The Bloem Diaries – Part 5: Of airports, pub quizzes and choosing beggars

I decide to work in one of the restaurants on Campus, hoping coffee would ease my writer’s block. Instead, I find myself watching the spectacle at the table next to me, and making angry mental comments.

No, they cannot bring a bowl to your table so that you can wash your hands. Yes, you actually do have to get up, walk (the horror!) and wash your hands in the public bathroom. With the commoners. Hardships. I am sure that yelling at the waitress just now will make the long trip easier to tolerate for you. Then you might get offended at the sign for the integrated bathroom. Yeah, they have those. For the LGBTIQ(add more letters here) community and just for everyone, really.

Apparently the toilet was quite far away (spoiler alert: it really is not, 50m at most but yes, you actually have to walk there with your own two feet). “Man, these guys are unbelievable, oh. I had to walk far, it’s like these guys are not a restaurant. Oh! Two missed calls.” (Please *do* read this part with a very exaggerated Nigerian accent).

The guy then proceeds to touching his phone before eating his chicken wings with the same hand (our cell phones generally have more bacteria than a toilet seat…). People and logic.

Before paying his bill in a hurry he explains to the waitress that he hates travelling because “you always spend so much money when you travel, oh. Then the airports and all that it is such a hassle” I am sure the waitress understands, as she herself is probably flying business class to Joburg this week-end and getting the flight for free because of all the miles she has accumulated on her Bloemfontein waitress salary… As my new Nigerian friends leave the restaurant, she lets out a sigh of relief.

Because relationships between people in Bloemfontein are so strongly influenced by race, you have to look closely in order to pick up on other variables that structure social interactions, such as social class or gender. Unfortunately, sexism seems to be one of the few things that many men here seem to agree on, regardless of race. Sexism, religion and braaing, the holy trinity of this nation.

The UFS campus is like a microcosm of the country. Yes, the students hail mainly from the middle and upper middle class, but what does that mean? Some of them come to campus in their own cars. However, many students cannot afford food and regularly go hungry. I overheard a girl talking to her friend the other day: “My mum told me I have to call my dad. He has to send me money. She doesn’t have. He is not picking up the phone. If I don’t get anything from him by tomorrow, I won’t be able to buy food until I get my allowance at the end of the month.“ The date was August 14th.

A buffet lunch with fresh vegetables in the staff restaurant costs about 100 Rand, while a portion of French fries sold in the students’ food court costs about 10-20 Rand. Some students cannot afford to eat anything else than bread and milk. Sometimes junk food. Obesity is rampant on campus and in town. Middle class is a very elastic term. Indeed, it seems that, as far as Africa is concerned, the World Bank prefers the term “floating class”. This is used to describe individuals who are just barely part of the middle class and who might be thrown back into poverty by a single unfortunate event (an illness, a death in the family, a car accident, unemployment, …).

Having studied in Switzerland, I am not used to the idea of a campus as a self-contained space for both learning and living. In Bloemfontein, many students and many foreign post-doctoral researchers live on campus. Apparently, life events also happen on campus. I have to drive around the roundabout close to my office in the wrong direction today because wedding photos are being taken. A group of girls is posing with the bride, while the groom and his pals sit behind the photographer and watch. It would never have occurred to me that someone would want to take wedding photos in front of a student dorm.

Two explanations come to my mind: Either these students have an exceptional level of attachment to their alma mater; or the fraternity and sorority culture found in many of the older dorms does indeed bear resemblance to a religious cult. Maybe a bit of both.

As I watch the bride and groom with their entourage, it occurs to me that weddings, baptisms and funerals are probably some of the most segregated events in Bloemfontein. Sitting together in a restaurant (at different tables, obviously!) is one thing, sharing the most important events in one’s life with one another is a different matter altogether. Only 4% of marriages in South Africa are between members of different races, Wikipedia tells me. Most of those probably occur in major urban centres, such as Johannesburg or Cape Town, rather than in Bloemfontein.

Although 85 % of the population in Bloemfontein is black, space is still predominantly occupied by the white minority. The train tracks, the traditional dividing line between black and white in Apartheid-era cities, still cuts the city in half. While no strict segregation is currently being enforced, the overwhelming majority of people on the ‘white’ side are white, and apparently no white people live on the black side at all (I suppose their must be a crazy missionary and some anthropologist hiding from deadlines, every city seems to have them). The white or rich side of town takes up approximately two thirds of the urban space in Bloemfontein. All the malls are here, so is the campus, and individual houses have large compounds. The black, i. e. poor, side of town takes up the remaining third of the city. More than 80% of the population lives here. Many students commute every day from the other side of town or even from Botshabelo, a former “Homeland”, 57km from Bloemfontein. If four times more people live on an area half as big than the remaining 20% that means that every person living on the white side of town has eight times more space available for themselves than those on the other side.

