A Good Example of Multi-Lingual Cooperation
Which is not as dirty as it might sound

I was reading the above-mentioned trashy stuff, trying to plumb the diagrams—even with abbreviations it’s slow going—and took a break for lunch. Came back in the middle of a presentation that I didn’t know was going to happen. Decided to stay. Ram, a geography professor at Peradeniya who works with ICES a lot, was explaining the results of a “community mapping project” in the Northeast, where he and other professors went into communities with significant tsunami displacement and rebuilding needs, and helped the people make maps of where resources (civic, transportation, education, building, agricultural etc) were located in their areas. The idea was to promote a grassroots effort towards good planning and locally meaningful development and (re)settlement. Cool results—a lot of local knowledge about human and environmental challenges to rebuilding, which is not usually considered in the top-down relief models. I could go on about this (why it’s brilliant and useful and cool) but the really nifty thing about the presentation was the way language was working.

The show, ostensibly, was for Dr. Sam Samarasinghe, who’s one of the directors of ICES and from Kandy but lives nearly full-time in Washington, DC and teaches development economics at Tulane. He’s always jetting around. Last week he was in Hong Kong drumming up support for rebuilding. Ostensibly he’s teaching his Tulane program now, but because of the tsunami he’s here. He’s Sinhalese but because he lives in the US he functions professionally in English. Except for when he talking to the female research staff, which pisses me off as they’re all totally fluent in English, but that’s my deal. Ram, the geography prof, is Tamil, but speaks all three languages fluently and has lived in West Virginia for a couple years on a fellowship. There was another geography prof present, a Dr. Sanath Somebody, who had worked equally on the mapping project and was helping Ram present it. Sanath is a Sinhalese who doesn’t have international experience and speaks only a little Tamil. Also present were Jill and I, hapless Americans who speak Sinhala reasonably well. In the areas where they were doing the mapping, the predominant language is Tamil.

Therefore: how many translations are we talking about, over time? Many, many. And the atmosphere in the room was totally unstrained in terms of understanding. It was fascinating. Sam spoke and asked questions in English, as did Jill and I, and Sanath would clearly understand the question and respond in Sinhala. Sam and Ram didn’t translate the Sinhala for us, which we agreed was good because we were doing pretty well (especially with context). Ram had done a lot of translating for Sanath while they were in the field, because Ram speaks Tamil, but Sanath was better at remembering what people had said even though Ram had had to tell him. The two of them were jabbering in Sinhala trying to remember what those other folks had said, Ram is back-forming the Tamil interviews, Sam is marveling at the knowledge power of the people involved…

It was lovely. It might not seem like this is a big deal, but believe me, a trilingual situation like this, with no one struggling to speak a language they don’t and no one claiming that their language is better or more valid, it’s heartening. I can’t think of a good comparison to make—language is so political here that it’s hard to imagine a similar situation in the US! American language issues have to do with bilingualism, mostly, how much is a good thing. We know that English is going to be important. Imagine that you’re part of an institute (in Boston perhaps) where most of the members are from the Latino community and the remainder from the Vietnamese, and they all believe that their own language is crucially important to their identities and political power, and generally are unwilling to use English as a link. Some of them, notably the less-elite ones, don’t speak it well, and no one wants to discount these folks’ ideas, because doing so is clearly elitist and undemocratic. You know, probably there are community organizations in Boston with just these problems.

Here English isn’t uncontroversial. Everyone knows that if you want to be part of the international/professional elite, or even have a decent service job, you have to know English. Yet the paucity of good ways to learn it, and the willingness of political parties to equate language rights with ethnic and economic rights, construct an atmosphere of distrust (sometimes) and certainly resentment of those who use English well. It’s pretty anti-intellectual. You may recall that when I went to a conference on women’s issues in the peace process), they had cross-vernacular translation but no English at all, and the Guy In Charge (at a women’s conference! how typical) was really snotty to me about it, as if I was being extremely rude to even ask about it.

Thus, Sanath’s understanding English but responding in Sinhala was a mark of his comfort in the situation—otherwise he would have struggled and felt less-than-prepared to be in our company. Ram was switching right left and center, but not feeling left-out because no one else spoke Tamil. Sam was comfortable letting everyone just muddle on (notably, wasn’t translating for me and Jill) and therefore allowing maximum understanding with minimum friction. It was heartening.

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