Britain: Overcoming isolation in international discourse

2. 9. 2010 / Jan Čulík

This conference is taking place amidst a radically changing situation in the area of the teaching of modern languages and cultures in the United Kingdom. It has just been revealed that the number of students taking GSCEs in modern languages has radically decreased, since the government made the study of modern languages non compulsory in 2004. We are constantly receiving news about modern language departments at British Universities which are being closed down or slimmed down. The latest victim seems to be Swansea University, where 22 academic staff in the Modern Languages Department (French, German, Spanish) have been told they must re-apply for 8 academic posts. Compulsory redundancies are inevitable.

This is a talk given at the "Languages in the 21st Century: training, influence, impact" conference which took place in Sheffield, UK, on 1st and 2nd September, 2010.

As the Guardian has recently reported, modern languages are systematically studied only at private schools and at the Russell Group universities. "The experience of other cultures is now confined to an elite", told Michael Kelly, director of the Southampton-based Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, the Guardian newspaper. In a way, it is quite comical - and symptomatic - that even a major article, published in the Guardian in defence of modern language teaching contained glaring grammatical mistakes in two simple German quotes. While in some other countries in Europe the knowledge of at least two languages was a sine qua non for a journalist working for a serious newspaper, for the Guardian evidently even German is now quite an exotic language.

The British Academy reports that lack of languages severely limits the type of research that can be engaged in Britain: since they don't know any foreign languages, many British researchers now simply do not have access to non-English primary sources. Holocaust literature studies which are conducted in English almost totally exclude the holocaust literature from Central and Eastern Europe because researchers cannot access the Central and East European languages. The same applies to post-colonial studies: how many researchers do actually realise that post-colonialism does not only apply to Africa or South America, but that it also comprises the large number societies and cultures which used to be a part of the Soviet Bloc until 1989 and which are now struggling with many of the symptoms characteristic of post-colonial developments; yet these remain basically unresearched in the English speaking world, because who can speak Polish, Czech, Ukrainian or Georgian, who can access the local discourse in these languages and understand what is really going on in these countries? One would think that for geostrategic, security reasons, it would be important for the United Kingdom to know what value systems are in force in various parts of the world, but the knowledge of the internal discourse in these societies seems lacking in the English speaking world because there are so few individuals who can actually access the debate within these societies in the local languages.

I am, of course, preaching to the converted at this forum. I will be discussing instances of misunderstanding the likes of which probably all of you are familiar with. By doing so, I would like to highlight this issue.

It is obvious that the decline in the study of modern languages and cultures will have long term repercussions on the economic, political and security situation of this country. These effects are very difficult to measure in short-term financial terms.

Just as many of you, I have been fortunate to be able to be a part of two cultural environments at once. It has been the purpose of my work, over the years, to interpret each of the two cultures to people from the other side. In order to be able to do this, I am acutely aware that we must have the knowledge of languages so that we can follow the local discourse.

In spite of all today's fervent discussions about globalisation, it seems remarkable how isolated and self-centred are some of the individual national discourses in the different language areas of the world. The English-speaking world seems to exercise a hegemony over most of the other national discourses throughout the world, but on closer inspection, the impact of the English speaking culture is only superficial.

Using the case study of the Czech society, language and culture, I would like to acquaint you with several examples which demonstrate that due to the inability of people in the United Kingdom to access local discourse, what is going on in various European societies is often misunderstood in Britain. This may have serious long-term strategic and security consequences. To put it simply: We do need to know what people feel and think in those countries of the world where English is not spoken. Lack of knowledge of foreign languages may lead to misunderstanding and, eventually perhaps even to conflict.

It seems to me it is really important to penetrate the internal discourse within each individual country and within each language-based discourse. In the years after the fall of communism, I was often approached by various American investors who requested advice "about Eastern Europe" because, as they said "they wished to invest into television there". I had to inform them, regretfully, that there was no such thing as Eastern Europe and that the individual, language-based societies and cultures were quite different -- it was as if you tried lumped together the cultures of Portugal and Sweden thinking that they were identical, I attempted to explain.