Let that sink in for a minute.

I tried hard and my brain cannot quite compute this reality.

No wonder that the malls and restaurants often seem to be half-empty. They are build for a city of 300’000, but only maybe 10% of the population can afford to use them. If one considers that white people make up only about 15% of the population, the number of restaurants and bars that seem to attract only white patrons is quite surprising. Staff are black though (no, not management, I mean waiters…). Despite her very limited English skills, Alamnesh summarises it for me nicely “Supervisors white. Speak English very fast. Not understand. Cleaners black. English slow. Understand.” I think she is ready to face the work place.

The pub quiz that takes place once a month on Tuesdays in an Irish pub situated in an upper class residential area that is impossible to reach without a car is an almost all white event. As I walk in, I can see one black girl sitting at a table with three white people. She looks uncomfortable, as if brought along more as a project than a friend. About an hour later, a black guy walks in and sits down with his group of friends at a table close to ours. He looks unfazed by the presence of roughly 200 semi-drunk white people. A sign of my growing cynicism is that my first thought is “He must not be from here.”

But that thought is not entirely unwarranted. Indeed, I seem to have developed a certain degree of intuition in this regard. One day, while ordering food in one of the fast food joints in the student food court, I end up dropping some papers. A tall guy immediately gets up from his chair to pick them up, handing them to me with a nod. He looks me straight in the eyes and smiles when I thank him. I cannot explain why, but I know there is something odd going on. The way he looked at me, his body language as I sit down on the bar stool next to his, the way in which he just acknowledges me as nothing more and nothing less than another human being. The way he does not feel the need to establish any kind of ranking between us. The way he just behaves perfectly normally around me. The realisation comes to me in a flash “You are not South African”.

It is not a question, it is a statement. He grins. “No, I am not. I am from Congo. Do you know Congo?” We end up chatting for quite some time. He is on campus for a conference, he studied medicine here many years ago, now lives in Kimberly with his wife. Their children are growing up in South Africa. He likes it here although he was afraid several years ago that he might be targeted by the wave of violence that had broken out against Zimbabweans, Congolese and other African migrants in many South African towns. But he is a doctor, his patients are South Africans and he enjoys good relationships with them. Once again, things are just easier when you are educated and able to earn a comfortable living.

The second such incident involves an exceptionally chatty and friendly waiter. This time, I do not have to ask, since the South African colleagues I am with notice by his accent that he is not a local and ask where he is from. I cannot yet tell the difference between South African and Zimbabwean accents. What made me realize that the guy was a foreigner was the fact that he was smiling all the time, and that he did so with a hint of irony, as if to detach himself from the whole situation.

What surprises me about the pub quiz is that I am so good at it. It takes me a few questions to come to the realization that that is mostly because every single question is about European culture. Name the statue on Trafalgar Square. What British actor was the voice of Marvin in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Even the musical questions, where they play the beginning of a song and you have to guess the name of the band, are about “white” music (Smash Mouth, I mean, seriously?).

To be fair, there are even a few questions about Latin America. We have to identify the capital of Chile and the name of the lawyer who started the Cuban revolution. We also have to identify a mountain in Asia.

It is surreal. For about three hours I feel like I am in Britain. Not a single question about South Africa (not even sports) or even any other African country. As if one of the objectives of the quiz was to allow people to forget where we are for a few hours. As if any question one could ask about this country could spark controversy.

A big part of this is the political situation, the lack of real change, the corruption, and what is perceived as incompetence and mismanagement at the highest levels. “The ANC is destroying the country. Politics is the reason people fight. Actually, everyone in this country agrees that we have great potential and everyone wants to live together in peace. If only we didn’t have politics, everyone in South Africa would get along.” You hear this a lot from white South Africans. Just what the alternative would be is not clear.

It is undeniable that the hatred between racial groups is exploited by many politicians, namely within the ANC and the EFF. It is equally undeniable that corruption is rampant in South Africa. But so is inequality and poverty. And no one has yet presented me with a convincing recipe for handing over power to a formerly oppressed category of society without creating any sort of backlash. Especially in a country where the differences between rich and poor are huge, where millions of people are infected with HIV/Aids, where the general level of education is low, where a dozen languages co-exist, and where the population was taught to hate each other for several decades. The argument that racism is something that is propped up by politicians is generally accompanied by stories about people mislabeling themselves as victims. And yes, these examples exist: You don’t want to queue in the post office? Claim you are not being helped immediately because people are racist. You don’t want to go through the trouble of writing high-level academic publications? Claim you are not being promoted because of your skin colour.

While these stories do exist, they are wrongly used to justify the idea that racism is just a trope people use to get away with stuff, not a real problem. I volunteer a story of my own: “I have heard of cases where female PhD students falsely claimed to be sexually harassed by their supervisors because they were not able to finish their work on time. That is terrible for the supervisors. But the truth is that harassment actually happens a lot, so if you want to treat claims about it seriously, you run the risk that some people might abuse the system.”

