I was scrolling through Instagram the other day and found myself feeling a little irritated when I happened upon someone who was visiting Iceland – they had posted a video of themselves pointing to a road sign and hamming it up as they attempted to pronounce the words (in Icelandic) on the sign.
Languages are a particular passion of mine and I have, in twenty years of traveling, always made it a point to learn what I can before traveling to another country in which the main language used is not English. Even if this means only learning things like, “I’m sorry, don’t speak x language”, “please”, “thank you”, “hello,” “goodbye” and the like. I am a polyglot, working towards official and proper multilingualism but I absolutely love all languages. It feels, to me, somewhat disrespectful to travel to other countries and effectively mock the language.
One of the things that had really struck me during my time in Berlin (where I was maybe around an A1 level in German at the time) was how much of a roadblock the language became for refugees. Not because they were unable to use English, a widely used language in Germany, but because refugees were required to learn the language and were not permitted to begin apprenticing and/or working until they had achieved a certain level. I am certainly not against the idea that one should learn the language of the country in which they reside. I think everyone should. However, I find it… interesting, shall we say, that this requirement is only really a requirement for certain groups of people. I speak limited German (for now) but this wouldn’t be too much of a hindrance to me if I were to seek work nor was it much of a hindrance during my time there. That is to say, I was not treated differently for my limited German. However, had I had darker skin or come from a country NOT in “the western world” this would be just one other point of attack.
(I’m not picking on Germany, this is true in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are particular groups of people who will snarl, “we speak English in this country” at anyone NOT speaking English… but how many Americans hop on a plane to cross the ocean to other countries, expecting that English will be spoken everywhere?) An American/ British / German, etc person who speaks other languages is cultured, erudite, educated, worldly. A “refugee” or “immigrant” who speaks more than their mother tongue is… well, “if they live here they better speak the language”.
So this led me to think about language and the flâneur/flâneuse. I was thinking about the ability to “blend in” if one does not speak the national language of a place however, the flâneur is not known for being a social creature. Most likely, if you were flâner-ing, you’d only really have to say “excuse me” occasionally. Though for me, a working knowledge of language has helped immensely when navigating trams, buses, and underground lines as well as catching site of interesting graffiti whose messages have been revealed through my ability to understand some Italian, Arabic, Spanish, etc. Then I thought, I suppose the “western” (white) flâneur could still blend and disappear if using the English language, as he would disappear into the faceless throngs of tourists passing through European cities.
An additional note: for my research project in Berlin, I had intended to do a visual project on Arabic graffiti and street art in Berlin. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I might not find anything in Arabic. I spent a great deal of time wandering through the areas with the highest concentration of Arabic and Turkish community and I found neither Arabic nor Turkish. (The latter is particularly poignant as the Turkish community has a long, troubled history in Germany.) In fact, really the only Arabic I found at all – even on shop and restaurant signs – was in the Arabic enclave of Sonennallee, which will get its own post here. Even so, all around the city – from Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Mitte, Prenzlauerberg, etc, the graffiti was, I’d say, nearly half in English. I even found some Spanish here and there.