It seems extremely important to access the internal discourse in the local languages especially when analysing current affairs, societal mythologies and the attitudes of governments to foreign policy issues. English-language resources, often published by governments, tend to come from a single source and often contain spin. In order to ascertain what the real attitudes of people, the governments and the media within a given language-based culture are, surely it is necessary to study a multiplicity of resources produced within the local language.

The United Kingdom seems particularly vulnerable due to the dwindling ability of its citizens to speak foreign languages. Some of major news items seem completely to pass Britain by. I was particularly intrigued last autumn when universities in Germany and Austria became the victim of a long student strike. The Austrian and German students were protesting, in huge numbers, against university fees. Their protest paralysed the universities for weeks and for weeks made headlines in Europe. Although the issue of student fees is just as controversial in the United Kingdom as it is in Europe, it was fascinating to see that the German and Austrian student strikes were not covered by the British media at all.

Postgraduate students from the Balkans, attending a conflict studies and post-communist media seminar run by the American government and the Kokkalis Foundation in Olympia, Greece, in July, 2005, complained that most literature published in English about the recent wars in the Balkans grossly misinterprets the real events. In their view, English-speaking academics do not understand the subtleties of the local conditions because they do not speak the local language or follow local developments closely enough. Apparently, there is now a whole literature written in Bosnian-Croatian, which debunks the Western myths created by the English speaking authors in their monographs about the Balkan wars. But rarely is anyone in the West aware of this critical literature, the students said, because these works are written in the local languages and are therefore inaccessible to Western English-speaking scholars. If these students are right, there seem to be two interpretations of reality regarding the countries of Central and Eastern Europe: the "received knowledge", i.e. the myths accepted internationally, which are produced by the few English-speaking researchers that analyse the life in these countries in the West, and then subtle developments on the ground, of which the local people are aware but which are invisible to Western commentators.

I would like to devote the bulk of this presentation to several examples of how the British and Western media misinterpreted events taking place in the Czech Republic, a medium-sized European Union country -- because they are unable to access the local discourse in the local language and simply misunderstand the context. But the Czech Republic, a member of the European Union, is not so exotic that we should be misunderstanding what is going on there. If we misunderstand so events and attitudes from an allied, European country because of our lack of language ability, what chance do we have of understanding countries and cultures from further afield, which may be quite exotic and may not be necessarily friendly to us.

Information about what is happening in (Central) Europe is rare in the British media; when it comes, it is usually wrong. Here are a few examples.

1. Rebellion at Czech public service TV. Czech public service television has found it very difficult to free itself of its communist legacy as a propaganda tool for the totalitarian regime and to become an independent, critical purveyor of news, a watchdog of the emerging democracy. Attempts to reform Czech TV and to turn it into a hard-hitting, independent broadcaster failed repeatedly. The main reason for this was that Czech Television used informal contacts to provide livelihoods for a large group of individuals who had a vested interest in the continuing survival of the antiquated broadcasting structures.

Several abortive attempts to bring Czech Television into the modern age took place between 1998 and 2000, culminating shortly before Christmas 2000 when the Council for Czech TV appointed one Jiří Hodač as Chief Executive of Czech TV. Hodač was a senior, BBC journalist from London, having worked for the BBC for 11 years. It was hoped that the appointment of a BBC man to Czech TV would bring new standards of professionalism and transparency into the institution.

But on hearing about the appointment of the BBC man to the top position shortly before Christmas 2000 and fearing reforms, the staff of Czech Television rebelled. It took the TV station into its own hands and started broadcasting its own, highly emotional, anti-Hodač diatribes. The scuffle between the newly appointed management and the TV rebels continued throughout Christmas. The TV rebels used television broadcasts to appeal to the public to take part in demonstrations to get rid of the new management. On the instigation of the television journalists -- they asked people to come out to demonstrate in the streets in their support even in weather forecasts -- a large demonstration indeed took place at Wenceslas Square in Prague in early January. Jiří Hodač was hospitalised with heart trouble and was forced to resign.