Silence. It is much more complicated than any individual story would suggest. Here, it always is.

Earlier that morning, I downloaded a podcast about South African writers and was excited to listen to the episode about Bram Fischer. A white South African lawyer who fought against Apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela. The airport in Bloemfontein is named after him and he lived and worked here. Finally a person from this city that I could really get interested in. The podcast begins with some house-keeping, before the journalist moves on to to the main topic. “This episode is about Bram Fischer. The president South Africa should have had.”

I switch it off. Not today. Maybe another time, but just not today.

Yes, everyone wants to get along. Unfortunately, everyone also wants to have a car, eat food, own land and fulfill their professional ambitions. When all those things are scarce, it is no longer that easy to just get along. Especially when the top 10% hoards the vast majority of these resources and leaves nothing to the rest, especially when people of one race are particularly over-represented in that top layer of society.

By the way, that also leads to an over-representation of their language. You might wonder why I keep mentioning Afrikaans and remain silent about Sesotho, the language spoken by the actual majority of people in this town. I have pondered this question and found essentially four interlinked answers:

  1. I pick up Afrikaans words easily because it is close to English and German.
  2. People tend to speak to me in Afrikaans everywhere, simply because I am white.
  3. Afrikaans is visible everywhere in the city, product labels are usually in English and Afrikaans, while Sesotho is completely invisible.
  4. Afrikaans can be heard in the corridors of the department where I work. It is a small department, with 8 academic staff. Three are foreigners and speak neither Afrikaans not Sesotho. Of the remaining five, only one is black and a Sesotho speaker. The other four are white and their mother tongue is Afrikaans. The Sesotho speaker is not a crazy person. Consequently, he does not walk around the corridors loudly conversing in his language with himself just so that I can hear it a little.

Once again, this invert proportion runs through the upper echelons of society: what was 80-20 at the beginning becomes 20-80 once you reach the top. A lot of people disappear on the way up. More than 90% of professors at UFS are white.

All my colleagues in the department are extremely generous, open-minded, progressive and tolerant human beings. They are what this environment tried hard to prevent from existing, yet somehow produced despite itself. The lack of representation in the department is not their fault. This situation is the product of a system that is bigger and older than them, bigger and older than all of us.

I wish I could be certain of who I would be, had I grown up in this environment. It is a scary thought, that makes me respect them even more.

And, no, not all white people in Bloemfontein are rich. In fact, whenever I drive to town, I see quite a lot of white people begging at one specific red light. Obviously, also black people, and they are by far more numerous. But they have their own intersections.

In Bloemfontein, it seems, even beggars are choosers.

Men on a Plane – Development Sector Edition

I recently watched Paula Stone William’s Ted talk, which I can warmly recommend:

In it, Paula describes how her life has changed since she transitioned from male to female. She starts with an anecdote about a man refusing to let her sit in her assigned seat on a plane.

This anecdote struck a nerve with me, and probably with any other woman who frequently travels for work. Day after day we experience countless small humiliations. We intuitively know that a man would not have these experiences, but we don’t fully understand why.

I recently returned from a short work trip to a country where frankly not many people would go for tourism. Most international travelers go there on mission for their national government, a UN agency, development NGOs or humanitarian organizations. I was travelling as a consultant for one of these organizations.

The flight back, one of the rare connections with the possibility of an onwards flight to Geneva, turned out to be a genuine ‘Who is Who’ of the Swiss development sector: SECO, the SDC, and many major Swiss development NGOs were represented on the medium sized plane. You might wonder how I know this…

There is a reason I choose the aisle seat when I travel for work. I like to get up regularly without bothering anyone. This was a very early morning flight so my hope was that I would spend most of it asleep. Apparently my fellow travellers had other plans. The gentleman sitting next to me, a Swiss national in his 40s (let’s call him ‘Jacques’), had a friend or colleague on the same flight, whose seat was a few rows behind. Given that he was “stuck” in the middle seat, his friend, also a Swiss national but probably in his late 30s (let’s call him ‘Bernard’), eventually decided to stand in the aisle, just next to my seat, for a lengthy chat.

Bernard also seized this opportunity to introduce Jacques to another guy (let’s call him ‘Thomas’), who was sitting directly in front of me and promptly stood up as well, turning around. Thomas was German, in his late 40s. The three men formed a rather close triangle around me and started talking about work. It turns out Jacques was from SECO, Bernard from the SDC and Thomas was country director for a major Swiss NGO.

