Saturday, May 25, 2013

Lingua Franca

Hmmm. It’s been a year and a half since I last wrote anything on this blog. I may write something about the reasons for the stand-still in a later post; at this moment I prefer to linger on what annoys me most about the blog’s status quo: the personal reason for starting it in the first place was to keep my writing practice up, as I had noticed how, after my dissertation, its quality deteriorated too quickly to be raised solely by the time-consuming process of publishing articles. So I had better start blogging again…

Any Anglo-Saxon native, reading this blog, can see within the first few sentences that I am not one of them. Richness in vocabulary, diversity and complexity in grammatical constructs, command of metaphors, florid phraseology, etc.: they are tell-tale signs of a mother tongue and I am one of the reported 700 or so million people who use English as an ‘other’ language. Actually, that is impressively more than those who have learnt it as their first language. Besides the obvious consequences for the evolution of the language, some aspects of this evolution are proving to be of influence on artistic research.

At the Orpheus Institute, the majority of pre- and post-doc researchers come from almost all over the world. Such diversity has made English the working language for all activities at the institute. But with so many different backgrounds in the education of first and secondary (even tertiary) language, linguistic standards sometimes have to be leveled to try and fit efficient expression between both the native and non-native users: the former (try to) adjust vocabulary and grammar to ensure being understood by more basic users, the latter can do little more (in live dialogue) than do their best. The worst case is nonnative-to-nonnative communication, with both sides commanding sets and types of vocabularies and grammatical flexibilities that do not completely overlap. In all cases, the leveling influences both groups’ understanding of each other. To add some nuance: it is not only as difficult for a mother tongue speaker to listen to someone with a faulty command of that language than it is the other way around, it is also as problematic for a native to lower the quality of his tongue than it is for a secondary speaker to raise it.

As much as the leveling can be argued to facilitate some aspects of a live discourse, e.g. speed  and decision making, thereby even giving the impression of efficiency, the result remains a language that can lack the richness required to operate on an qualitatively elevated level of the discourse. Often, I witness native speakers come out on top of a debate just because they can form their arguments more quickly and with more of the necessary convincing nuance than secondary users - the latter sometimes not even succeeding in transferring their thoughts to spoken words in time (or at all). Fortunately, the fleeting nature of live debates can be compensated for in writing, where stillborn discussion can be prevented with dictionaries or quotes from those who are more gifted. Time can help out. But the problem of expressing complex notions with simple sentences remains, despite what proponents of globish are claiming. And time invested in raising the linguistic bar is time lost in productivity: my native English speaking colleagues publish more easily, more quickly and therefore just more than I. Of course, I am well aware that my English is not bad, cherishing my TOEFL results and the praise from native speakers, but I am still self-conscious about it to the point that I don’t think I want anyone to know how much time I spend on writing these blog posts.

The impact of language on the distribution of research is a more stressing point. A few years ago a prize-winning DMA dissertation was published in which the overview of the existing literature included a seminal 1970s musicological study on the main subject. That the latter had been written in German and was out of print was argued to be a reason for starting the English doctoral study that led to the new book: it aimed to reach performers all over the world, who cannot be presumed to have access to academic out of print German scholarship. I agree that it is worthwhile to republish some older publication’s results instead of merely referring to them, if that reaches a wider audience and when that audience can be expected to benefit from those insights. However, at least at one place in that new thesis, it is clear that the author had not read the German study. Tell-tale of the depth of the problem is the fact that this got past the promotor.

Perhaps more to the point than hoping for someone to translate out of print German 1970’s publications, would be the thought that, today, it seems risky to write about music in a language other than English. For myself, it was clear from the beginning that writing a dissertation on extended piano techniques in Dutch would reach maybe 10 pianists. In English, it has easily and quickly reached hundreds, without any active marketing. (See here.) On the other side of the spectrum, I know of scholars that refuse to write in another than their mother tongue, happy to limit their target audience to their countrymen and even declining offers to have their work translated. The better of those do keep up with the literature in other languages, the worst also limit their horizons to their native language. And they’re not only the older scholars from the more chauvinistically inclined countries. I have seen more than one frustrated Facebook status from promoters deploring how their students are not fluent anymore beyond their mother tongue. The distribution sector seems to go along with this: in The Cambridge History of Musical Performance, not one of the four chapters on twentieth-century music has a single reference to a non-English language source, excepting a reference to one ‘as cited in’ an English book. (I thank Ian Pace for having pointed this out on Facebook – I still don’t know how to reference a FB friend’s status update from four months ago.)

