Multilingualism – Languages Without Borders

Plea For The First Foreign Language – One's Own

When I was still a child, my parents spoke to one another in French if they didn't want me to understand what they were saying. For our part my friends and I invented a secret script which nobody else was supposed to be able to read. The beginning of my foreign language life was played out against the background of exclusive communication.

The fact that language and language use also divide is part of their history, and not only the worst part. Identity always has to do with delimitation and exclusion – and in order to effectively cross boundaries, one must have got to know them and tackled them first.
My mother had been a children's nanny in France and England and until old age she set great store by assiduously corresponding in both languages. My father, the teacher, on the other hand, never went outside the country's borders as long as he lived. He endeavoured throughout his life to treat the second language of this farmer's son, namely good, even literary High German, as his first, following the example of Gottfried Keller, who did travel outside Switzerland, but never outside the German-speaking countries. Even so there also exist letters written by him in impeccable French – it was a matter of patriotic honour to express oneself in the other national language. His "Green Henry" provides the justification: "The French-speaking Swiss swears by Corneille, Racine and Molière, by Voltaire or Guizot, according to his party; the Tessiner believes only in Italian music and scholarship, while the German-speaking Swiss mocks them both and draws his education from the deep wells of the German people. But they are all anxious to bring everything back only for the greater honour of their country, and many even stumble into a kind of ridiculous fuddy-duddiness which displays no gratitude to the sources.“

Europe, unified for peace, a gift of history, is still too big for the pragmatic mind.

If this fine maxim were not seen by the Swiss themselves as an old-fashioned pigtail that had been cut off more than a hundred years ago, it could still be their meaningful dowry to the cause of European unification. Keller's idea of a dual citizenship – a cultural one within the larger whole, a political one within one's own fatherland – would permit a greater wealth of variety, even a reversal: cultural identity would then relate to the easy-to-survey, lived-in space, the homeland, the region, and even the nation; political identity, however, would be oriented towards Europe as a large single entity. The old Federal Republic finally managed to adopt, in the time it was divided, a dual self-understanding which was called "constitutional patriotism"; the first attempt to transfer this analogously to the European Community – in the form of a constitution – has failed for the time being because of its rejection by two member states – and certainly also because of its dimension.

The building material for such a span in the European project had not yet been developed – and clearly it was not available on the market. Europe, unified for peace, a gift of history, is still too big for the pragmatic mind – and for the economic mind too little and too much: why not globalisation straight away? Hence the continuing and necessary attempt to build up Europe from below, to base it on small chambers, regions, city links which, emerging from within nation states, at the same time reach further than these do; on Europe-wide school projects and educational programmes, but primarily on the single citizens, the individual, to some extent the European accomplishment par excellence.

These are in their essence cultural projects, even if they emerge with political and economic accompaniment; they have to do with a free way of handling the materials of civilisation untied to any specific purpose. Language takes on a key role here: it is the most challenging, because paradoxical cement of the European Community since it can be used at the same time as an explosive substance. Language, as the vehicle of diversity, is the stuff within which the body of Europe, its unity, and its spirit, diversity, are inseparably interwoven. Everywhere one's own language is at the same time the foreign language of the others. But Europe depends on a deeper mutual understanding more than other places: the willingness to encounter the other in what is foreign, and not only to see it as worthy of tolerance but of curiosity and interest.

Language is the most challenging, because paradoxical cement of the European Community.

In view of the abundance of national languages, it is inevitable that one will have a few linguae francae. But for the "small ones" they are no adequate substitute for the language to which history and identity are tied. Whether Europeans learn to handle with care the delicate asset of foreign languages will determine whether Europe will be credible and trustworthy as a community structure for its members.

