires a bipolar vision of the world, a vision in terms of either-or. You think that everything is this or that, it belongs to one language-world or the other. This is a rather Manichaean dichotomy with which all sorts of internal conflicts may come to associate themselves: the language of father versus the language of mother, the language of the East versus the language of the West, and so on. The only solution is to learn a third language; because trilingualism relativises the either-or dichotomy automatically.

When you learn a third language, it can be a experience like that of the Spaniards in Keats’ poem, who stood “silent upon a peak in Darien”: they had left their native country, crossed the Atlantic and discovered the New World, and now they were discovering another vast ocean, another side of the world. The same can be said for learning about a third culture, if you already know two.

Would I go so far as to criticise bilingualism, which is held up as an ideal by language teachers? I would not say that bilingualism is not a good thing, just that it needs to be extended and completed. Knowing two languages perfectly, unreflectingly, can be a trap, almost as much as knowing only one language; whereas if you go on and learn three languages, you will be able to avoid Manichaean visions of the world.


Learning languages to learn cultures

Learning languages is good for you, they say, it broadens your mind ; but how exactly? The humanistic ideal of education in Europe, until recent times, was to know the major languages and their literatures, just as in previous centuries people had known the classics. But this is no longer a popular reason for learning languages. In an era of European integration and mobility of people, languages are learned for practical reasons – to communicate, to do business.

It is often said, too, that that learning another language is good for your brain – it gives you a new sort of mental agility which helps your personal development. But if the truth were told, the real mental agility comes not so much from the language learning as from the cultural learning which goes along with it. If you really learn a language and use it, you will be dealing with another culture too. And that really broadens your mind like nothing else can.

Today there seems to be a growing crisis in language learning. As we saw, the old humanist faith which regarded the learning of the major languages as an enrichment, a Bildung, no longer obtains. At the same time, the rise of English as a vehicular language has changed the situation. In the English-speaking countries, learning of foreign languages seems to be in free fall, and in continental Europe, the learning of the language of neighbouring countries is more and more neglected in favour of English, regarded as more useful.

In the meantime, language teaching, now oriented toward practical communication, has necessarily become more aware of the cultural aspects of language, which are essential to communication. Could one not envisage a future where the old priorities are turned upside down and cultures rather than languages are taught, and the languages are learned as a part of the cultures? Personal development fostered by cultural learning would become the new Bildung, a new humanistic ideal that would justify the study of languages. In this perspective, people would learn foreign languages explicitly as a key to foreign cultures. I think this is an idea whose time has come.

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Whorf redivivus

We need to reexamine the issue of “linguistic relativity”. Up till now, this has meant the theory that languages vary unpredictably in their organisation and the way they view the world. So said Whorf. His is the name mainly associated with the idea, although others thought of it too; he just expressed it very forcibly and vividly. Working with the Hopi Indians, he found their language to be structured in a way that indicated a different mental organization of physical reality, including space, time and causation. But Whorf never looked at linguistics itself. Would a Hopi linguistics be different from a white guy’s linguistics? You bet it would.

Not only would a Hopi create a different physics to account for the world, but he would create a different linguistics to account for his language instead of taking over the apparatus of phonetics, phonology, grammar and syntax as worked out by Western linguists. For if these latter live in a world based on what Whorf called SAE (“Standard Average European”) languages, then they must also have an SAE linguistics. Why should the categories of SAE languages be universal, applying to and accounting for what goes on in completely unrelated languages like Hopi or Chinese? In short: if different languages mean different world views, they also mean different sciences of language.

In fact, this is the whole point the English linguist Firth was making around the same time. He had been to India and done fieldwork on Tamil, and later he worked at the British School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He was mainly involved with “exotic” languages, and also, importantly enough, with their writing systems. He therefore began to question the universal applicability of Western phonetics and phonology. Did it not depend on notions assumed for writing Western languages? What was universal in the theory? Could a linguist even be sure that “consonant” and “vowel” could be universally distinguished? Firth talked disparagingly about the “hypostatization of the letter-phoneme”, by which he meant the elevation of the linguist’s theoretical notion “phoneme” into objective reality, when it was really just based on the letters of the Roman alphabet.

When Firth met Trubetzkoy, the founder of European phonology, at a conference, they agreed that if Greek had been used as the main learned language of Europe instead of Latin – and had thus become the basis of all writing of European vernacular languages – then phonology and phonetics would have had a very different basis. For written Classical Greek has prosodies, indicating pitch, and it thus contrasts with Latin, which has only letters.

Yet still today, linguistic theory and practice is based on Western languages, and it is very much a Western science. In giving Whorf his belated due, we need to consider not only the relativity of languages, but of linguistics itself.


On becoming an object

Man is both subject and object, as modern French philosophers have emphasized. In the philosophical tradition, man is the subject of discourse, the world around him a series of objects he can know and talk about. However, Foucault described how Man went from being a subject to being an object of knowledge in the 19th century. This was the beginning of the sciences humaines: sociology, psychology, anthropology, linguistics. In particular, minorities and colonial peoples became objects of (at best) well-meaning study. They were never subjects. Today, in a world that goes beyond imperial domination, they need to be promoted to subjects. In other words, they need to be able to talk and speak for themselves.

As individuals existing separately from and yet with others, we are condemned to be both subjects and objects. In psychoanalysis, Lacan talked about le stade du miroir, the mirror stage of development. When the child looks in the mirror for the first time and sees himself, he realizes that he is an object to others, just as others can be objects to him.

We all prefer to be subjects rather than objects. We don’t like to be objects exposed to the critical gaze of others. Sartre talked about this experience of objectivisation. He saw it is one of the origins of the emotion of shame. For this reason, he concluded, l’enfer c’est les autres: hell is other people.

We want to be able to be subjects of discourse, talking to other people without them making us into objects and making judgements about us. The whole idea of writing is that we are absent when the reader reads, so we can be pure subjects. Writers like this. Actors and other performing artists, I think, long for it. When the actor goes on the stage for the first time, he thinks of himself as a subject: he, the actor, understands this role and is going to invest himself in playing it. But the audience sees him as an object. To be an actor, he has to learn to see himself with their eyes. He has to give up his absolute subjecthood and consent to become an object.

When you are a foreigner, you are always an object to some extent. This Julia Kristeva found listening to her recorded voice for the first time. A Bulgarian, she had thought she was completely integrated into French society, but suddenly she was hearing this voice of a foreigner. Françoise Kral perceptively comments that this is a kind of stade du miroir – in terms of sound, not vision.

When we venture into another culture or language, we become objects. We stick out like a sore thumb. We are conspicuous because we don’t quite belong, or don’t belong at all. This is a painful experience. But we have to do it. We have to dare to be objects if we are to have any chance of ever functioning as subjects in that culture.