The western media, which were totally unaware of the local context of the TV rebellion, were of course attracted by the large street demonstration and hailed it as a new "prodemocracy movement", as a new Velvet Revolution, although it was just an internal labour dispute, created by a local television mafia who wanted to protect the untransparent financial flows into their own hands. BBC Television waxed eloquent on BBC Ten O'clock News on 5th January 2001 how the Czechs are again fighting for freedom. Hilariously, they did not even notice that Czech TV staff rebelled against the appointment of a BBC man and against the introduction of BBC principles of broadcasting.

HERE is how the BBC reported the issue on its website, omitting that this was a rebellion against a BBC man.

The Western reporters just listened to the rebels who accused Hodač that he was allegedly "pro-government" -- a very unlikely charge in the case of someone who was used strictly to adhering to BBC journalistic principles. Since they were unable to follow the local discourse -- they did not know the context and the history of developments in Czech public service IT, they were unable to assess critically the statements of the rebels within the context of local politics and their reporting was simply wrong.

2. Women in Czech politics. First the Wall Street Journal and then a number of other media published pictures of four new Czech women MPs who were elected to parliament in the general election in May 2010. The English speaking media have taken this as proof that "the role of women in Czech politics is on the increase".

"Female Czech MPs pose for calendar. Female members of the Czech parliament have posed for a glamorous calendar to highlight the growing presence of women in Czech politics," says the Daily Telegraph. -- The reality is the opposite. Women may have been elected to Czech parliament in the election in May 2010, but the new Czech right wing government was formed exclusively of men, long before the articles about "new Czech women in the calendar and in Czech politics" appeared. There is not a single women in the governments team and at the head of government institutions. The information in the English speaking media is totally in conflict with reality.

3. Global warming and extreme right wingers appointed to government positions. Has anyone actually considered doing research into the reasons why there seems to be such strong, almost obstinate resistance in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to the argument that global warming is man-made? The first step of Pavel Drobil, the newly appointed Environment Secretary in the new Czech government that has emerged from the elections in May 2010 was to abolish the existing government scheme for the support of solar energy. But in order to do that research, we need to know the local languages.

Does anyone in the British government actually know or care that the new Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas, Head of the Czech Civic Democratic Party, which is in the same parliamentary club as David Cameron's Conservative Party in the European Parliament, has appointed Mr. Roman Joch as his adviser on human rights and foreign policy? Mr. Joch believes that democracy is a flawed and decadent system and will be replaced by what he calls a "representative government", where only those people will have the rights to vote who will provide more money for the state than they take out. Mr Joch also supports the use of torture for terrorist suspects, he thinks that each European country should have small nuclear weapons, defends the Dutch right wing extremist Geert Wilders, thinks that gentlemen should be allowed to own slaves and is of the opinion that killing people is desirable under certain circumstances. Does it matter that we do not know that people like these are appointed to government posts in Central and Eastern Europe because we cannot follow the discourse in the local languages? Similar examples could be obtained from Hungary, Poland and the Baltic countries.

4. "Deterritorialised culture"? If you are an English speaker only, you can easily fall under the spell of an illusion that due to the existence of the internet, culture now exists in a virtual "cloud", having emancipated itself from concrete territories and regions. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the definition of "deterritorialised culture" equals the loss of the natural relation of culture to geographical and social territories, there are large areas of this world where this definition is simply faulty. Certainly in countries and communities which use non-globalised languages. I would argue that even today, communities are still strongly defined by their language and their cultures and even in the internet age they exist more or less in isolation. While there do seem to be some cross-cultural influences, the filters which are used in each culture seem fully dependent on national, local customs and prejudices. These are usually defined strictly within a concrete language area.

It is fascinating to see that only those elements from other cultures are taken up in a given culture which are acceptable and/or conform to the set of values prevalent in the recipient culture. Remarkably, this happens even in the internet age, where one would think that cultural information percolates freely regardless of borders. It isn't so -- there are strong cultural boundaries, even in the internet, and they usually coincide with linguistic borders. In order to understand this, we need to know the local language and to follow the local discourse.

