Being Human at Language Fest

Katja Frimberger reflects on Language Fest held at the CCA 18/19 Nov 2014

Simon Bishopp

Simon Bishopp

Last week I found myself singing songs in 36 languages with my grant colleagues and over 40 college students in the Centre for Contemporary Arts in inner-city Glasgow.  Our multilingual Language Fest – part of the UK-wide ‘Being Human festival’ – set out to celebrate the diversity of languages present in the city of Glasgow and explore what speaking and learning multiple languages means to our personal lives.

What does it mean to live a multilingual life? What does it mean to our Language Fest participants?

A group of 40+ multilingual college students attended our Fest together with their two (ESOL) teachers from Clyde College’s Anniesland Campus in Glasgow.  They were teenagers and young adults who had recently come to the UK to escape countries in states of war, political turmoil or fleeing other personally traumatising experiences.  Most reside in Glasgow unaccompanied by adults, parents or a guardian, and might not have had continuous access to formal education in their home countries.  Clyde College and their wonderful teaching staff have developed a progressive course programme which strongly takes into account their Lebenswelt – (from German, meaning their life-world).  This means that ESOL courses at Clyde College’s Anniesland Campus in Glasgow enrich ‘normal’ language teaching curricula and accreditation procedures with a strong well-being focus, which integrates (amongst other things) creative arts pedagogies, extensive personal guidance provision and strong collaborations with local counselling and mental health services (Report: English for Speakers of Other Languages at colleges in Scotland, p. 9).  The fact that the ESOL teachers signed up their students for our event is (for me) living proof of that commitment to a holistic language education which values learners’ multiple languages and the experiences bound up in their multilingual lives.

Expressions like ‘language lack’ or ‘language deficit’, sometimes used when describing these new learners’ English-speaking or writing abilities, are misleading at best, damaging at worst.  Seeing the presence of a language other than English as a ‘burden’ or an ‘impairment’ on the way to successful classroom-based learning, for me, emerges from a place of monolingual arrogance (or a desperate lack of educational resources).  When multilingualism is politicised into a threat to the (imagined) societal status quo – culturally wholesome, superior, monolingual – the language of ‘impairment’ and ‘lack’ takes hold.  A culture that must define itself against what it is (supposedly) not, requires protection from invasion and justifiable linguistic borders.  Ears and mouths sealed against ‘other’ language sounds and rhythms and the worldviews these might bring.

I counted 36 different languages in the room during our Language Fest.  This was not so much a situation of language lack but of language plenty, abundance, wealth; a linguistic richness that emerged in the course of our creative arts activities in the forms of favourite words, greetings and welcomes.  We took time to look at the shapes of these unfamiliar letters written on a large sheet of paper.  We listened to the sounds of the written welcomes and learned from these expert multilinguals how to say ‘thank you’, ‘how are you?’, in Chinese, Vietnamese, Albanian, Aramaic – their first (or second, third) language.  The roles of learners and teachers were subverted.  I am not the one who can make judgements, I am the one ‘lacking’ language (I only speak German and English).  I am struggling to keep up with these linguistic experts, these interculturals who pronounce and speak the new words their friends teach them with more ease and a sense of self-evident intercultural improvisation, where I can only be linguistically awkward (and likely patronising).

The monolingual myth bursts when there are 36 languages in the room.  The myth of a culture in stasis collapses.  We don’t all have one language in common.  Without ‘naturally’ shared cultures and languages but with the desire to communicate and connect, we are at each other’s mercy.  Falling back into English, a ‘foreign’ language to us all, and one that most people in the room are only just learning, is not an option.  There is no ‘neutral’, no ‘pure’ way to communicate.  We can’t easily cloak our communicative difficulties with a (supposed) lingua franca.  There is no easy way to artificially smooth the sharp linguistic edges of our intercultural communication.  Insisting on English now could mean silencing this group’s self-expression, dismiss their Lebenswelt and suppress those unexpected encounters that might be potentially meaningful to us all.  But how then to connect when all we can bring is good will and our linguistic vulnerability?

I planned to sing a melody I won’t forget.  My mum used to sing ‘Guten Abend Gute Nacht’ when I was small and unable to sleep – the group immediately understood this was a song for a child.  We paired up and taught each other our favourite melodies – some are lullabies, some nursery rhymes, most of them love songs.  I discovered that there is also a version of the German children’s song ‘Bruder Jakob’ (Frère Jacques) in Chinese but it’s about children afraid of a dangerous tiger, not a monk who likes sleeping in.  My singing partner Chen listened hard to me singing the song in German over and over.  He memorised the sounds and sang them back to me.  I found it difficult to pronounce the words in Chinese and had to be taught line by line.  He sang a few words for me, I echoed them.  We laughed at our flawed attempts to sing the foreign words but we kept practicing, listening, echoing, laughing.  We scribbled down the lyrics and translated them phonetically.

My personal notes read:
Jansenauhu, jansenauhu, paudequai, paudequai. Itzemayourdur, Itzemayourdur, Itzemayowiba, Donchequai, donchequai.

Chen and I rehearsed together, tuning into each other’s language rhythms.  Then my singing partner disappeared for ten minutes.  He left the room to rehearse outside, by himself.  When he returned he learnt the song off by heart and proudly performed for me:

Bruder Jakob, Bruder Jakob, schläfst du noch, schläfst du noch? Hörst du nicht die Glocken, hörst du nicht die Glocken.  Ding, Ding, Dong, Ding, Ding, Dong.

We sat in a circle.  Each pair performed their songs for the group.  Beautiful female voices sang French; Chinese and Vietnamese love songs reverberated around the room; an Aramaic performance was accompanied by dance and clapping, and one voice in particular, never heard in class, always falling silent (the teacher told me afterwards), sang on that day so beautifully.

Chen and I presented our songs together, two versions of the same melody.  I felt proud.  This was the very first time in my life that I had ever spoken, let alone sung in Chinese.

What does it mean to live a multilingual life?  What did it mean to our Language Fest participants?

Today is one week later and I visit some of the Clyde College students during their English class:

I meet Chen again.  When he enters the classroom he looks at me and smiles. ‘I know you’, he says.  ‘I know you too’, I reply.  He sits down and starts singing ‘Bruder Jakob’ in German.  I join in.  With his help I return the song in Chinese.  We giggle.  During the lesson, he passes a small piece of paper across the table, it says: ‘Do you know where I can buy a hot water bag?’ ‘A hot water bottle?’, I whisper back.  He nods.  I write down ‘Boots’ and ‘Byres Road’.  He nods again.  After class, we shake hands and say goodbye.  I don’t know what a ‘perfect’ multilingual life looks like.  As much as I wish I was, I am not one of those people who learn new languages easily, but beyond my unrealistic dreams of quick linguistic fluency lie the real memories of ‘being human’: connecting and crossing language barriers, listening, singing, echoing, laughing, rehearsing.  The memory of being human at Language Fest.


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2 Responses to Being Human at Language Fest

  1. Mariam Attia says:

    Katja, Thank you for your wonderful reflections on the event (and thanks to Lauren for posting them here). I attended the second day and had the pleasure of sharing with you ‘the memory of being human at Language Fest’.

  2. Pingback: Nov 2015 Bucharest mini-symposium reflections |

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