Bernard, Jacques and Thomas had me surrounded. They talked loudly, directly over my head. It was blatantly obvious that I was trying to sleep – while I was initially listening to their conversation with my eyes closed, I eventually opened my eyes, making it o-b-v-i-o-u-s that they had just woken me up. They never even flinched. They exchanged contacts, tips about where best to go hiking in some of the countries they had been, discussed people they might know in common. They even tried to draw another guy into the conversation “So, do you also work in the development sector?”

As Bernard was travelling back home with his family, his kid eventually joined the conversation, contributing to it mainly by repeatedly pushing my chair and bumping into my leg.

At no point in their conversation did it occur to these gentlemen that I was trying to sleep, that they were invading my space and being extremely inconsiderate to another human being. What was even more obvious: at no point did it occur to them that they could have tried their networking catchphrase (“So, do you also work in the development sector?”) on me and that, unlike the guy sitting next to them, I would actually have been able to answer it.

For twenty minutes, these three men were talking over my head, completely oblivious to my existence. They had created a circle of equals that was literally and figuratively placed above the head of a young woman. Men networking with men. Guys exchanging notes on guy stuff to do in remote regions of the planet (outdoors activities and extreme sports, obviously, it is always about sports). Since they never bothered to question their assumption that I was probably just a student or some kind of volunteer travelling back home, they remained unaware of the fact that I am currently studying the communication practices of the Swiss development sector and that I was furiously taking mental notes. Anthropologists call it direct observation – it is what you do when you are not a participant-observer. That is usually difficult because most human beings acknowledge the existence of another person that is situated in their immediate physical environment… I realized I had inadvertently made a methodological breakthrough: Being a young woman  provides you with an invisibility cloak – who would have known?

Initially, I was angry at myself for remaining silent. Yet, in the face of such an obvious lack of consideration from people whose path I might cross in a professional context one day, I simply did not know what to say. “I am trying to sleep” seemed such a stupidly obvious thing to say to people who supposedly earn their income by being attentive to the needs of others.

After having to ask for permission to cross the aisle four or five times, the flight attendant finally lost it and asked the two gentlemen blocking her path to kindly sit down. They were visibly unhappy, promptly made faces at each other and joked about her being bossy. This was a young woman whose job actually involves telling passengers what to do on a plane.

Had she been a male flight attendant, these men would have complied without so much as a frown. Had I been a male passenger, they would have never dared talk directly over my head and invade my personal space as much as they did.

How do I know this? It is one of the things you learn when you grow up as a woman. By the time you are an adult you have internalized it, by the time you are a few years into your professional life, you have normalized it.

On ne naît pas femme, on le devient.

An ode to bad English

If you do not understand the urgency of a common language and the damaging effects that unmediated  language barriers can have on social cohesion, equality, and well-being, I suggest you spend some time in South Africa. 

I did not choose my mother tongue.

At best, I could argue that my parents chose it for me, based on the instruments they had at their disposal. They chose it for me over and over again, not only by speaking to me in a certain language, but by sending me to a specific school, in a specific country, at a specific time. How much of this was really a choice is up for debate – realistically, not much, although my parents probably had more agency than most people on this planet.

At worst, I can see my language as something transmitted through my family from one generation to another, like our genes. Something we did not choose and that we are doomed to perpetuate. The difference is that, while we cannot choose to transmit only certain genes to our children (unless we decide not to have children or adopt children that do not carry out genes), we can choose not to transmit our language to our children. People who decide to do exactly that are often condemned by a left-leaning, polyglot intelligentsia, who feels that multilingualism is the prerequisite for cultural autonomy and should therefore be preserved at all cost. In reaction to earlier ideas about superior and inferior cultures, about civilized and uncivilized peoples and advanced vs. primitive languages, post-modernist thinking popularized the idea that multilingualism is an inherent advantage and something to be celebrated.

And yet, humanity has long felt that the fact that not all human beings speak the same language is a rather unfortunate state of affairs that requires explanation. Myths about the origin of multilingualism abound in different cultures. The Tower of Babel is the culprit most familiar to Europeans, while the Aztecs held that multilingualism resulted from a Great Flood:

“[Only] a man, Coxcox, and a woman, Xochiquetzal, survive, having floated on a piece of bark. They found themselves on land and begot many children who were at first born unable to speak, but subsequently, upon the arrival of a dove were endowed with language, although each one was given a different speech such that they could not understand one another.”
(Source: Wikipedia: Mythical Origins of Language)

All these myths view multilingualism at best as something inconvenient and at worst as a punishment. I would argue that, while academia is out celebrating our diversity and inability to understand each other as a source of great wealth, the reality for many people is much more closely aligned with the myths of old. There is a disturbing discrepancy between theory and practice as far as multilingualism is concerned, and it intersects with considerations about power, access and equality.

