Thursday, September 1, 2011

Språk Åpner Dør: The Hegemony of English

Språk Åpner Dør: The Hegemony of English
Norwegian Poetry
On Monday I dropped in for lunch at the Fulbright office with my matpakke –literally, “food package”. I’ve heard that travel agents tend, as a profession, to be the happiest people in the world, because they spend their lives planning vacations. The Fulbright staff fulfill the generalization liberally. Not only do they help people go on the most incredible year-long vacations, they fund them and tack on lifelong prestige just for kicks. Everyone in the Fulbright office seems pretty happy, and correspondingly pleasant.
Managed to walked straight past Norli’s (the Norwegian equivalent of Barnes and Nobles) as I came back from Karl Johansgate without even a peek inside since the prices here make me choke, but was outwitted by an adorable little quaint second-hand shop further down the road, and spent an hour browsing.
Met Rebekka, the Jewish Norwegian who hooked me up with the community here, and her husband Tyson for coffee in one of two kosher cafes in Oslo—check that, in Norway. They are the most completely lovely people I’ve met yet. After, we walked down to the Vigeland Sculpture Garden in Frogner Park, where lots of statues of naked people lined the paths, some in rather more pleasant poses than others. An enormous monolith of writhing bodies looms over the whole park, an eerie phallic construction of human angst. A fountain of huge muscular men supporting an overflowing basin of water was my favorite; the sculptures, with legs braced against the weight behind a curtain of water, kindled a sense of the raw power of mankind. (The latent and well-squashed Ayn Randist in me flickered up).  
On the way back, I dropped past Ibsen’s grave. I’m falling in love with the cemeteries in Norway; I’m not yet sure I could live here, but I’d really like to be buried here!
Tuesday I met Matt, the Oslo ETA, two Fulbright staffers, and the three Rovers (Roving Scholars: profs who roam Norway dispensing their American-grown wisdom to the Norwegian masses) at the Oslo train station. On the way to Halden we picked up Amanda, the third ETA, who’s living in Ås, a small town right near Oslo. My big regret about this year is that the three of us aren't in the same city; they are both completely awesome in exceedingly different ways. We reached the Fremmedspråksenteret, the National Center for Foreign Language Teaching. Its slogan is, “Språk Åpner Dør,” language opens doors.
The office staff began by introducing us to English’s status as not a foreign, but a second language in Norway. The difficulty, they said, was in encouraging people to learn another language after English. Even as a part of me jumped up and down that so many people can access the intricate loveliness of Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I was swamped with fear at realizing the project of cultural imperialism upon which I am embarking. I am not just teaching English, I am playing with reality and power. My students will recognize Hemingway, the Beatles, and 9/11 instead of Proust, African drummers, and the Mumbai attacks. Their minds will learn to phrase the world they see in English adjectives like elegant, revolting, and fan-fucking-tastic instead of whatever subtleties of understanding other languages would bestow. Language is so bound up with power, it sometimes makes me feel guilty about being an English major: while everyone laughs at me for my probable lack of earning power in the future, I’m playing with the tools they use to define their dreams. Teachers of language decide what deserves to be given meaning in the human lexicon, and how we access that meaning. They manipulate your very ability to understand your own thoughts. “Gentle Reader, the Word will leap upon you with leopard man iron claws” –William Burroughs knew. 

Cafe and Bookshop in Oslo:
has readings and literary nights
Okay, done taking myself so seriously. The director of the center didn’t go into any such subtleties as these. She explained the Norwegian school system to us, and gave us a tour of the facilities. Matt found a book titled Learning Under the Influence and I promptly decided to make it my go-to textbook. Another staffer talked about how Spanish is the most popular language to learn in Norway, German the most economically practical, and Arabic on the rise. They used slide shows that talked about “Research and Dissimination” and “Shool in Norway,” and a Rover discussed the “Fulbright ETA contingency”—meaning not some future possible event in which we ETA's take over the Fulbright Foundation, or possibly Norway as a last resort, but our group. I pondered the way in which authority and fancy slides cloak total incompetence-- well, not total incompetence, but the sort on a level with Bachmann's gaff about Elvis' death date. In fact, I discovered early on that as long as my posture is good, I can say just about anything and people will consider it authoritative. A rigid spine and carefully cocked head is the secret to success.

I returned to Fantoft and a text from my friend Juliet (French): “if you are interesting I found planetickets oslo-paris, 66euro in dec! =) X Also, goodfellows klubfantoft 10 minutes.” Regardless of whether I get to Paris in December, I went to the movie and watched a bunch of Europeans’ conceptions of America get even weirder. 

1 comment:

  1. In France, most students start with English mainly (because it is supposedly useful) and then two years later take up Spanish (I guess it is the "sea, sex and sun" syndrome). German is seen as the language of culture or/and of the enemy so brighter students learn German. Italian, which is rather easy from a French person point of view) must be deemed as not spoken by enough people to be seriously considered except by a handful of people. Lastly in my school, some original folks do Russian.
    Chinese is becoming popular too (see the reason why people learn English to understand why).