Switzerland as a model for a successful linguistic culture? It is a special case in that three "great" European cultural languages are at the same time its national languages (leaving aside for the time being the special case within a special case, Rhaeto-Romansh). The languages of the respective other regions of the country must be learnt as foreign languages – and for Keller "must" here was no empty word. It was a citizen's duty, which Green Henry still claims boldly as a cultural right. Whoever is interested politically in his co-citizens who speak a different language – the basis for the cohesion of a country that is not a "nation" – expects of himself and also dares not only to know his own culture, but also that of the other two. In concrete terms: in the national parliament a deputy speaking his mother tongue must also be understood by all the others and be capable of understanding their response without a translator. Of course the ideal requirement was not totally realistic even as early as the 19th century. But German – High German – and French were an absolute minimum in terms of interior policy and they were also the linguae francae with the foreign-language-speaking outside world.

At the same time the German-speaking Swiss introduced the complication of their dialect, whose division of labour with High German corresponded in the 19th century – differently from today – to the still predominant model in Germany. There was and is no so-called "Swiss German", but the local dialects had for their speakers the character of a full "mother tongue", yet one which also shared the everyday domain with what Dürrenmatt described as the "father tongue", High German. On more elegant occasions down to the "Vereinsfest" (club festival), and also in the classroom, in church and later on the radio, High German was imperative – and of course it had to be used when writing. Until after the Second World War the feeling of cultural commitment to High German remained alive. This first quasi-foreign language was still one's own because such unquestionable sources of one's own identity had been written in it – the Federal Constitution, as well as the Civil Code, Schiller's "Tell" and Johanna Spyri's "Heidi".

That's how it used to be. Today it wouldn't occur to any young Swiss, as it did to Green Henry, to lodge the right of homeland "in the deep wells of the German people" or even to claim Corneille as one's own. These literary references of identity have been superseded by quite different ones, only exceptionally (thanks to television) German ones. High German is predominantly only encountered as written German, and no-one feels embarrassed about only speaking it unwillingly or even not at all. It is still necessary to read it, but the dialect covers almost the whole of everyday speech, and large parts of what is "written" privately, including SMS texts. It is no longer imperative to know the other national languages, even in places such as Basle and Berne where French has been kept as the first foreign language – or vice versa in Romandie High German, which is also not very highly thought of because in the German-speaking part of the country it meets resistance, no longer for reasons of historical resentment but of (sub)cultural reservations. After all, the second quasi-colloquial language there has long been English; it would take a lot of effort to find a poster in Zurich which didn't have any English or "Swiss German" text – marketing has managed to create this hybrid phantom. But every viewer of 3Sat has to put up with sophisticated German subtitles when watching programmes from Switzerland.

It would take a lot of effort to find a poster in Zurich which didn't have this hybrid phantom English mixed with "Swiss German".

But now a renaissance of spoken High German is evident in Switzerland – this has less to do with immigrant German doctors and professors than with the economic weight of the "Big Canton" and largest EU trading partner. There is hardly a trace of cultural reverence here – the reintroduced "Early High German" was installed sarcastically for children "with a migrant background". When we talk about the multilingualism of Switzerland, we should of course also talk about foreign workers – Serbo-Croat, Albanian, even Tamil are spoken by more inhabitants than Rhaeto-Romansh, which advanced to become the fourth national language as a reaction to fascist propaganda. It is a small language group fragmented into a number of sub-languages – where polgylottism is part of the culture. An example of the fact that in matters of foreign language acquisition the small ones have to be the better ones, and that a multi-layered identity is no bad thing culturally. The High German that guest workers pick up is by comparison a foreign language of the cruder kind – because even when used well it still identifies them as foreign. Switzerland has a lot of difficulty perceiving the high proportion of its population who are foreign as furthering its identity – quite the contrary. In this respect as well, Switzerland is a European country like others – and perhaps, given its clement history, it is still a little less reticent in its xenophobia. In Blocher Switzerland this is even aimed at the EU.

