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The Power of Multilingualism

The writer Olga Grjasnowa, whom many readers probably associate with her novel All Russians Love Birch Trees (Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt), was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, and came to Germany when she was eleven. In her recently published non-fiction book, The Power of Multilingualism – On Origins and Diversity (which has not yet been translated into English), she reflects on her own experience with languages and migration, among other things. The premise of her book is: “Power relations and nationalism are always reflected in language. As are the respective dominant discourses and ideologies” (8). After detailed explanations about and criticism of the hierarchization of languages, Grjasnowa makes a plea for multilingualism, which she presents as a social enrichment. This book perfectly connects with poco.lit.’s 2021 project, macht.sprache., which promotes discussions about politically sensitive terminology and translation, for which an awareness about the power dimensions of language(s) is absolutely necessary.

In Germany, migrants are expected to learn German. Grjasnowa explains that the construct of monolingualism is part of the German Leitkultur – German is therefore the leading and dominant language and is at the top of the hierarchy. From the governmental side, there are many arguments in favour of monolingualism, such as that it creates a sense of national belonging and facilitates general understanding, which is especially important for the articulation of laws and borders. The idea of a “mother tongue” implies that a person can only have one correct language, which is determined at birth – or framed another way, language competence at mother tongue level is, according to racist logics, only attributed to certain bodies. Thus, “mother tongue” and “fatherland” are closely linked. Grjasnowa argues that the historically developed norm of monolingualism, which is deeply anchored in the majority society’s understanding, has led to exclusion and structural disadvantage within Germany.

Nevertheless, nowadays, even in Germany, certain foreign language skills are certainly desirable. But which languages should be learned? According to Grjasnowa, the elite learn English, French and perhaps Mandarin. Languages such as Turkish or Arabic enjoy less prestige, which Grjasnowa describes as a specific form of racism, which, along with the aspect of social class membership, participate in linguicism, or linguistic discrimination: some people are discriminated against on the basis of the language or dialect they speak.

Based on her own family history, already marked by flight in earlier generations because of the Shoah, Grjasnowa ultimately argues for multilingualism. Languages are a part of identity, and with each language new horizons open up. Today, at home in Berlin, Grjasnowa communicates in four languages – Russian, Arabic, English and German. Grjasnowa’s wish is for her children to be able to speak in their own languages with all family members who live in a wide variety of places around the world.

In all likelihood, I wasn’t a reader who needed much convincing – I see many things very similarly to Grjasnowa. I appreciate her book especially for its precise breakdown of the power dimensions of language in terms of nationality, class, and race. She makes strong arguments against right-wing conservative narrow-mindedness and for a cosmopolitan attitude. The Power of Multilingualism is a small but powerful book that has inspired me to perhaps learn another language. For it also undermines the concept of „Halbsprachigkeit“ (“semi-lingualism”, designating limited fluency), often used disparagingly in Germany, by pointing out that “good language skills” always depend on how you look at it. Moreover, people can misunderstand each other even within a language – one’s own language, according to Grjasnowa, may be like one’s own fingerprint, it’s always unique.

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