Multicultural Germany Class: Multilingualism

This post is part of a series in which students reflect on their discussions in the UC Berkeley undergraduate seminar “Multicultural Germany.” This week’s summary is by Treasure Nguyen

During the tenth week of class we delved into language, exploring multilingualism, literature, and debates about the institutionalization of a language in a nation’s constitution. We read Franz Kafka’s short piece “Report to an Academy” in conjunction with a critical essay by Claire Kramsch titled “Multilingual, Like Franz Kafka.”

“Report to an Academy” is written from the perspective of an ape, captured by hunters in west Africa, who learns German and eventually assimilates into human society, earning a living performing in variety shows. Indeed, the speech given by Red Peter—a name his human captors gave him—highlights the performativity of everyday language and human behavior. Language is steeped in the implications of social structures of power, and readers of the ape’s story come to see how learning a language—for anyone on the outside trying to get in—becomes a matter of survival and self-preservation through socialization. There are higher stakes than we realize in a simple human gesture such as a handshake; performing the act is the difference between social acceptance and rejection, connection and isolation. Kafka’s story illustrates the tension between a dominant culture and a minority culture, how one’s own identity often cannot withstand the process of urgent and rushed assimilation.

Kramsch’s article addresses some social realities of multilingualism through an analysis of Kafka’s “Report to an Academy” and an exploration of the often overlooked implications of Kafka’s multilingualism. Kramsch writes of the different symbolic values of languages: there are dominant national languages (e.g. French, German, and English) with high symbolic capital, and then there are the minor languages (e.g. Yiddish, Czech, and Breton), speakers of which must express themselves through a major language in order to be heard and respected. For Kafka, standard German served as this vehicular language, an urban language of commercial exchange, a bureaucratic paper language. Kramsch posits that Kafka, never feeling at home in the German language, turned to Yiddish as the language of the local, the “here.” These categorical distinctions between a multilingualist’s repertoire of languages foreground the different emotional and cultural significances of each; fluency in more than one language does not always mean that one feels completely at home in both—or either one.

Transitioning into the political implications of multilingualism, we read several articles concerning some of the issues that arise when visible minority languages come into close contact with and exist next to a nation’s dominant language. Germany’s language test, which immigrants must pass in order to receive citizenship, is defended on the grounds that it promotes integration, while others question the relevance of the test, saying that it does not and cannot take into account an individual’s specific circumstances and reason for applying for citizenship. In the realm of academics, there has been debate over which languages can and cannot be used in school. Should the children of Turkish immigrants be taught in Turkish or German in kindergarten? Petra Schulz, a professor for German as a second language, responds that children can learn both at the same time: “the myth of children speaking two languages, but neither one of them properly, still pervades politics and education. Those who grow up with two languages are soon able to switch back and forth easily, just like someone who speaks a dialect and then acquires the standard language.” Concerns from German politicians about the efficacy of efforts to integrate immigrants combined with the fear that—in a reversal of the way Red Peter lost his identity as he immersed himself in human culture—the dominant German language would become damaged or lost when mingling with so many others, resulted in debates about whether or not to enshrine the German language as the official language of the country in Germany’s constitution. Our fellow classmate Jennifer Lau gave a presentation providing more context around these debates, especially concerning the role that English now plays in German society and business culture. English is often used as the language of operations for companies within Germany, a fact which adds value to English’s symbolic capital. Jennifer also complicated the desire of some German politicians to “protect” the German language by asking and exploring the question of whether or not language purity ever existed. The German language has undoubtedly evolved and changed over the centuries, so what would the effect be of enshrining and preserving the language in the constitution? Would German become, as Kramsch calls it, the “paper language” that Kafka perceived it to be, incapable of changing and adapting to the living, breathing people of Germany’s cultural landscapes?

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