But even if Switzerland does not want to pay its membership dues, it's still part of the club. Even with the change of paradigm in the direction of a linguistic monoculture, it's a part of Europe – but unfortunately no longer setting a good example (as in Keller's time) for a culture of European federalism. Switzerland's particularity is not local but rational. It attempts to improve its positioning by reducing to two languages: one in which it does business with the world and one with which one reliably keeps it all in the family. This bilingualism of the market is the equivalent in political terms of the combination of a national conservative internal view with a globalised opportunism in external relations. But with this magic formula as well Switzerland is today in world-wide company, and it is so successful that it can afford not to join the EU. Perhaps because the latter now also cooks with the same water – but over a bigger flame?
Anyone who regards Europe's multilingualism not as a hindrance to business, and also not only as a chance, but as a value, almost an aim of European development – and of the formation of Europe for a potentially peaceful world – must be struck by the fact that language as a cultural vehicle hardly plays a part in economic thinking. As far as possible it is supposed to be cut back to a non-contradictory system of signs for the specific exchange of information. The intrinsic meaning it carries seems to be a superfluous complication. But how we understand language – and how we define what it imparts to counterparts – is the basis for deciding on the question of why one acquires a foreign language and what the purpose of foreign language instruction is.

Languages are the stored way of life of a people.

That was how the Romantics saw the matter – before their use of language descended in the 19th and 20th centuries to the level of political Romanticism, lost its innocence and became an assertion – in every sense. But at no time did language, as long as it was formed on great literature, go along with this assertion of national exclusivity. Whatever was meant by a "people" – one still saw to it that not even the more cautious term "language community" was able to encompass the reality. The roughly common language has not been able to establish any really sustainable community between the Flemings and the Dutch – to say nothing of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, where the nationally defined states do everything they can to dispute a clearly treacherous linguistic solidarity, which happily does not stop anyone who learns the tabooed language "Serbo-Croat" from communicating in the successor states of the former Yugoslavia – even about their differences. In the other direction the forcefully asserted language community generates resistance among groups who counter the pressure of sovereign power with the claim to autonomy, like – with varying political virulence – Catalonians and Basques vis-à-vis "Madrid". But there are also languages such as Latin which no "people" speaks any more and which (even not barring the Vatican) are not associated with any particular territory, only with a certain cultural tradition, and which can in no way be declared dead for all this – as Benedict XVI proves with the re-Latinisation of the Catholic Church. Even in competition with the "flat world" (Thomas L. Friedman) of economic globalisation.

But also within the basically undisputed language unit, the speakers have always provided for the preservation – or formation – of language variants to which – be they "dialects", "sociolects" or "idiolects" – an identity-forming power is accorded. With one's different language usage one preserves the cohesion of one's own group, one stands up for the identifiability of a home domain, and at the same time one protests against a "dominant" language usage.
Language is a traitor who betrays well kept secrets, and at the same time it guards its own history. It forms identity, and it lives from difference. It establishes a homeland, and it casts a sly glance at foreign parts. It pushes for unity, and it resists standardisation. We may recall here the story of the troll who watches a man felling timber; the man blows into his hands to warm them up, and then he blows on his soup to cool it down. When he sees this, the troll decides he has no desire to tackle a being who can blow hot and cold from one mouth. Hard luck for the troll that man is not an either-or creature, just like his language. Its logic is geared to the circumstances. Something that has to work with contradictions cannot itself be unambiguous. A language without contradictions would be an artefact for an artificial environment. The "flat world" tends towards this. But its complete perfection would mean the end of human culture, including that of Europe, but firstly of multilingual Europe.

Most sets of operating instructions for globalised civilisation are formulated in English.

Foreign language instruction commonly pursues a practical goal: the learner uses it to qualify for the market, where the foreign language learned promises to give a competitive edge. This is so extensively true of English today that in most parts of the world we can hardly refer to it as a foreign language. Most sets of operating instructions for globalised civilisation are formulated in English; as are the identification marks for its lifestyle and the agendas for its events. This system of signs is acquired as what has become an obligatory cultural technology, like that of office electronics. English is so easy to adopt for this purpose that we can really consider it a real stroke of luck in a number of ways. As a functional language it has certain orthographical quirks; but morphologically it is simple and it lends itself to social casualness in its use. With its dual Germanic and Romance roots it has links in three parts of the world with mother-tongue pre-formations; elsewhere it serves, as the legacy of colonialism, as a national administrative and cultural "father tongue". The pragmatic orientation that English has brought with it from its mother countries eases communication in many domains of civilisation. It has thus become the language of global pop(ular) culture, the media, science, banking and marketing, a functional code for many forms of acceleration and rationalisation; this rationale can be so unconcerned about its economic foundation that it is hardly aware of it.