I will look more closely at an example of such one-sided, cultural cross-fertilization from the current Czech Republic. I feel this is a remarkable example of cultural transfer where only those features which were required by the prevailing local conditions were taken over by the local culture, from a foreign work.

As an example to prove my point, I want you to have a closer look at a Czech electioneering film clip, made and published on YouTube this spring by the Petr Zelenka. Zelenka is a well-known feature film maker in the Czech Republic. More than 700 000 people have seen this clip on YouTube. It made headlines in the Czech Republic:

The translation:

If you knew that you could change the fate of this country by visiting your grandparents, would you go to see them?

Of course you would. Unless you are completely bonkers.

My name is Martha Issová. Persuade the Old Hag.

And also Persuade the Old Man.

He is Jirka Mádl.

If the Left wins the forthcoming election in this country, it will be the fault of the old people.

Because it is the old people who vote for the left. It could be people from your family. It could be your aunt, your uncle, your granny, your granddad.

And mostly, these people live in the country. How is this possible?

They were simply born there.

No, how is it possible that they vote for the left?

Have they forgotten what it looked like here for those forty years that communists were in power?

You see, the old people have a selective memory.

That means that they only remember the nice things. How they first kissed at a ball. But they have totally forgotten about the Stalinist showtrial with Milada Horáková.

No, that is Rita Heyworth.

The communists forced the best people in this country to emigrate. Miloš Forman, Miloš Forman, Navrátilová, Kundera, Milan Kundera...

We are making this video to persuade you to pick up sticks, to buy a bus ticket, train ticket or to get in a car and go and visit your grandparents or parents in the countryside and persuade them that they should vote for the right.

Or a new party.

Yes, or a new, right wing party. The right hand is this.

Yes, but for them it is the other way about.

All over the world, people use their right hands to greet each other or to feed themselves. All over the world, people use the left hand to wipe their arse.

Well, in some countries.

If you vote for the left, the left will then wipe their arse with you.

The old people say that they vote for the left for you, their children and grandchildren.

So you must tell them that they shouldn't vote for the socialists and communists for you.

On the contrary. To vote for the left is in direct contradiction with the interests of their descendants.

Because the left will incur debts and the old people will die, and it will be us who will have to be paying these debts off for the rest of our lives.

And if someone votes for the left just because they have to pay thirty crowns to see a doctor, very well, then, but it is a really selfish decision which will harm me.

On top of that, the left wing do not want to tackle the problem of the old age pensions, but if there is no reform, the state will not have the money for the pensions. And people without savings will be really badly off. But the left wing is not interested because its voters are old now and not in forty years' time.

The left wing will not allow university fees. They like to say that this will allegedly make education inaccessible to poorer people. This is total nonsense. It is the other way about. Education in this country isn't very good and if we can't motivate universities to do something about this, the best students will go abroad.

If common sense doesn't work, use pressure. Grandchildren are the most precious thing in the world for the grandparents. So if they vote for the right, they will receive an extra visit this year from you for free.

And if they don't , well, let us hope that they will still be alive when you next come.

And the reward for you if you persuade your granny and granddad?

We will tell you where on the web to find, totally free of charge the best animal porn with an Italian MP, Rocko di Fredi and an eel.

But first, persuade the old woman and the old man!

Now, what is remarkable about this clip is that it was almost 80 per cent copied from a US pro-Obama election clip, made by the American comedian Sarah Silverman. On the face of it, this seems to be a convincing example of deterritorialised culture: What Sarah Silverman made in the United States, was taken up by people in the Czech Republic. But is that really so? Have a look at the Silverman clip and compare it with its Czech copy.

Although the Czech clip seems to mimic Silverman fairly slavishly, if you look closely, you will see that only those features are admitted in the Czech cultural environment, which bear significance within it. Other features are modified and enhanced. I feel it is an extremely interesting exercise to compare the two "texts".

