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…