Monday, January 29, 2007

A, B, C....

Despite being a fervent proponent of multilingualism myself, I promise to try and mute the plethora of opinionated voices in me, in favor of a more dispassionate analysis on the very important subject of acquiring (foreign) language skills in our (post)modern times. Hence it is to be said -in lieu of an introductory comment- that responsibility for foreign language encouragement (or lack thereof) befalls upon many actors: politicians, academia/teachers, individuals all contribute through choice or decision. Conversely, anything from dogmatic views to budgetary issues to cultural streams within society can impact the popularity of languages and language-learning. The already heated debate becomes more contentious today as additional parameters become influential: a supranational phenomenon, globalization is one such example of a factor that shapes attitudes towards languages.

As the world and individual states experience interaction and interdependence at such an unprecedented level, some practical requirements must be met, the first being to successfully "communicate". How states choose to respond to the resurrection of the lingua franca concept [or to a handful of prevalent languages] does already -and will even more so in the coming years- affect economic, political and cultural decisions across as well as within states. In a debate on globalization and France in Le Figaro, Jacques Attali, the French political thinker cautions that global markets may bring about the end of languages if reason does not prevail and if languages are not sufficiently protected. Moreover, the superimposition of a single language can be disastrous to peace, security and more broadly stability, if, for example, the premises which bring about the dominance of the language cease to exist, are deemed threatening or unjustifiable or more broadly are rejected by some population. This is very important to observe as languages are not only tools of communication; they are also carriers of a culture and often become symbolism, perhaps unjustifiably so, of politics even ideologies.

For such reasons and many more, the trend today seems to favor promotion of multilingualism and cultural awareness based on an understanding that people can come "closer" and cooperate more efficiently if there are not linguistic and cultural barriers between them. Partly as a reaction to this phenomenon and to serious political criticism for the Iraq war, the United States has been encouraging its citizens to acquire foreign language skills as they are "intrinsic to the security and the interests of the country" as the 2006 National Security Strategy tells - following thus the honorable example of many other countries, most notably the Scandinavian states. In her bitter comment in the December 20th edition of The Guardian (republished in the January 28th edition of Kathimerini) Agnès Poirier chastises British snobbery of foreign languages arguing among others that monolingualism is a source of decay for the society and a threat to the English language (on the premise that language learning improves one's native language too) and a serious threat to democracy (as it creates xenophobia and hinders critical thinking).

Is learning many languages therefore the solution that humanity seeks? Unfortunately, for the world's most complex issues there is no panacea today, as there has never been one in the past. Peace, security and prosperity the perennial concerns of people have always depended on a number of factors; globalization only magnifies the scope of such concerns by showing how dependent (to one another) or vulnerable countries are. The ability to "communicate" solves only the logistical part of the equation. Adding to this the "cultural parameter" -which accompanies language learning- can take us a step further. But no more than that.

Save a few merchants and wanderers, the vast majority of people well into modern times would only speculate about other languages as they would spend most of their life in a ten mile radius from where they were born. Interaction with people of other cultures the way we experience it today is novel to us and the history of mankind more broadly. Languages offer us a magnificent tool to improve the quality of interaction with humans from different backgrounds; to view them however as tools only or as tools primarily would be to misunderstand their purpose and logic. To reduce language learning to the utilitarian value would be killing the language - period. A language is much more than communication; it is immersion in another culture, the past and present of a people; it has volume and texture, depth and shallowness.

Learning a language establishes lines of communication not only with the speakers but the world: it is not the vocabulary or the grammar, it is the "decomposition" and "reassembling" that the self undergoes in the process. For this reason, even a single (foreign) language has profound impact on its student. Naturally people will never be able to speak all the languages, not even "many languages" considering how many there are and how costly and time-consuming the process is. But the more people decide to explore this realm for the magic it offers -more than the practical application it unquestionably yields- the more rewarding the experience it is. True magic happens from time to time too, as when a Spaniard can understand a speaker of Portuguese and vice versa... OK, maybe with a few gestures and body movements, but this is all game, right?

References and Links:

The very interesting debate between Jacques Attali and Pascal Lamy on globalization: La mondialisation économique ne suffit pas

Agnès Poirier's article in English: The high road to decadence and in Greek: Η αλαζονεία της μιας και μόνης γλώσσας

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A praiseworthy initiative

It started small but it is growing by the day; it is still very much local but has always had an international flair "attached" to it. What makes the "San Juan Del Sur Biblioteca Móvil" distinct however is its effectiveness: from its very first day of operation it has tremendously benefited the locals and the community in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. But let us pause momentarily to briefly explain the "San Juan Del Sur Biblioteca Móvil" project.