This English comes flying at the small clients of globalisation even before they start school and instruction is only needed to ensure its correct – i.e. fit-for-purpose – use. It is used not very differently from a tool, once one has already got to know it as a toy. This language acquisition has now become the model for learning foreign languages, which are stock-market-quoted in terms of market importance; from Spanish and – some way behind – French there is as yet no dispensation; Russian and, in particular, Chinese are on the rise; German still (just) quoted, Japanese is giving way, Italian is hardly traded, and Arabic, difficult to access when it comes to modernisation topics, is to be recommended only for specialists. The languages dossier the smart globalisation winner will compile for himself remains manageable: not being able to get by with English is increasingly the exception.
But acquirers have also experienced that the balance sheet involved in this investment does not always add up, namely when they see the dangerous lack of comprehension their language encounters in many parts of the world. Foreign language acquisition obviously also involves a competence which learns to take the term "foreign" more seriously than language technicians do. The language adapted by reduction to what is assumed to be material misses its purpose if it does not grasp what is "material" for the other side, tied to a certain style which cries out to be treated with dignity – as an expression of one's own dignity – before one gets down to what is material (business). The assumed material language even experiences what it never heard at school: that it itself can be the expression of a cultural deficiency. What suffers first – initially invisibly - is precisely that language which apparently no longer has anything foreign about it: English.

Weakened in its essence

Sociolinguists now express the supposition that English has already been so weakened in its essence as a cultural language by globalised dispersion that it will go the way of Latin. Local variants would supersede it and develop, like French and Italian, into autonomous languages, while knowledge of the "old" language would be restricted to the "church" of IT technicians. What is true is that the skill to read Shakespeare is not supplied by "technical English" – anyone who has learnt that great literature is (and will remain) innately a "foreign language" would be better advised to "approach" it from Georgian or Patagonian.
In other words: culturally beneficial foreign language instruction begins with the handling of one's own language. The learner must know that in it nothing is self-explanatory and most of it requires translation; that no language is a crystal clear medium and that not everyone looking through it will see the same object. Language is even a physical being whose transparency is restricted for many, often very good reasons: through its history, through the habits and quirks of its users, and also through its own "music", through sound and association. To ignore this colourful opacity of language does not only mean one will use it inadequately, but also one will not know what use to make of the riches it has to offer. Ignorance in the use of one's own language may not punish it as long as one is moving in homogenous groups, and flexible English in particular carries with it a tradition of error-friendliness and patience, which French, for example, lacks. But when dealing with a real foreign native speaker, linguistic deficiency emerges – despite the makeshift aid of functional English - as an error of perception, or even as a breach of good manners in communication.

There is therefore no better preparation for learning a foreign language (including of course English) than paying attention to what is alien and alienating in one's own language. The mother tongue also has its ancestry, and it is the mother of fundamentally different daughters, from the teenager to the literature professor, from the German of Turkish origin to the head of government. And just as these spokespersons are not merely functional units of their society, so their differences cannot be dealt with by a code reduced to functions.
English is one of the idiomatically rich languages, it loves the purely linguistic joke and it knows how to exploit the tension between the Latin and Anglo-Saxon parts (the latter includes the four-letter words) not only in a meaningful way, but also humorously and with self-irony. It loves the low profile of the understatement and still has the good fortune to be dominated right through to everyday speech by noble models (the Bible, Shakespeare, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence), without arousing the suspicion that the speaker is snobbish or indulging in old-worldliness. The chips of the functional code described as "English" register as good as nothing of these riches. It is therefore unsuitable as a model for the conscious use of language, and it does not aid "foreign language acquisition".

