Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Europe: Amazing and Disturbing

February 14th, 2012

“Disturbing and Amazing”

Marsi’s words describe the effect of exhibits at the Museum of Young Art in Prague. Many of the works depict violence: relentless, remorseless, pervasive, and essentially without purpose. In retrospect, the small shock of David Cerny’s “Guns” became prelude to an increasing turmoil of viscera.

The rainbow ghouls in this painting, "Object III" by Jiri Petrbok, depict the irony of celebrating destruction.

The rainbow ghouls in this painting, "Object III" by Jiri Petrbok, depict the irony of celebrating destruction.

The horror of these exhibits was a rude intrusion into our twenty hours of reunion. Delicious food and delightful conversation affirmed the solid bedrock of unquestioned friendship. Our joy in play was a dreamy reprieve from the backdrop of ruthless reality.

Language Policy? “It’s a trick.”

My return to Belgium is fraught with contradictions. I have friends here who belong distinctly to different classes: the disparity of their experiences is distressing. The evidence of an interaction taboo moves from the theoretical realm of European Union language policy to practical lived experience. Fluency in Nederlands (for instance) is used as a bulwark to prevent immigrants from getting a legitimate job within the European Union’s economy – a job that qualifies for government benefits.  Hiring and paying workers “in black” is talked about as openly and casually as slavery in the antebellum south of the United States. The implications may be muted in genteel company but the structure is hierarchically racist. Notice the linguistic marking: no one names “the white economy” as the given standard. I understand better, now, the range of reactions to my poster, Beyond Homolingualism, which depicts two different systems of simultaneous interpretation.

Some of the participants at the EU’s Committee of Region’s conference on the European Public Sphere (mostly academics), were intrigued and asked many questions about my poster. A few also expressed feeling unease and discomfort, admitting that the implications to language policy and sociocultural life are unsettling. In one case, an argument lead to the accusation that I clearly had no concept of poverty – because, if I did, it would be patently obvious to me why all immigrants must learn the official EU language of their country of residence in order to work. Of course I understand this logic: not only a logic of language hierarchy and power, it stems from a simple human desire to “speak the same language” for purposes of connection and understanding. While both systems of simultaneous interpretation work functionally in their respective settings, there are – in my view – unintended consequences of the European Parliament’s model that warrant consideration.


Talking with those who “speak the same language” is comfortable and nurturing. Whether English, Hindi, American Sign Language, or a technical jargon common to a field of academic study or professional practice, excitement and entertainment are experienced more easily when the symbol system is already shared in common.

Albert Einstein's call for peace through understanding is a popular graffiti in Antwerp..

Albert Einstein's call for peace through understanding is a popular graffiti in Antwerp..

One of the miracles of Europe is the amazing way communication is made possible among users of different languages in the European Parliament. While I do critique some of the outcomes of the transmission model of interpreting, particularly how the success of simultaneous interpretation generates the illusion of speaking in one shared language (which means erasing the differences of separate and unique languages and the worldviews they inspire), the fact that the system works is testimony to what humans can achieve with intercultural cooperation.

Now, if language policy makers in the European Union and elsewhere could take some lessons from professional community interpreting (particularly as modeled with Deaf people), this would allow members of minority language groups to leverage their difference into the political-economic systems, with terrific gains in democracy and life chances. My hypothesis is that the institutionalization of live language interpreting could generate a field of equality by protecting diversity and promoting systemic resilience.

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