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Rainer Ganahl: Language Learning as Art

Researching my previous post on the web, I came across an Austrian-born, NY-based conceptual artist, Rainer Ganahl, who works in and around languages — not in the way artists usually do (contrasting text with image) but getting at the political and cultural conditions for learning and speaking certain languages. This is very exciting for me, even though it’s late in the game, book-wise. One project has been to learn foreign languages and document the time he spends doing it, mainly on video. As of 1997 (I think), he’d worked with 10 languages, which he describes in a quite brilliant essay, “Traveling Linguistics.” Another project is a legislative movement to get the European Union to declare Chinese a European language and get it taught as a second or third language in schools. His motivation for doing this he articulates in his essay this way:

I have become increasingly aware of the psychoanalytical and identity-shaping consequences of my interest in studying foreign languages that can probably be best expressed in the “special note” of my file, basic linguistic services: “keep moving away from your mother tongue”. However, I felt the need to question my own interest in the languages, their significance (romantic, powerful, marginal aspects, etc.) and the implications of the studies as well as the specific, privileged context within which I was able to free the energy to engage in these studies.

Hence the “traveling linguistics.” Learning foreign languages, he claims, is informed by tourism and migration as a paradigm — even if actual tourism or migration do not occur — a paradigm that emerges in the 19th century in Europe, closely allied with Western imperialism and Orientalism (in Edward Said’s sense). What existed before the tourism/migration paradigm? Before that was the nationalist paradigm, where one embarked on expertise in a language to shore up one’s own claim to belonging to that nation and to no others. Before that was the scriptural paradigm, where the power of the church had to be engaged in its own language(s), but also in terms of the vernaculars. All this feeds the cultural fascination with polyglots and hyperpolyglots, and helps explain why the polyglot may be a distinctly Western cultural icon.