The fate of the languages in "German-speaking Switzerland" is – unfortunately – an eloquent example of the flattening effect of newspeak. The supposed gain in cosmopolitanism is reflected audibly in the impoverishment of native idioms. Parallel to this, the lack of use of High German is paid for by a reduction in expressive ability. As long as German-speaking Swiss children were exposed to the traditional dialect-High German bilingualism, this benefited the culture of both language variants. The fact that the language of Goethe no longer enjoys any status in German-speaking Switzerland is an expression mainly of the fact that it has also lost this status in Germany. But in Switzerland the consequences of declining language skills also make themselves felt in terms of national cohesion. The majority of cantons of eastern Switzerland today have now rejected French as a first foreign language (in favour of English) and have thus dispensed with a cultural brace which was based on the reciprocity of the two major national (high) languages. Since the dialects of the German-speaking Swiss, who dominate the public domain – through to the weather forecast – are not attractive as a learning objective for francophone Swiss, contact even in the lobby of the Federal Parliament often has to be conducted in English. It is taken for granted that ETH, as a competitor in the global science community, should teach and publish in English.

Foreign language acquisition has two sides.

The example not only applies to Switzerland: it shows how fundamentally learning a foreign language affects the cultural status of an individual or a group. Language, as cultural enablement, is always a school of complexity: and whoever masters it also has to learn what it leaves open. Foreign language acquisition which is adequate for Europe has two sides: on the one side one discovers the non self-evident, alien and alienating in one's own language. The other side emerges when the learner experiences in the foreign language not only the difficulty, but the liberating element. What does this consist of? The perception that one can talk about what is apparently the same on an equal level, but in a basically different way, and still communicate – and also about the fact that what is the same is not absolutely identical. The French lune has another domain of meaning from the German Mond; behind it there is a different constitution of cultural reality, a different view of what is real in the language and effective in it. To approach this other view, more than acquiring just an inkling of it, means an enormous growth in one's own freedom and in respect for the other.

These qualifications are also needed, however, in non language-bound intercourse. They are the basis for coexistence – and mutual understanding – between those who differ. Someone who learns another language learns at the same time what doesn't work in it, or only in quite a different way. As he does this, he comes up against his own boundaries, but by perceiving them, he also crosses them as a guest. If Europe is to become a politically unified part of the world, in other words one which is informed about its differences and can negotiate in a spirit of hospitality, its citizens must be able to speak more than one language. But that begins with a loving and skilful relationship with their own, the willingness to discover in what is supposedly most intimate much that can be shared and imparted; what one must acquire again and again oneself in order to possess it. It is this proven wilfulness that makes one capable of alliance.
Europe needs not only a targeted and purpose-bound relationship, but also one of the lover, one appropriate to the miracle of its multilingualism. To regard this as a traffic obstacle would be barbaric; it would rob Europe of its substance more than any economic crisis. But indeed living linguistic diversity would offer the only means of possibly stopping this.

For Europe is not only more than, it is essentially different from an economic area. The educational goals of every European citizen should include not only mastery of the functional and target language called "English", but the learning after one's own mother tongue – so as to highlight its peculiar character – of at least two other languages. It should not matter here whether these are "major" languages. In a cultural learning process there is no such thing as minor. Someone who can speak practical English must also see his way clear to acquiring the language of Dickens or Melville. Whether he approaches this goal by learning French, Romanian or Estonian is a question of secondary importance: in doing this he will certainly acquire a qualification of primary importance. It consists of awakening his imagination to the fact that what is real in language for the other is also possible in one's own; and the fact that in the process the other perhaps becomes really different, but in the wealth of what is foreign that one experiences in him he becomes a good friend. After all, it is precisely this that we have in common with him.

Copyright: Raphael Maier Personal details:
The author and literary scholar Adolf Muschg was born in 1934 in Zollikon in the Canton of Zurich. He is a member of the Academy of Science and Literature Mainz and the German Academy for Language and Literature in Darmstadt. For his works he was awarded, among others, the Hermann Hesse Prize, the Zurich Literature Prize and the Georg Büchner Prize. Today Adolf Muschg lives in Männedorf near Zurich.


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