Why Have Languages Lost Their Mojo?

languageshowliveOn Sunday, I went along to Language Show Live – Europe’s leading exhibition and trade show for language learners, teachers, professionals and enthusiasts.

When I arrived at the conference centre, I saw that The Chocolate Show was also taking place in the conference centre next door. While it might have been a confectioner’s heaven there, inside the Language Show, it was death by language. Competing for the attention of Show goers, there were: free taster sessions on Portuguese, Mandarin and British Sign Language; belly dancers and other cultural performances; demonstrations of the latest tablet technology for language pedagogy; seminars on TEFL; public and charitable organisations for the promotion of language learning doing exactly that; various companies, small and large, hawking Spanish lessons in Seville and Cantonese lessons in Hong Kongs; and, others selling sticky labels, bilingual literature, periodic table-like “maps” of different languages, and all manner of other innovations – all of which, a bit like the latest fad diet, would surely revolutionise language learning forever.

In the programme, a workshop and panel discussion titled “Why have languages lost their mojo?” caught my eye. To a passionate advocate for foreign language learning, such a discussion is like a debate on immigration to a Daily Mail reader. It gets the blood flowing.

Fresh coffee in hand, I headed upstairs to Conference Room 2. The discussion was co-hosted by Ian Andersen, Director General for Interpretation at the European Commission, and Bernadette Holmes, advisor to successive UK governments on language policy and Campaign Director of Speak To The Future, which promotes the learning and use of foreign languages. Andersen, who turned out to be a rather ruthless facilitator, ushered me to a table near the front. There I met Sophie, a freelance French teacher, and Judit, a language teacher-turned-financier who had decided to re-join a profession she missed terribly.

The first discussion question was “Why are you here?”. A language teacher from Newham, one of London’s most multicultural boroughs, put his hand up to bemoan the recent removal funding for foreign language literature in local schools. Next to me, Sophie spoke passionately about the level of support for foreign language learning in state schools, compared to private schools, meaning learning French was becoming the preserve of the wealthy. A young man called Sam, who had recently returned from teaching English in South East Asia, said he felt “bad” about his – and many of his fellow Britons’ – inability to speak any language other than English. It was clear that we were all passionate advocates for language learning. This was a conversation among the converted.

Holmes then introduced the rest of the discussion with a brief overview of the state of language learning in the UK. There had been a steady decline in foreign language over the last 20 years, she said, with a particularly sharp decline over the past decade. Government policy has been a mixed bag. Since 2002, legislation has made language learning at primary school level compulsory, but it had also removed the requirement to learn languages above the age of 14. But there was still some reason for optimism. The current Minister for Schools, she said, is a proponent for language learning. Although German, for example, has declined dramatically at undergraduate level, it is becoming increasingly popular with students of non-language subjects (such as engineering) as adjuncts to their degrees.

The next question, “Why isn’t everyone in Britain learning a foreign language?”, really got us talking. There were a myriad of suggestions. Language learning is not seen as an economic advantage, someone said. English is ubiquitous, said another, which means English speakers are at best complacent (and at worst “arrogant”) when it comes to learning languages. Even if you are learning a foreign language, because so many people want to learn English, it’s hard as a native English speaker to find an opportunity to practice. In Britain, it’s not seen as “the norm” to speak a foreign language, so it’s not seen as unusual not too. The school system doesn’t support language learning. And so on – all of which seemed true enough to me. It doesn’t help that language learning is not easy, I added, especially as an adult.

The last question we were asked was more challenging: “What can I do to help make language learning more attractive?”. Many of the teachers in the room spoke about how they could improve their lessons, for example by introducing aspects of foreign art and culture, to help motivate their students and make language learning feel more relevant. The teacher from East London said we should be encouraging all of our students to spend some time abroad, and make language learning part of “the adventure”. As well as making the “macro” economic case for language learning, someone else made the point that we should be making the individual case too: that is, trying to communicate our own personal stories of how languages have positively benefited our lives.

That is, as Holmes concluded at the end of the workshop, we need more “individual champions”. We need language activists who will go out and make the case for language learning in whatever small way they can.

So here goes.

“I Am China” by Xiaolu Guo

IMG_6477I recently bought a copy of Xiaolu Guo’s 2014 novel I am China. As a Mandarin learner, and a linguist, I was intrigued by the premise on the back cover. Spanning London and Beijing, the novel tells the tale of a young woman slowly translating the romantic letters of two Chinese lovers, each separated from the other by political forces beyond their control.

