Cotton ’round the brain


“Are you blogging?!”
Patricia busted me right in the middle of Nederlands 1.2; I was taking notes on the confusion, even in the official language course, between languages. We are not being taught the local Flemish dialect, although Flemish versions sometimes appear in the midst of the officially-sanctioned Dutch. A French word had appeared on a worksheet instead of the Dutch term and the teacher drew our attention to it: this has happened before – not too often, but occasionally. I imagine that this is exactly how the languages are mixed in everyday use outside of the classroom.
Five of us from Cursus Nederlands 1.1 survived to 1.2 in the same classroom, same schedule, with the same stellar teacher. Six if Amin gets his act together and registers! Mahmoud got a job, Bouchra and Tolu have left us for higher levels – following Marse who is so far beyond us now we are lucky to get glimpses of her in the school cafeteria. 🙂 I am still celebrating the small miracle of passing the level one test!
My struggle with learning Dutch (“very hard for Americans,” says virtually everyone) is somewhat similar to the experience of being on the outside of a conversation in a language I don’t know, as occurred several times last week in Strasbourg. Usually the other language was French – and I am reminded of the strategic decision last summer to start learning French, and then the practical choice of choosing Dutch because my residence in Antwerp enabled me less-expensive access to high quality intensive lessons. Not that I’ve been able to take full advantage of the lessons – I may be lucky to consistently attend 1/3 sessions per week this term. During pessimistic moods, I wonder if I was wrong to have prioritized the lessons over tramping the halls of Parliament last fall.
The social (and socializing) function of being with my fellow students in the cursus Nederlands, however, is vital for my sanity. Some of it is pure silliness, such as learning that Topi wears insulated socks (!), and some is wonder at the diversity of human experiences represented by our particular biographies. Marinella, for instance, saw the world as a youngster doing competitive sportshooting before moving from Bulgaria to South Africa for 19 years prior to her arrival here in Belgium.
I also admire the curriculum, and the ways Anne delivers it. Level 1.2 zeros in on two crucial skills: listening and grammar. I was annoyed and grudgingly impressed by the audiotrack we listened to (for answers to fill-in-the-blank questions on a handout) for including a low-level music background track. It was totally distracting – which forces you to concentrate while mimicking life in the real world, where there is always background noise of one form or another. As for the grammar, well, Topi was elegant as usual: “Dat is speciaal.” Patricia agreed, “Moelijk!” The entire array of language-learning services is impressive. Amin was very excited about all the resources he had learned about from Atlas, a social service organization whose mandate is to facilitate the acculturation of immigrants into Belgian society. (He enjoyed his appointment with Natalie, especially her enthusiasm.)
In terms of the research project that brings me to Belgium, having one foot in the community of everyday people and the other in the elite reaches of European governance helps me maintain a holistic perspective on the research objectives. How do attitudes and experiences with simultaneous interpretation serve as a lens for comprehending the role of language in Europe today? Is it possible to locate and describe how present-day policies and practices may play out over time? I believe it is possible to make some predictions, because the information about how current policies are affecting current practices are readily available – if we choose to recognize them.
Or are perceptually attuned to recognize them – which is the first matter of concern. Not only am I experiencing the limitations of my own mind to take in and process new information, but I am also observing non-verbal and discursive evidence of other people’s inability to either perceive or process new information. For instance, as I talk with Members (of the European Parliament), I am struck by how few of them have ever considered the system of simultaneous interpretation beyond echoing the usual litany of complaints and de rigueur compliments. It is not that they are un-thoughtful, far from it! Their responses when I question the practical realism of the expectations that inspire complaining are quite insightful. But some of the ideas I pose are outside their areas of knowledge – most of them simply admit this (a candor I find appealing and hopeful), some smaller percentage gamely go on along a path I find minor or tangential to my primary point (but nearly always in sync with a concern the Member had previously expressed), and a very few carry on in a way that leads me to suspect they are unaware that another way of thinking is possible.
I do not believe this is a matter of intelligence, at least not in most cases. I think it is a function of (lack of) exposure to different discourses. There seems to be only way to talk about simultaneous interpreting in the European Parliament; other ways of talking elicit responses ranging from curiosity to dismissal, from intrigue to risk – as if talking about interpreting is, in-and-of-itself, a threat.
Anyway, as other friends and I discussed last night, I have neither a magic blue diamond nor a genie to wish worries of “bad karma” away, only the goodwill of friends and those who do sense some value in the knowledge I seek to construct, even if my manner is clumsy as hell.