Some elements of the Czech clip deliberately break ethical taboos. The aim is to make the clip feel "original" and "innovative", as an attempt "to provoke a debate"

The kitsch vulgarity and infantility, which is the source of energy of the clip seems more important than the verbal message, which is banal and factually incorrect.

What are the differences between the Czech clip and the Silverman clip?

In spite of the fact that Sarah Silverman is well-known as a controversial comedian in the US, her pro-Obama clip does not break ethical standards. It is friendly, humorous, and self-ironic. There is maybe a hint of a threat when Silverman implies at the end, that the old relatives might die before the young ones come to visit. This hint is taken up and brutally enhanced in the Czech version.

Much more than the US clip, the Czech clip seems to play to local conditions, by highlighting aggression, mockery and brutality. On the whole I feel it is an interesting example of how cultural cross-fertilisation works -- only those external influences are allowed in the receiving culture which are present within it in the first place already. We can only register these subtle diffrerences if we have access to the local language.

5. Facebook, YouTube and the "smaller languages". The use of the "new media" social networks such as Facebook or of YouTube by the younger generation has one other worrying aspect which we will be incapable of picking up if we do not know languages other than English. The hangs up and prejudices of the younger generation in the smaller, non-English speaking cultures, are now disseminated and greatly enhanced on internet social networks. Incidentally, here is yet another example of the non-existence of de-territorialised culture and of the existence of totally isolated parallel discourses. The discourse on Western social networks in small, generally "inaccessible" languages often contain infringements of decency and ethics, but these offences are not policed. Who in the Facebook headquarters knows for instance that there are vastly popular facebook pages in Czech where hundreds of thousands of young people express their revulsion over old age pensioners?

6. George Bush's anti-missile shield for the Czech Republic. And, finally, an example of a misunderstanding which due to our inability to follow local discourse, can have serious repercussions in the global security and military sphere. In the mid 2000s it was revealed that George Bush's government had decided to built an American military base about 30 miles outside Prague and to station there a powerful early detection radar as an element of the planned global anti-missile shield. No one likes to have a potential target of an enemy nuclear strike thirty miles from one's capital and from the very inception, there rose strong popular resistance against the American military project in the Czech Republic. Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Russian army for twenty years and most Czechs do not want new foreign troops on their territory. While the Prague media and a small percentage of the population felt that one must be pro-American whatever the Americans want in order to show that the Czech Republic is a part of the democratic west, 75 per cent of the Czech population was against the building of the missile base. A strong independent civic movement grew up from the protests against the planned US missile base. All through this time, the Czech government was fully in favour of building the US military base near Prague, in defiance of the views of the majority of the nation.

This civil disobedience movement remained more or less unreported in the English speaking press. When this time last year, in September 2009, President Obama cancelled the anti-missile project, the Guardian, along with other British newspapers, reported, that "The Czechs and the Poles are disappointed!"

The following clip from a trailer advertising a two-hour documentary detailing the sorry history of Bush's missile shield in the Czech Republic. It shows you what has not been generally reported in the English speaking press at all -- because who would care or know how to follow the internal Czech language discourse.

7. What to do?

British universities can teach their students to understand the local language discourses by running seminars where students from the UK and students from the target countries analyse problems in cooperation. Due to the existence of the Erasmus/Socrates student exchange schemes, Glasgow University has been lucky enough to run such courses and they seem to have been very successful.

We have been trying in Glasgow to cultivate close links with the languages and cultures that we study. Using the provisions of the Erasmus/Socrates exchange scheme both for teachers and students from Central and Eastern Europe and the United Kingdom, we have tried to create a cross cultural microclimate -- where problems are tackled in classes both by our British and international students, studying the languages and cultures of Central Europe. I would like to finish with a short clip which shows how we work in our advanced translation classes, in which students from both the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom actively participate. The interaction of different approaches to the study of the target area language and culture, both those of the students from the target area and those of international students, seems to be extremely enriching and stimulating.


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