And so I find myself, sometimes, wondering whether to choose digging into non-English literature to keep as wide as possible a view on the evolutions in my field, or focusing on great English prose to keep up my command of this wonderful language. Here’s what I like languishing in, for instance: Michael J. Alexander’s 1989 “The Evolving Keyboard Style of Charles Ives”. Not because I need to know what’s in it – I have read (in) it more than once – but because it is so well written that it inspires me. Perhaps that is the quality that earned it the Outstanding Dissertations In British Universities award of its year. But much depends on the research subject: at present, I am engrossed in the Kagel project, for which 98% of the literature is in German. My German is good enough for reading, corresponding and even taking interviews, but I wouldn’t send in an article in that language without the help of a native speaker, and the Kagel literature is in scholarly German. It is inconceivable that I carry out the research without thoroughly going through all of it (and not just browsing), so several types of dictionaries are in the immediate vicinity of wherever I read up on the subject. I can’t imagine starting on a project of the same scope that would require a serious amount of Scandinavian literature. And yet, over there, they carry out research as well, most of it not translated into English. It’s been a while, already, since my to-do list includes a trip to the Danish national library to investigate a certain composer’s work, but compiling an overview of what has already been done, over there, has proven impossible without a basic knowledge of Danish , or without the help of someone who possesses that.

The dilemma of choosing research topics on the basis of the language in which most of the relevant primary or even secondary verbal sources are written can be different in artistic research compared to academia. Many AR projects are still possible for which only the context may require polyglot skills, since so much has not been researched before from within artistic practice. I wrote ‘may require polyglot skills’, for AR is very much an English matter: I would be hard-pressed to remember one AR project that I did not learn of by hearing it presented at an English-spoken conference, or by reading of it in an English publication. All the conferences on or in AR that I have known have been in English, even when organized in France (which was by the AEC – the Association of European Conservatoires), where opposition against academic anglicisation is still strong.

A less uplifting difference between AR and academic choice of writing language may be that performers and composers have had less training – or exposure to relevant requirements – in different languages than scholars. I remember, in the US, that academic PhD candidates had to prove proficiency in a second and third language, something not expected (there & then) from musicians. For academic classes, non-native language literature had to be prepared, again not a condition sine qua non in artistic curricula. That may have changed, but I expect it would be in the sense that academic requirements in this matter have been let go of as much as or more than musicians being taught multi-lingual skills at a more sufficiently high level. At any rate, EU AR is different from US composition-PhD and DMA work in the early 1990’s in that the latter have – on average – more of a stress on the composition/performance than on the research qualities of the dissertation. And I know that the US must not be presented as a pars pro toto in matters of non-native language mastery. (As detailed in here.)

I remember, two decades ago, that Arabic was predicted to become a practical world language (meaning that, instead of being spoken by a very large population, it would be used across non-Arabic cultures) – the rise in Belgian students reportedly wanting to learn Arabic was sudden and (relatively) impressive. Not long after that, I first heard of sinology. But neither Arabic nor Chinese (nor Spanish, etc.) are expected to replace English: a 2012 English Proficiency Report states that the British Council predicts 2 billion people to be actively learning English by 2020. That same report analyses how innovation thrives on English.

It was always explained to me that one shouldn’t learn Italian and Spanish simultaneously, so I used to have the hardest time deciding between the latter (to get around in the world) or the former (for its historical literature and relevance for musical practice). Being a researcher, now, and expected to write for my living, I think I best keep blogging in English. This post is long enough, though, so 'off I go', back to my article on keyboard clusters in 18th century France and Germany…


Anna Scott said...

