28 January 2013

Language as exclusionary practice

The language you speak defines who will understand you. So you speak the language you think serves better to make yourself understood in any given context. Seems like a no-brainer, right? But sometimes you probably also choose a language in order to not be understood, by whoever is the excluded one in the group. It's the dynamics of this that I would like to dig into today.
This blog post required me to do some serious considerations of the language in which I write. Most of my posts on this blog are in English, but they're interspersed with other languages. I choose the language of each post based on 1. my own capabilities (but that's sort of a secret, so shhh!) and 2. who I want to reach any particular post. English just hits home for more people than any other language in which I am capable of expressing myself in writing. I might like to write something in Danish, but who would be able to read it? Way too few people versus the negligible extra effort for me to write in English so that it becomes pointless. So English it is today, perhaps ironically, as we shall see.

As indicated, languages are at times used as a way of excluding people in group dynamics. It's somewhat clear in an international context here in Aarhus, but I especially noticed it when working in Barcelona. The language people chose in any given conversation was a signal to you whether you should please back off, or, conversely, that they would be delighted to talk to you, too.

What happens in any setting where not everybody has the same native language is a change of language of one or more people in the conversation. I would never speak anything other than Danish with my close family, but if I bring a friend around to my parents' house who does not speak Danish, then we speak in English, so that.. eh, Bob/ette also feels welcome and understands the conversation, even if it feels weird asking your brother to pass the salt in English. Simple example, but you get the idea.
In a multilingual context, it can get immensely complicated. Say, I would be in work situations with self, Swedish, Polish, and Italian persons, discussing some case or other, and we would be switching between English, Spanish, Italian, and Danish/Swedish and back again, all depending on the point each of us were making and to whom. But that was work and languages were used mainly for clarification. It got more interesting in the lunch room.
Ours was one of small round tables, and people would sit and talk about whatever, and it would be in all the languages supported by the helpdesk, as well as some others (very international context, as it were). Language dynamics became very obvious here. An example: French people would speak French among themselves, and you had to speak French to join them, which was incidentally an effective way of telling other people to get lost, whether that was the intention or not. If they switched to Spanish once you sat by their table, that meant they would actually like to talk to you. Having to ask someone to ”please speak English?” was (at times) a refusal to acknowledge that, actually people would rather you left them alone. But okay, French, not unreasonable to expect people to speak it. Neapolitan dialect, on the other hand = you have no reason to be interested in our conversation here. Note that I do not mean to say that language always was used to say "back off"; simply that it was so much more often than I would have imagined.
When people speak more than one language, first of all, and moreover have more than one language in common between them, the possibilities of speaking in either becomes not just a question of necessity of switching language out of a wish to communicate, but also of measuring the context. Are we speaking just to us or also to Bob/ette? Which languages does Bob/ette speak? We negotiate the playing field in order to include as many people as we wish to include, and if possible also to exclude those that we do not wish to join us. (Side note: Having 3+ languages in common with someone is fantastic. You should try it sometime! Way to my heart right there.)

Speaking languages that are not too common is sometimes an advantage, as they might work as a ”secret language”. Say, virtually nobody outside Denmark speaks Danish, so you can talk about personal stuff on the phone when in public, and no one understands it (just stay clear of Latin words, eh?). From hearsay, Estonians abroad expect even fewer people to speak Estonian than Danish; imagine what happens when it's used to speak about other people on the street and turns out these are Estonian? Spoiler warning: Embarrassing situations occur!
What happens is that our in this case Estonian friends are trying to exclude the rest of their surroundings by speaking in their own language, making the in any case not all that mature mistake of speaking about strangers nearby, and it hits back at them, as occasionally happens, since you don't actually know what languages other people speak. You might be in for a surprise.
There's an assumption that people will understand English, as well as the national language (it can get way more complex, but let's keep it at this), so, rule of thumb, don't talk about strangers in those languages, is the general consensus. (I have had people in Denmark speaking about me in Danish, though. They made some very shamed faces when I informed them that I am in fact a native speaker of that weird throaty language of theirs. It was priceless.)
Perhaps here is an appropriate place to note: why on Earth do we have to always speak English when we need a lingua franca? It has happened that that was the language of conversation even when everybody present also spoke whatever other language. Methinks we're sometimes being lazy and English is simply the most convenient choice. Force of habit and such. But I digress.

Learning a language is useful for a lot of things (it can even change your brain!), but one of its effects is to include you in a particular group of people, which may mean that, okay, people barely raise an eyebrow (as an example it is my experience that certain Spanish people almost expect you to know their language, so your speaking it is no big deal for them); or it can mean much more than you imagined when embarking upon the mission. Learning Catalan is not just about learning a language, it also inserts you into a century-long discussion about sovereignty, ethnicity, identity, and speaking the language in itself becomes a political statement. (Let it be said that I do not necessarily think this is a good idea, and the construction of it as such serves to perpetuate a lot of tensions that might be better left off. However, Catalonia deserves a blog post on its own and not a parenthesis here, so I'll get more into that some other time.)
When you migrate to a new place, you can learn the language or you can not do it. (Or you can make an honest effort but simply be incapable of learning it. Effort accepted :)) Learning the language sends a signal to the local population that you are interested in them and would like to join the group, and most (reasonable) people will probably be happy about it. (As opposed to simply expecting it, as we have seen happen above.)

Once you reach a certain level of fluency in a language, speaking it becomes something you just do. It becomes a practice, like any other thing you do without thinking particularly about it. It's in the choices about how you do it and use it that you mark your group affinities and who are and are not welcome therein. Keep it in mind when you navigate the multilingual world around you.

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