Changing the language

Martie 17, 2013

My country is my language – Nicolae Labiş (romanian writer)

I am going to use some momentum following my previous post and tell you a bit about my experience of changing the language. In english!

Multilingualism in today’s Europe is placing us in front of a pool of opportunities. And, as the euro-gov is willing to keep everybody happy, the task is both interesting and frustrating. Developing software systems where each country can have their own version of any language they want, is the cause of my frustration. Usually  frustration arises when one does not understand the problem or he understands the problem but the answer fails logically or doesn’t seem to make much practical sense. A famous quote has it: “Confusion is an order which we haven’t yet understood”.

For instance, Belgium users of the software system I develop should be able to use the application in either french or flamish language. But business says that this is not enough. They should be able to access the system in four variants of these two languages: the Belgium french, the French french, the Belgium dutch and the Dutch dutch. What does this mean? It means that, if Greeks ever happen to provide a dutch translation, then the Belgians should be able to access it. Or, another example, a UK based organisation can, in theory, see a web page in either UK english or French english ( an english translation of the systems provided by any French organisation), Italian english (a english translation of the system provided by some Italian organisation) and the list goes on. The permutations of country – language availability is tantalising. I mean would English use a French translation of their own language?

It makes sense in certain scenarios. Take Romania as an example where we have the romanians living along side the hungarians and the germans as the largest minorities. There is a cross breed sitting in between these three people. The ceangăi comunity, living on the border between romanian Moldova and Transilvania, represents the mix between romanians and the hungarians. As the result of mixing romanians and germans, resulted the saşi [read the şi as the she] minority. I think they share more traits with the germans than romanians but that is another matter. You can find them around Sibiu area, in south Transilvania.

Now, if an organisation belonging to the ceangăi comunity uses my system, she should have the option to choose between a page in hungarian language provided by Hungary or Romania or have their own version because of the dialects they wish to keep. Same goes for the german minority (saşi). These can choose between the official german language provided  by Germans or Romanians or use their their own. Again becasue of the dialects they wish to keep. Interesting, huh? It makes sense but, would a romanian organisation choose her own version of english over the UK english? I don’t think so. Ok, enough of this.

Now, my problem.

Changing the language has an undesired effect on ones life unless the level reached is the one of a native. To quote a romanian essay writer and philosopher, Emil Cioran, who himself changed the language once, the consequences are unthinkable. “A schimba limba este o trădare cu urmări nebănuite.“ – from vol. Scrisori către cei de-acasă. (Letters for dear ones at home) (In my own translation: Renouncing one’s language is high treason carrying unthinkable burdens.)

We speak to convey information. What we say is more important than how we say it. So they say but I think how we do it is equally important. Those who told or read stories to a child know that.  The tempo, the inflexions, the tonality, the flow of the language are important. Otherwise we loose the child’s attention. I experienced this with my daughter many times and I think the same goes in life.

I live and work in a multicultural environment where english established itself as the default language. Romanian is my mother tongue but I was half-bred in England so to speak. I spent 15 years in England, from the age of 22 and that gave me enough ear to spot a ”foreigner”. I am far from speaking anywhere close to the way natives speak although if I want to find out where someone comes from, I ask her to speak english. French are the easiest to spot. Germans too. Brazilians and portguese produce the same accent but it’s difficult to distinguish who is what. If you listen a few times the Poles, you’ll recognize them. Romanians also but is a bit trickier as they may be mistaken for bulgarians though the later produce harder sounds I think. Perhpas greeks and italians speak a simillar english. I find it easier to pick the italian for their  “I thinkaa”.

My first years in England were best for learning world’s accents. Mainly due to the jobs I did. I will never forget Surgi the punjab carpenter or Sivon the jamaican driver, the czech waitress,  the french receptionist or the german housekeeper. All language switchers.

Later was english. Only english-english.

Today, in Brussels, the language circus came back into my life with an unforseen edge of gravity.

Brussels is the place where you can get away with a bad english. It’s weird to hear dressed up men, smart looking women speaking english in a poor accent or shooting words at you in no queue whatsoever. Grammar may be acceptable but like that, the person looses credibility. I repeat, I am far from speaking perfectly but I grew up “taking orders” in english-english not italian-english for instance. I wish to submit to this fact for a moment. It is hard to take these people seriously. I think the words are falling short in front of their target. It’s like wearing a red nose and asking for authority in the mean time.

The man switching the language is in danger of becoming a wrinkled child. The office becomes his kindergarden, the cafetaria his playground where groups of adults play the second language game. His entire appearance changes. When language fails him, in an effort to save meaning, the body language kick in. This can be easily observed. A walk to the cafetaria, taking lunch in the cantine or during a lift ride. Attending speeches can be at least… amusing. It is acceptable on the street, for tourists.

I have the advantage (or disadvantge) that in my job, I dont talk much. Years of programming and a personality leaning towards solitude isn’t always the happiest mix. Hence the need to write perhaps.

I dare comment on this as I am a language switcher myself and I do not mean english is a superior language but it has the advantage of being an easy one to learn, it is melodious, almost feminine. It is graciuous and it is fulfilling its destiny of becoming the language of the modern times. I switched to it by chance in ’94 and I did not realise those qualities until recently, a few years ago.  Cioran realised it for himself but it was already too late for him. He had already become a famous french writer of romanian origins. I pesonally see the quitting of  his own language as a slap to the romanian people. Perhaps not so undiservingly. Later, resigning  to his chosen language, french, whilst angered at the fate of his own people, he declares it a language embraced today only by romanians and africans.

As a man of words and soul, he did recognise the riches of his native language; also when trying to translate the national poet, Mihai Eminescu, into french. Even “marele Eminescu” as he puts it, looses meaning. Translated, he falls short, ridiculous sometimes, sliding into triviality or becoming childish. “Caraghios şi demodat” to use Cioran’s words. These attributes have been translated from french by some romanian translator.

It’s fun watching greeks discussing. It fals on ones years as a quarrel. Italians hit verbally at any ocassion. French talking everyone down, germans marching the corridors and the lesser poles, romanians, belgians responding to requirements. Other nations are under-represented in the ITC office. They exist as topping on the european pizza. Our analist is a nice lad from Spain. The only problem is that he answers your questions before you get to ask them. The previous one, a turk, highly flammable character. His biggest enemy: his mouth. He had to go. What else do we have here? The english chap who, instinctually, non-coercively, tries to get every available resource to work for him. Amusingly, there is always someone ready to serve. Nowadays out of respect, kindness or need. A second generation belgian-iranian, a french of russian roots I suspect, and myself a romanian of some hungarian blood, become british in the process,  married a polish woman and lives in Belgium. I mean, does it get more european than that? More Schuman than Schuman himself.

A wild, reoccurring thought, as I begun to question my own identity: if there was another war in Europe, what side would I fight on? Romanian? English? Polish? It depends who’s fighting who. Of course, the shirt is closer to the skin. Historically speaking, I shouldn’t have a problem making up my mind. These three dear countries fought on the same side of the barricade at one point or another. But isn’t peace this Union is all about? I shouldn’t worry then.

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