Don’t get me wrong: I am happy that I speak several languages. I am glad that I have learned different ways of describing things that allow me to talk to many people. I understand that knowing more languages allows me to speak to more people, therefore, learning languages is something that I believe should be encouraged at least unless we find a better solution to achieve the same outcome, i.e. communication and mutual comprehension.

Whenever I have been faced with a situation where I was unable to communicate with another person because we lacked a common language, this has been a source of frustration. It gave rise to this nagging feeling that I was missing out on something, unable to explore my common humanity with the person in front of me. Never once have I been unable to communicate with a person and thought that this was reason for celebration, that it was a wonderful thing that we were separated by language. Never once have I heard anyone say, whether directly, in a language that I understand, or through a language mediator, “Wow, I am so glad I don’t speak your language”. The fact is, we enjoy communicating. We like understanding one another. Speaking the same language helps us do that. There is a reason why refer to the opposite scenario as there being a language ‘barrier’.

Languages are furthermore unequal in terms of power. While the effort that goes into learning a language is enormous for any language, the returns on this investment vary greatly. Indeed, some languages allow us to access mountains of information and communicate with hundreds of millions of people, while others might only give us access to a very small community. Some languages help us find jobs, others do not. Some languages allow us to go through higher education, others do not. I am not arguing that this is a good thing. I am simply arguing that this is a thing. Denying it will not get us anywhere.

I am convinced that there is nothing inherently wrong with Sesotho, Kikamba, and Tamil – the argument that some languages are inherently superior to others and therefore more suitable to be global languages or languages of scientific discovery is simplistic, outdated and lacking in empirical evidence. It is also an argument often made from an overtly or covertly racist perspective.

English is not better than Sipedi but it is bigger. The reality is that certain languages have emerged as dominant in the world today, while others have remained marginal, through absolutely no fault of their own. The reality is that I am glad that a lot of academic production happens in languages that I have access to, that I am glad that I was lucky to be born speaking languages that made it fairly easy for me to learn English later in life. The reality is that an insufficient mastery of English is detrimental to the advancement of otherwise highly competent academics, and prevents millions of people from accessing higher education and taking part in scientific debates, and that this is deeply unfair. So how could I condemn a mother for wanting their children to have the same advantages? How could I argue that people should preserve their language at all cost, even if it is detrimental to their own economic and social status?

We have to acknowledge that, for any individual, it is easier to gain access to education, information, markets and international travel by learning one of the dominant languages, rather than by engaging in a fight to raise the status of their own language until it becomes equal to those dominant languages. That fight, besides being unlikely to succeed, could last several generations, would require a sustained and concerted effort, and might not benefit any individual participant in their lifetime. Language learning is comparatively shorter, easier and more likely to result in immediate gains for a given individual. Once an individual has gone through this process of mastering a dominant language, the incentives for them are high to allow their children to take a shortcut: although the next generation might still speak the parents’ mother tongue at home, they might go to school in English or another more dominant language, so as to ensure that they pick it up while they are still small. When political incentives point in the other direction, for instance by encouraging public education to be organized exclusively in the national/local language, this cements exclusion even further, in particular in developing countries: the rich send their children to English-only private schools, while the poor must accept that their offspring learns biology from outdated textbooks in their mother tongue, sometimes donated by generous missionaries who, incidentally, inserted a few of their own ideas about the origins of humanity into the chapters on evolution.

“She is saying we should all speak English, right? She is saying we should all be Americanized, part of the global empire, right?”

No, I am not.

I am saying that humanity would benefit from having a shared medium of communication, and that English is currently the language that is most likely to become this globally shared medium. From where we currently stand, we might end up embracing different scenarios. Below, I briefly explore three possible scenarios: rejection, assimilation and appropriation. Saying these exist is, however, not the same as saying that they are good. Indeed, this whole article is merely a thought experiment.

Option 1: Rejection

I write in English because I want to reach as many people as I can and because most of my friends are able to at least partly understand what I am writing here. The others might be able to figure most of it out by relying on – rudimentary yet constantly improving – tools like Google Translate. So I am clearly not an Option 1 practitioner.

But what would option 1 look like? Option 1 is the resistance. Everyone promoting their own language over English, through political pressure and personal activism. If you are an academic and want to be part of Option 1 it will involve publishing your papers in non-English journals and accepting the loss this entails in terms of impact factor and related measurements. It will involve systematically reading the available literature on your topics of interest in all available languages, not only English and not only the languages you have access to. Sitting down with a translator to help you figure out what a fellow scientist of the Option 1 persuasion working in Goa and publishing in his mother tongue has to say about transcultural communication, milk production or climate change.

Option 1 might become feasible if we manage to hack automatic translation to the point where it is seamless accross all languages. If we develop a technology that resembles the Babel Fish in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Option 1 is a multlingual utopia – sign me up, I’m all for it. It would allow me to immediately communicate with people who are radically different from me and understand them better. I love it.

