about language as power

I love the discussions you can have during language classes. Almost by definition, the groups of people taking a language class are quite heterogeneous and, while many of the conversations you are having for the sake of using the language sound artificial and are full of platitudes, once in a while the differences manifest themselves in unexpected and enriching ways.

This was the case today, when, during a brainstorming effort about people’s associations with the word `language`, the sentence `Language is power` came up. And we all agreed that it was true. However, the teacher frowned in all the appropriate ways and asked `What do you mean by that?` in order to elicit more complex sentences and more vocabulary in, unfortunately, still flawed case forms. We formulated struggling answers. The Brits seemed to agree that what they understood by this cliche was that the person whose language is spoken in a room has an advantage and a position of power. That their language was their power. The Slovene girl said that this was also applicable to relationships, that the one who can express themselves in their own language has an advantage over the one who adjusts and speaks a home language other than their own. If the first argument made me snort a bit inside (the absolute cockiness, even when formulated post-colonially, with a bit of an apologetic voice!), the second one made me vocal despite fumbling after Polish words in my mental scrabble bag. I was ready to agree that language was power, but, to me, the power consisted in the knowing of languages, not in the imposing of your own on people who are ready to learn it.

I always thought that in a relationship where one learns the language of the other, the one at a disadvantage is the one who does not understand 100% of all conversation within a family.

In a commercial relationship, the one at a disadvantage is the one who can be cheated because he does not speak the language and therefore did not understand that the two merchant in front of him have just decided among themselves, with a big grin, that the price was, for instance, 10 times the usual – only for him. He can be very cocky, of course, that the merchants feel obliged to speak his (master) language so they can serve him, but he would then favor his ego over his business, would he not?

In a negotiation situation, where a majority group speaks English and no French and a minority French, but no English, for instance, the French-speaking group would be all annoyed at the `power` the English-speaking hold over them and at the fact they have to rely on interpreters and perhaps argue their points less efficiently because they cannot cut in sharply, but this would be power by numbers, not by way of language. The French-speaking would be equally powerful if they continued the debate in French. And all parties involved would be much less at a disadvantage if they could switch between the two languages without fussing about who is holding symbolic power in the situation.

And there it is… I believe being able to DO everything is power. Not somebody recognizing you for it. I admit that humans build a society in which power is bestowed upon you by the recognition of others, which, based upon the current composition of the Romanian Parliament, may well mean that people give power to air bubbles (this should be a concept following the mortgage bubble – the power bubble, inflated with +/-80% people with no intrinsic competence whatsoever – sorry for the aside). However, in a more private way, I am persuaded that, the more dependent people are on what you alone can do, the more power you have. If you get treated like a slave and the other thinks they have absolute symbolic power over you, but they are incapable of feeding themselves without your help, that is your power. If a government steals everything you have entrusted with them in order for them to improve your common life, and you cease to produce stealable money for them or to depend on the money they give you, it is you who have power. If you learn how to write brilliantly for the sake of the writing, not of the school prize, you have earned power – because the school prize/recognition is based on external conditions and enslaves you to them, whereas the brilliant writing is yours and you can take it with you wherever you go.

So, coming back to language, I think I have just figured out that learning languages is my form of control. Accumulating things that are inalienable, present only in my head. `Oh, no, they can’t take that away from me…` Without a they. With, as only purpose, the intrinsic value of the thing done. That is power.




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