Multilingualism and the arts

Introduction To The Focal Subjects

"Multilingualism And The Arts"

The communication of content refers primarily to that part of language that is information-related. But this is not its only significant aspect. The famous Japanese actor Yoshi Oida recalls the intensive confrontation with different languages in the theatrical work with Peter Brook: "The work on Orghast in 1971 taught us that there are three aspects to language.

Firstly, its musicality. Secondly, the exchange of information. Thirdly, the magical energy as in a mantra. When I speak my mother tongue, I sometimes forget its musicality and its energy. In a foreign language, on the other hand, I pay much greater attention to these two aspects. In our work we try to get away from restricting language to a mental and intellectual exchange of information. When the language is full of energy, the theatre is all the richer.“ (in: Olivier Ortolani, Regie im Theater: Peter Brook, Frankfurt 1988, P. 71). The experimental ensemble was thus made up of artists from different countries and parts of the world with the aim of learning something from the – here mainly linguistic – points of friction, knowledge which was then incorporated in many of Brook's productions.

Irretrievable memory of its cultural group

The "magical energy" mentioned by Oida leads us to another feature of language: each language in its own right is an irretrievable memory of its cultural group. The cultural development of centuries is reflected in its structure, style, vocabulary and tonal colour. This is expressed in artistic application. For people who do not master the respective language, there is still the helpful means of translation, but this can always only be a crutch for comprehension. Literary festivals take full account of this in that in readings – prose or poetry – they always combine the original language and the translation. This creates a polyphonic linguistic concert, and the listener develops the wish to master even the most exotic language so as to grasp the unique cultural character concealed within it. In large cities, with a growing public that masters multiple languages thanks to multi-layered migratory movements, a genre has become established over the past few years which displays contempt for translation as an aid to comprehension: Slam Poetry. The text and the presentation melt into a single unit, which is based on the specific sound of the original language. In one evening there is often a series of presentations in different languages and the audience enjoys it – understanding sometimes more, sometimes less. (In 2006 there appeared under the title Europe Speaks a CD which documents this wonderfully. Alongside Michael Lentz, Gabriel Vetter, Jürg Halter, Bas Böttcher, Timo Brunke and other German-speaking protagonists of this scene, there are also Emil Jensen (Sweden), De Woorddansers (NL), Etrit Hasler (CH), Lello Voce (I), Nii Parkes (GB), Ryan Mergen (CZ), Pilote Le Hot (F), Lemn Sissay (GB), Michael Lee Burgess, Henry Bowers (Sweden), Göldin (CH), Ross Sutherland (GB), Antoine Faure (F), Sara Ventroni (I) and Kat Francois (GB).).

One of the oldest metaphors for language diversity is the Tower of Babel: the inability to communicate through linguistic separation as a collective punishment. God tries to hit the community at its most sensitive spot, the possibility to communicate among themselves. We know this image not only from the Bible; it has also achieved fame because on innumerable occasions it has been the theme of or been quoted by works of art in all genres, for example the painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder from the year 1563. In 2007 the movie Babel by Alejandro Gonzales Inarritú with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett aroused a lot of interest.

Babylonian uncertainty

The ability to communicate is an essential feature of human communities. Its significance is increasing with globalisation because this not only demands more communication within communities, but also between them. In equal measure there is an increase in Babylonian uncertainty, a fear of loss of communication and of inability to communicate. This phenomenon, so quintessential of our society, is repeatedly the subject of artistic works, and linguistic diversity is often depicted as a barrier to communication due to linguistic ignorance. For example in Constanze Macras’ dance theatre production Big in Bombay (Berlin 2005), in which the characters, embodied by dancers of widely different origin, talk past one another in Babylonian confusion.

Beyond its dedication to the field of language acquisition, the Goethe-Institut is also highly committed to cultural encounters and promotion of the arts. The "Languages Without Borders" project can highlight examples of how intimately these areas inter-relate. In art it is possible to open experimental spaces for the creative investigation of linguistic diversity and to extend the rational exploration of languages to include the experience of their emotional validity.

Dr. Carola Dürr

    Migration and Integration

    Migration is changing cultures. The Goethe-Institut reflects these developments in Germany and around the world and dedicates its work to the linguistic integration of migrants.