The problem with option 1 is feasibility.

Option 2: Assimilation

English is the future, English is the world language, let’s all embrace English by reading Mark Twain, watching Baseball and celebrating Thanksgiving with stuffed Turkey. When was Boxing Day again? Are we getting discounts, too?

Option 2 is total assimilation into the currently dominant culture associated with the English language. Option 2 entails polishing your accent until you sound like a Texan, consuming American pop culture until you only laugh about their jokes, abandoning your own cultural practices until we are all the same.

Assimilation has two main disadvantages. The first one is obviously that we might not consider the American way to be the best way for humanity. The second is that history teaches us that human beings have an innate tendency to distinguish between an ingroup and an outgroup. When people speak different languages, these become a “natural” barrier between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. When people speak the same language, they will still find a way to create groups, often along even more sinister lines: skin colour, religion, gender, wealth, sexual orientation. Speaking one language is not a solution for identity politics, it will not abolish differences, it will simply change the criteria we apply. Also, the expectation of native-level competency creates a hierarchy between individuals and excludes those who cannot make it. The idea that all people on the planet will reach native-level competency in American English is entirely unrealistic – let’s remember that many Americans, some of them in positions of power, have to date not mastered this feat.

The problem with option 2 is desirability and feasibility. Option 2 is not very lucky I guess.

Option 3: Appropriation

This option combines elements of the first two, but does not present the same problems with regards to feasibility. It boils down to owning the English language, relating to it in a more utilitarian way. Making it a tool for communication that no single culture, country, or group of individuals can own. You can call it ‘Globish’, ‘Global English’, ‘English as a Lingua Franca’ (ELF), or Simple English. It does not really matter. I call it ‘L2-English’ but you will see below why this term has serious limitations.

As more and more people with different native languages and experiences enter the global communication space, this transactional form of L2-English can evolve into a pidgin, incorporating elements of other languages, ideas from a variety of cultures, concepts relating to opposing worldviews, accents that reveal multiple layers of personal identity and linguistic biography. Option 3 activism involves owning English and changing it. It involves reading multiple Englishes, never laughing at someone because of their accent, assessing academic papers based on content rather than style. It involves, to a certain extent, developing the ability to dissociate what people say from how they say it. Abandoning ideas about linguistic purity, norms, rights and wrongs. Using language as a purely pragmatic, utilitarian instrument for communication.

You might argue that this will invariably be followed by another Tower of Babel event, the emergence of several varieties of L2-English that gradually become mutually incomprehensible. Not really. We now have technology that allows us to communicate globally, in real-time. Information flows faster than ever before. Intercomprehension is lost when contact is lost. We are no longer condemned to lose contact from those who are geographically far from us.

However, the real problem with L2-English is that it will quickly become a mother tongue, i.e. only language, for a new generation. This might mean that our relationship to language might change, that certain ways of expressing ideas are lost even though the ideas themselves are not (whether one can really separate the two is a debate for another day, for the sake of argument let’s say that yes, we can express the same idea in different ways and therefore ideas and style are to some extent separable from one another…). It might entail a phase of linguistic impoverishment that would, however, invariably be followed by a new phase of enrichment: We are still the same people, capable of the same genius, so why should L2-English not produce its own poets and language virtuosos? Every language has evolved from a simpler ancestor.

The problem with option 3 is that we do not really know where it will take us.

Where next?

The might be many other options that I have not explored in this post. However, from where I currently stand, the world looks like it will move towards Option 3. This does not mean that this is necessarily the best option, merely that it seems to be the most likely.

Option 2, on the other hand, looks increasingly unlikely, especially since America is not exactly gaining ground in terms of social and cultural leadership. We might want to remain vigilant, but we might not have to become paranoid.

Option 1 might all of a sudden pop into existence if we make a scientific and technological breakthrough. A little universal language decoder that we can install in the brain. Chomsky would be delighted, the creators of Star Trek vindicated.

I guess that, even though multilingualism is my source of income, I quite like the idea of humanity speaking a common language. And maybe ‘torturing’ the English language until it adapts to the multi-faceted identities of otherwise very different people is the easiest way to get there…

10 Things to Consider for Interpreter Training in Africa

I wrote my doctoral dissertation about a North-South cooperation project in the field of interpreter training and the challenges that actors experienced, and I see the many difficulties actors still encounter in setting up interpreter training programmes in different universities in Africa. Therefore, I have distilled the results of my research into ten points of advice for anyone who wants to teach in/set up an interpreter training programme in Africa or anyone planning to collaborate with an African university.

It really all boils down to one key point: Rely on the right combination of local expertise and outside help!

