I’m in Novosibirsk to blog about the Forum Interra. Thanks to the Goethe Institut in Novosibirsk that invited me!
It is eating time in the plane that takes me from Moscow to Novosibirsk. I wake up from what I can’t tell you if it was sleep or just a doze. For a brief moment I forget about the hurt in my knees. As scores of travelers open their lunch boxes, the rustling of dozens of plastic wrappings sounds like the pattern of a light rain.
The stewardess asks me a question. “English please”, I have to respond. Or don’t have to. “Fish or chicken”, the question is. It is always fish or chicken. Or maybe it is pig or lamb. Or caviar or oyster. It could be A or B just as well. This is not “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”. Your answer doesn’t matter. You will always get a mediocre sample of more or less identifiable foods.
Opening the green paper box as the stewardess continues to hand our meals in the rows behind me, I stand before the same oracle as the other passengers. Is this bread edible (as I peak my finger into it)? Why does the cake have a green bottom (as I take the first bit of it)? Should I try the raw fish (as I gaze through the transparent foil on the plastic box)? But I don’t feel alike with them.
As I am here for an exchange that is to cross all borders, I think it is just fair to tell you about my feeling of alienation.
From day to day I communicate with people from all over the world. Be it via Twitter, email or Facebook or simply face to face, we exchange our thoughts and dreams. Sometimes it is difficult when we use a language that is mother tongue to neither one of us and when our accents are so different. But I have never felt separated from somebody due to our different origin or current whereabouts. For in the spheres where I usually find myself in, location does not matter.
But as soon as we don’t share a common language, we become strangers. Where my “Deutsch, English, Français” becomes a mantra unanswered, I feel alienated. “The others” – those who don’t speak my language – are still humans like me, but I feel separated from them by a monstrous barrier. It may be overcome with hands and feet to indicate a direction, but only our friendly smile differentiates our relation in this moment from a primatic one.
Language is the greatest barrier between us humans, and yet it is but a wall made of paper that can be torn down as we ink it with our words.
Not being able to speak with my neighbor, communicating in guesses and gestures instead of words and sentences lets me feel of what the dream of Doktoro Esperanto must have been made. The idea of a language that suits everybody, enabling universal communication is just too intriguing.
Today, I often tend to think that English has become what Esperanto was thought to be: A language that I can use to communicate anywhere, at any time and with everybody. Yet my first hours in Russia succesfully contradict this imagination. It is not that I didn’t know the facts about English fluency worldwide that sometimes leads me to think of it as a truly universal language, it is my day to day experience.
Obviously mine is an experience based on living in a privileged sphere. I think all of us who tend to speak of a “global discussion” should keep in mind that technology and language exclude the majority of our fellow human beings. Global Voices Online just recently published an interview with their translator Boukary Konaté. It tells both of the technical and linguistic difficulties people in Africa are facing when they want to participate in our worldwide discourse, but it also offers a great example for efforts that can lead us from the digital divide to a real global discussion.