3 thoughts on “Cotton ’round the brain”

  1. congratulations for passing the dutch exam !! :-)))
    i found a funny something :
    … mind the wrong ‘r’… 🙂
    if you want to learn some french :
    (was trying to find the beautiful french song that was playing on the car radio last friday, but without a title or performer it seems quite impossible .. )
    Moi je viens d’un pays de désert infini,
    i come from a land of infinite deserts
    Où les caravanes rêvent et flânent.
    where caravans dream and stroll
    Où, pendant ton sommeil,
    where, in your sleep,
    Les serpents t’ensorcellent !
    snakes are bewitching you !
    C’est bizarre ça ?
    that’s weird ?
    Mais, eh, c’est chez moi !
    but, hey, it’s my place !
    Quand le vent vient de l’Est,
    when east wind blows,
    Le soleil est a l’Ouest,
    sun is in the west,
    Et s’endort dans les sables d’or…
    and falls asleep in golden sands…
    C’est l’instant envoûtant,
    it’s that thrilling moment,
    Vole en tapis volant,
    fly by magic carpet,
    Vers la magie des nuits d’Orient !
    to the magic of oriental nights !
    Oh nuits d’Arabie,
    oh, arabic nights,
    Mille et une folies.
    thousand-and-one folies.
    Insomnie d’amour,
    insomnia love,
    Plus chaude a minuit
    gets warmer every minute
    Qu’au soleil, en plein jour !
    warmer than the sun, during the day !
    Oh nuits d’Arabie,
    oh arabic nights,
    Au parfum de velours.
    velvet perfumes,
    Pour le fou qui se perd,
    for the fool that’s loosing it,
    Au coeur du désert,
    in the desert’s heart,
    Fatal est l’amour !
    fatal love !

  2. Was there a pretty French song playing in the car? I’m finding the phenomenological experience of not knowing a language that permeates the environment around me quite intriguing. On the one hand, I feel a sensation that is almost physical, as if I am underwater. Movement slows and sound is altered &emdash; as if it is coming from a great distance. I imagine this is what it is like for my friends who are deaf: of course one knows there is something happening all around, but because there is no access to it two things happen (maybe more). One is that whatever it is that is happening (in that conversation I can’t “hear”) is demoted in consequence. I cannot care overmuch about it because doing so would simply lead to a high degree of anxiety and frustration. Secondly, other things come into view that are of at least equal import as the content of whatever it is that is being said (or sung). What intrigues me about this experience is the way it illustrates a certain truth about human perception: when we are too immersed in a medium or an experience, we lose some perspective on it.

  3. i think you describe the experience very well .
    i also just realized quite seriously that indeed it must be véry complicated living amongst people you don’t fully understand – in the first place there are the words they use, second there are also their actions .
    combined with different habits because of different cultures, i imagine it can make you feel anxious and nervous when you try to look closer in order to understand more .
    and i also realized i have never met this experience in my life – since i’ve never lived in russia or china or some other country where a language is being spoken that comes to me as only sounds !
    i think that’s the point in which one is forced to trust his senses and intuition .
    and that’s scary – especially if you’re not used to doing so .
    i’m sorry i assumed you recognized a song in french – i was not aware that maybe it sounded the same as a song in dutch to you ??? i don’t know.. 🙂 and also i realized that maybe not éveryone in the car was listening to the radio 😉
    for me music is so obvious and omnipresent that i sometimes forget other people listen to the world around them in a different way than i do .
    so – i’m learning –
    thanks .
    wow..this is getting more and more interesting ! 😉
    i like the way you make me look at things from a different angle : though it’s confusing too -because there are so many possible scenario’s .

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