1. Be inclusive

Before setting up a new programme or engaging in a new partnership, get the relevant stakeholders around the table and use their collective knowledge to chart the best way forward. This seems obvious but is often overlooked and therefore deserves a mention at the top of this list. Your relevant stakeholders are the parties who are likely to know something that you don’t, for example local interpreters, professional associations (AIIC, etc.), academics from other disciplines (translation, foreign languages, …), international organizations based in the region or other potential employer organizations.

It makes sense to include representatives of foreign interpreting schools, since they know how to insert interpreter training into a university environment. But this should not happen at the expense of local interpreters, who are in a much better position to understand what is required on their market.

2. Bend existing rules or write your own

Universities are highly bureaucratic, and sometimes in very unexpected ways. In some universities the names of course units on the curriculum have to be unique for Master’s programmes, so labels such as “Simultaneous interpreting I” and “Simultaneous interpreting II” or even “Intermediate simultaneous” and “Advanced simultaneous” are not allowed. Since students cannot learn simultaneous interpreting in a single course unit, curriculum building can be a surprisingly creative exercise and involve a good thesaurus. Another issue are oral exams: some departments have no rules and regulations in place for these, since they are not relevant in their discipline. Similarly, there might not be any provisions for an entrance exam and this is not something that jury members should find out about only on the day of said exam!

Another area of conflict is the recruitment of trainers. Rather than traditional academic criteria (a doctorate, published research, teaching experience), universities need to apply criteria that are relevant for interpreting (professional experience, active and passive languages) for recruitment. Working with professional interpreters also means that flexible and part-time arrangements might be necessary. These solutions are complicated to put in place in public universities in Africa but they are worth it!

The university environment was not designed for the sole purpose of providing an adequate context for interpreter training (we sometimes tend to forget that…). Therefore, the persons in charge of interpreting courses must learn to work within the system, bending existing rules and pushing for new ones. In most disciplines, academics “give lectures” to as many students as can possible fit in the auditorium (and sometimes more!). Students might not show up during the whole semester and simply take the written exam at the end, which they might even pass if they have done their reading. Interpreting is a very different animal: it involves practice, direct trainer-to-student interaction and also… booths?

3. Master the art of boothlegging

Interpreter training is obviously impossible without booths and simultaneous interpreting consoles… or is it? As interpreting students we “boothlegged” our own simultaneous interpreting installation. To practice simultaneous interpreting, all you actually need is a computer/tablet/smartphone, a pair of headphones with an integrated microphone, audio recordings and the free software “Audacity”. This simple setup allows students to listen to an original speech while simultaneously recording their interpretation over the original (that’s where Audacity comes in).

I am not saying that universities should not try to invest in good interpreting equipment. But much more important than physical infrastructure is having the right human resources. Simultaneous interpreting can be done without any kind of equipment (chuchotage/whispered interpretation). But it cannot be done without skills!

4. Choose the right languages

Students in Geneva, Prague, Accra and Nairobi might be trained in the same skill, but they are likely to have very different language combinations that will lead them to work on very different markets. The training programme in Geneva is geared heavily towards the UN and EU institutional market, as well as the private market in Switzerland, while interpreters trained in Prague are prepared almost exclusively to work for the European institutions. Of course, language combinations also need to be covered by trainers, otherwise a degree will end up not having much credibility.

Not all language combinations are relevant for conference interpreting. Swahili/English, for instance, is much more likely to be required in a court or community interpreting setting in Kenya than at an international conference. This is even more the case for local languages: Africa needs community and court interpreters for Dholuo, Twi and Sesotho.Remember that conference interpreting is not the only skill worth teaching, nor is it necessarily the most relevant!

5. Identify your market

While students might choose to read Philosophy and History for their general intellectual edification, they generally choose interpreting because they want to learn a profession and later practice it. This point should be fairly uncontroversial but unfortunately it is not. Amongst academics, the idea that universities should cater to a (real or hypothetical) job market hits a sore spot and, while I fully agree that Higher Education should do much more than that, this argument is of limited relevance to interpreter training. Our course are professional training courses. They should prepare students to work on a specific market. This is particularly true in contexts where students are paying for their education from their own pockets and make considerable personal and professional sacrifices to attend classes, often while already in full employment.

6. Learn each other’s language

Academics are strange. When they say “read a paper” they really mean “give a presentation”. They like to complain about “peer reviews” and those with a PhD might insist to be called “Doctor” although they are not physicians. Interpreters, on the other hand, value eloquence but will forgive lack of it in a “C language”, the only “peer review” that counts for them is who sponsored you to become a member of AIIC. Oh, and they like to refer to people as if they were furniture: “Oh you mean Fernando, but isn’t he a Spanish booth?”

Both groups need to become reasonably fluent in the “language” of the respective other. Interpreters must learn what is expected in academia, what constraints this environment places on them, and what opportunities it offers. Academics have to understand what makes interpreting different from other discilines, what matters to professional interpreters, and what awaits their students once they graduate. Interpreters might not see the point in asking students to write a Master’s thesis, while academics might think that practice does not make prefect. Compromise and mutual respect are essential for good collaboration between academics and interpreters, and even more so in the case of North-South cooperation.