Thanks for this Luk!
My personal struggles with this issue come from the other side, stemming from the frequent thinly-veiled accusations levelled at those like myself on the subject of lingual parity/facility. Just last week I was receiving praise about the quality of a piece I'd written, when someone interjected, "well of course it was good, SHE'S a 'native' speaker!" While the highly competitive nature of academic and AR environments tend to raise temperatures, a few issues need further discussion.
The first is that many Europeans seem to assume that anglophones are as bothered by hearing our language spoken differently as they are. The consensus amongst the anglophone academics/performers I've discussed this with seems to be that this is resoundingly untrue - we automatically listen for content rather than delivery, as we are so used to hearing English spoken by non-anglo speakers. I know I'd prefer to hear a lecture from someone struggling to express themselves in English, thus using direct language, rather than one of those consciously jargon-heavy lectures from an Anglophone.
Secondly, every language has a varying range between 'common' usage and 'literary' or 'academic.' English happens to be particularly wide in this sense. As such, extremely few anglos can write or converse at an academic level - most fall somewhere between Grade 8-10, the level of most English newspapers. Therefore, lingual activities in academic spheres are not 'easy' for anglophones, but are skills that must be tirelessly learned/honed.
Granted, writing in English will always be eas[ier] for us than non-anglophones, but modes of evaluation should be adjusted depending on one's native language. Upon reading proposals for a recent conference, even when the content was brilliant, submissions in poor English from anglophones was seen as a red-flag tending to result in rejection, while brilliant content in poor English from non-native English speakers was appraised positively - as it should be.
Thirdly, every time someone says 'of course your writing is good, you're a native speaker, it's easy' (it happens weekly), I try to explain that I didn't magically end up with above-average writing capabilities because I'm an anglophone. I'm an anomaly in EU AR. 1st because I was raised by an academic. 2nd because I studied medicine before music. 3rd because I - like most anglo music students - was required to write and read well to keep my place in university/conservatory music schools. I'm remembering a signed SONY classical artist who was kicked out of a NYC conservatory for failing her writing assignments; another for not passing her TOEFL exams; and another for failing written assignments in the Languages, Sciences and Humanities electives that were part and parcel of a music degree. So as I see the very different lingual training required of European music students, in their own language, I understand why they think 'it's easy' for me. They don't realize that to get here, I had to learn to write - and well.
I think what I'm getting at is that it's too simple to blame lack of lingual parity on the challenges of operating outside of one's native tongue. I worry that EU music students are arriving in pre- and post-doc AR spheres horribly ill-equipped linguistically, even within their own languages. When administering AR exams to music students presenting in Dutch, even I spot grammatical and syntactical errors in their language use: a skill whose development/evaluation had clearly not been a factor in them obtaining a graduate degree in music. Should these students elect to carry on and pursue AR at higher levels, I wonder what effect not being pushed to perform in their native language will have once their skills are translated into another...? -A.

luk said...

Thanks for the comment, Anna.
Re 1: I myself never thought it self-evident that anyone would speak or write well in a native language. I did hear of criticism by native 'anglos' that the level of non-anglo teachers in some doctoral curriculum wasn't good enough, though. Be that as it may, I do think there's a bottom line below which communication is hampered, how much you listen for content.
As for 2: I will have to think more about whether it should indeed be so that great content in poor anglo-english should be rejected vs. accepted if in poor non-native English. Maybe there's the same limit there too.
3: I can't judge how easy or difficult it is for a native writer. What I know very well, is that I can write two articles in Dutch in the time that it takes me to write one in English.
Your last remark: in my experience (and that of friends that I talked to about this), it is certainly true that trying to acquire and maintain proficiency in more than one language is detrimental to the mastery of one of them, even the native one. (There's people like Nabokov, of course, but I consider those to be the exceptions that prove the rule.) That's the reason for which, since I started writing in English as part of my new profession, I purposefully gave up my aspirations to continue Italian lessons, and to get better at my written German and French. I even hesitate to read substantial amounts of literature in e.g. French (I really felt like starting A la recherche du temps perdu, last summer) when writing on a German subject.

Anna Scott said...

I agree there's a level of proficiency below which communication breaks down, though I certainly haven't experienced it yet from non-anglo academic lecturers. Being in AR in EU has forced me to find clear ways of expressing myself, while sensitizing me to the struggles of those operating outside their native tongue. I can't imagine speaking/publishing in anything other than English/French. Luckily I probably will never have to ;)
On the second point, perhaps as English becomes the medium and engine for AR in EU, better and more transparent modes of evaluation are needed. I'd advocate for brilliant content over delivery every time, but I think we're both arguing that proficiency of delivery has far-reaching impacts. I tend to judge poor delivery from anglos harshly, but I certainly wouldn't argue that this is best practice...
Your last point is intriguing. I can't say that my English language skills have changed in any way other than for the better when mastering other languages. I studied every subject in school in French until 18, though my sole high school English class was where I really 'became' a good writer. In my Masters, where my English language doctoral AR project took shape, I supported myself by working entirely in French at a local restaurant. And now of course I'm trying to gain Dutch proficiency. It has always been my experience that I got leaner and more efficient in my native tongue while learning another, but perhaps when you start adding a 4th, 5th and 6th language things get a bit nuts!
I guess in an ideal world, multi-lingual AR collectives like ORCiM or docArtes could be a place where researchers help each other, but as we know the practicalities and time restrictions we all face are palpable. I try to help anyone who asks me to edit their papers, time allowing. But it's hard!

Ian Pace said...

A tiny correction - not one of the four chapters on twentieth-century music in the Cambridge History of Musical Performance has a non-English language reference. Those on other periods or subjects have plenty.

luk said...

Thanks for that, Ian - I corrected the relevant paragraph.