The author, London-based Guo, has a track record of writing books of linguistic curiosity. Born in China, Guo moved to London in 2002 and won critical acclaim for her first English language novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers some five years later. That story – of a Chinese woman who comes to London to learn English and falls in love with a British man – is notable for being written in deliberately imperfect English, which then improves as the narrative unfolds.

As well as being a moving tale of love and loss, and an insight into Chinese censorship post 1989, I am China is also very much a book for lovers of language and languages.

The narrative, for example, is not constrained by national and linguistic boundaries, moving swiftly from Beijing to Shanghai, Dover to the Hebrides, Switzerland to Paris and finally Crete. Mostly it takes place in London, a city which is fittingly multilingual. On the bus, for example:

“Spanish-speaking, Swahili-speaking, French, German, Swedish, Japanese, Vietnamese, Greek, Turkish, Portuguese, Russian, the voices flood into Iona’s ears […]”.

Language is also integral to the novel’s three main characters. The first of these, Iona, is a young Scottish translator who studied Chinese at SOAS. She has been asked by her publisher to translate a set of diary entries and letters written by two young Chinese lovers. One of them, Jian, is a songwriter in a punk rock band, and a political activist; the other, Mu, is a performance poet. Adrift socially, Iona’s translations are a way of reaching out:

“To delve into words, to live with them circling in her mind, allows her to regain something of life. Perhaps this, most of all, is what enables her to connect.”

When she travels, Mu likes to tape the sounds and conversations around her which, just like Jack Kerouac, she dreams of transcribing into one huge book. Her lover, Jian, is inspired by the Misty Poets to write his own rhetorically-charged manifesto. Language, for all three of them, is essential: it is the medium of work, of art, of protest, of tenderness and of anger.

Critically, the novel hinges on Iona’s acts of translation, a device which means Jian and Mu’s story is slowly revealed to us as she works through the pile of letters and diary entries. As such, I Am China is a fascinating insight into the art and science of translating, and an interesting counter-point to David Bellos’ excellent Is That A Fish In Your Ear?.

For example, as she works, Iona ponders the “many basic difficulties in translating Chinese into English”. In Mandarin, there is “no tense differentiation; no conjugation of verbs; no articles, no inversions in questions […]”. At one point, she worries about how she can translate Jian’s swearing, without completely alienating potential readers. At another, she struggles to capture the stylistic variations in Jian’s writing, or simply to understand his “modern Chinese colloquial idiom”.

At a critical point in the story, as the importance of Mu and Jian’s letters starts to become clear, Iona discusses the concept of intranslatability with her former professor from SOAS. In translating the correspondence of the two lovers, the challenge for Iona becomes more than simply a lack of direct equivalence between words and phrases in Chinese and English. In understanding the text, and ultimately Jian and Mu as individuals, the question is how Iona can “get inside a person’s inner culture.”

What is also interesting, as a linguist, is Guo’s prose. While reading I wondered if very occasionally Guo’s lexical choices – which sometimes felt mismatched to the appropriate register – give her away as a non-native speaker of English (“A bearded man, maybe fifty-odd, with scraggly hair”). But, very possibly, I only arrived at such examples because I was looking for them. In general, the prose is colourfully rich. In French or Mandarin, I could only dream of writing a sentence like “Brandon walks as raindrops pelt down, exploding in his hair, like gobs of pigeon shit”.

Perhaps what is most interesting is what decisions Guo – who is really the person translating the (imagined) writings of Mu and Jian for us – makes in her “translations”. It is fitting that Guo’s principle protagonist worries about the amount of freedom she has as she works, and therefore the power she wields over her two protagonists:

“How much liberty does a translator have? It’s a question that has been playing on Iona’s mind. One has to build or subtract to make a text less obscure. That’s obvious. But Iona feels like something else is going on. Like she herself owns these diaries. Or she has the right to reshape them, or even a duty to do so.”

It’s interesting to speculate why Guo occasionally leaves “untranslated” certain words (“xiang chou” means “homesickness” or “nostalgia”), when Iona probably wouldn’t have:

“China is not here. You are not here. And my manifesto means nothing in this land and to these people. Xiang chou is the only emotion I have. I miss my land.”

Or why she leaves certain taboo expressions in Pinyin:

“Only the sea will ta ma de senselessly stay.”

Or why it is, when Guo translates Mu’s mother’s words about finding “an upright man of bamboo quality”, that she doesn’t find a phrase Western readers would more readily recognise.

A simple explanation is that the author, like Iona, is fully exploiting the freedom she has as a “translator”. And Guo is doing so, of course, for a variety of literary ends. The result is a fascinating book for all students and lovers of language.