7. Use practice to become a professional

A master’s course is usually a rather dry and theoretical affair and this is therefore of particular importance: Interpreter training has to comprise a large practical component! You simply cannot become a good interpreter just by reading books! However, when I say “practice” I don’t just mean any kind of practice. A lot of thinking needs to go into curriculum design and recruitment of trainers. Ideally, all the languages in students’ combinations should be covered by trainers, so that each student can receive relevant feedback on their performance and progress accordingly. There are quite a number of things to take into account when selecting training materials, structuring classes and giving feedback. There are a number of manuals that can help trainers achieve this, the University of Geneva also offers an online training course for interpreter trainers. (URL).

8. Use theory to become an expert

While academics often need to be convinced of the value of practical course content, interpreters tend to see theory as superfluous in interpreter training. I partially agree with this claim: Not all theory is relevant. However, some of it is. A common misconception is that interpreters need to know a lot about linguistics. However, theories about skill acquisition and a general understanding of the different subskills involved in interpreting are much more relevant both for interpreter trainers and students. There is no perfect ratio of practical vs. theoretical content in an interpreter training programme. Based on my experiences as a trainer and researcher I think that 80% practice and 20% theory makes sense, provided practice grounded in a theoretical understanding of learning and skill acquisition.

9. Select your students with care

Yes, “Interpreters are made not born”. Nevertheless, it is wrong to assume that anyone can be transformed into an interpreter over the course of 12 to 24 months. Talent might play a certain role but, more importantly, students simply do not have enough time to learn their language and learn how to interpret all in the same degree. Therefore, students need to come in with a solid level of mastery of all their working languages and a good amount of world knowledge. For African students the A language is also generally not their “mother tongue”, so they might struggle with different aspects of language than students in Europe. During aptitude tests it is therefore important to include local interpreters who share the students’ language background.

Strict aptitude tests also mean that student intakes are small, i. e. that interpreter training courses will not be cash cows for universities, hence my next point.

10. Don’t be in it for the money

Yes, don’t —and this goes for institutions as well as interpreters. Public universities everywhere in the world and even more so in Africa struggle to make ends meet. As state funding declines, tuition fees increase and students are increasingly a source of revenue for universities. Good interpreter training is only possible when the number of students is low and the number of trainers high.

At the University of Geneva there are over 30 professional interpreters working as part-time trainers for about 12-18 students. This number is beyond what most universities in Africa will be able to afford but the good news is that the number of trainers required depends on the number of languages that are on offer. Experience shows that it is entirely possible to run a solid programme with a pool of 3-5 trainers.

This is also where North-South cooperation can provide real added value: an individual student with a language not covered by local trainers can for example benefit from online-tutoring; or trainers from another university can provide temporary pedagogical support at key stages of learning (introduction to note-taking, module on simultaneous with text, etc.).

Language and development

The current buzzword in development cooperation is “participation”.

Participation can mean all sorts of things but it most commonly refers to the (more) active involvement of beneficiaries at all stages of a project, and in particular during the initial stages, when the content and objectives of a development project are defined based on local needs. Indeed, modern development cooperation is supposed to be aligned with the real “needs” of “beneficiaries” so as to avoid the pitfalls of old (creating and maintaining dependency, building infrastructure no one uses, imposing change from the outside that no one wants, using development projects simply as a modern form of colonialism etc.).

In order to allow beneficiaries to participate, one must, of course, communicate with them. Surprisingly, the literature on participatory development has very little to say about languages. It seems that communication between NGOs in the North and the South and aid recipients (often rural populations who have not had access to formal education) happens seamlessly and essentially without hick-ups, despite considerable differences not only in terms of language but also in terms of culture, level of education, individual experience and exposure to development thinking.

As a trained interpreter familiar with several so-called “developing countries” I had reasons to believe that things are not as simple as that. Indeed, a development project involves a long chain of actors: institutional and individual donors, NGOs in the North and the South, grass roots organizations, beneficiary representatives and, finally, beneficiaries. It is safe to say that not all of them speak the same language and that no commonly shared lingua franca (no, not even English…) spans the whole chain.

When development workers meet potential beneficiaries they create a strange kind of hybrid communication space, a contact zone where different ideas about change, progress, development, work, life and the world come together. Negotiating difference can be enriching and valuable, but it is rarely a simple or painless process.

So how exactly does participation work? Who brings back the “stories” and “first-hand accounts” from the field that we find in every development aid publication? Who communicates with whom? Who are the people who broker encounters between different links of the chain?

That is what I am trying to find out in my current research project. You can view a short summary of it here.