An initiative of Jane Mirandette, the project started as a way to literally "bring the books to the Nicaraguans"; in a country where 50% of the people live in poverty and a third of the society is illiterate access to books is a privilege reserved to the very few. What Mirandette did was to set up a small lending library in the 'backyard' of her hotel: the very first lending library of the country was the beginning of a much bigger project. The library found its own place a block down the street and the aspirations grew; a 'mobile library' would spring out of this, so as to serve the the villages of the region. Today, books are rotating reaching as many as 27 communities in rural Nicaragua. Hence the name "San Juan Del Sur Biblioteca Móvil" which translates to "Mobile Library of San Juan del Sur". In the meantime, Mirandette established a not-for-profit organization based in Colorado, USA: the project was well underway.

To the best of my knowledge the project is growing virtually by the day and the much-needed contributions, mostly from the US and elsewhere abroad, are fueling the project. When I was in San Juan del Sur in November I saw the "headquarters" but I can only imagine the significance of this library moving to remote villages where the percentage of illiteracy is greater and access to books a rare occurrence. A perfect example of what "sound development in practice" is, the library is administered by the locals who know the needs of the people best and volunteers from abroad who bring their expertise. Most importantly, while promoting literacy and educational opportunities the project does not interfere with the traditional patterns of living: by providing opportunities for education in one's village it reconciles work and family obligations with education and intellectual growth.

Praise for the achievements of this project goes to all those involved, directly or indirectly, in San Juan del Sur or elsewhere in the world. The labor of love bears fruits by the day in Nicaragua; it also transcends the borders of the small country proving to the rest of us that the joined forces of humanity can bring change, positive change. Something which indeed is useful to remember nowadays as the deleterious effects of dubious in nature and often catastrophic initiatives monopolize our attention in many ways and quite often end up preventing us from seeing beyond the facet of reality which is masterfully tossed upon us.

A condensed presentation of the "San Juan Del Sur Biblioteca Móvil" activities.

For more information please visit the site of "San Juan Del Sur Biblioteca Móvil". The site has an English and a Spanish version.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


When Hannah Arendt published her pivotal, prototypic and controversial [when juxtaposed against her previous publications] "Eichmann in Jerusalem" in 1963 she argued her famous "banality of evil" thesis - that people committing atrocities need not be inherently bad but may be influenced by an ideology or a set of codes. Because they are good "bureaucrats" they abide by rules, principles and orders thereby committing crimes.

Seeing the atrocities that occur on a daily basis at Iraq -United Nations announced today the death toll for Iraqis to be 34,000 for 2006- I cannot help but question what is that has made "evil" look like a "banality" in the lives [and hence the culture] of a people. Conversely, what sort of "banality" is this, which spurs an almost routinized coverage of Iraq by media and non-media actors, an awfully repetitive sorrow-dominated vocabulary to politicians and officials of any sort and a "yet again" or "not again" [at best] reaction to "innocent, powerless" civilians, if not of "evil"?

A great paradox and virtue of language is this, namely that it allows one to play games with words, to deconstruct phrases and to create wholly new and different meanings based on a word or two. Language can also downplay or increase the importance of virtual anything simply through wise word choice and word ordering. But numbers, are not like that; numbers cannot get dressed up to look "good" or "sloppy", they are destined to carry the naked version of the story - whatever this story maybe.

It so comes that 94 is the number for Iraq. If 34,000 was difficult to comprehend, the fact that this figure translates to 94 people being killed every single day at Iraq may help those not handling easily big figures, myself included. Early on we learn also that metaphors help, as they render our speech or writings clearer. Strikingly painful as it may appear, and it is, 94 dead Iraqis is almost like if a Boeing 737 crashed everyday or if the entire grade six of a 564 elementary school disappeared again and again and again every single day of the calendar year - rain or shine.

It almost causes shame to me the fact that I dared to quantify in this most disgraceful and dishonorable manner human life. And as I am about to delete my previous statement, I decide I will not - I think it does much less justice to victims to refuse to refer to their plight; it is much too hypocritical and shameful to aspire to a Pontius Pilate attitude when we all have some share of responsibility for the atrocities on the Iraqi soil. Unfortunately, few of us have the excuse of "abiding by an ideology" and fewer still are "the good bureaucrats" exercising at our best the civil duties entrusted to us.

That 94 people die everyday at Iraq because of the mess calls, once more, for urgent action. Much advocacy still focuses on "an end to the war". Will that suffice? Most journalists and experts signal otherwise; they talk about a possible splitting of Iraq into three states and they allude to further bloodshed. Even the most optimist would agree that the current state of Iraq is one of utter fragility and instability and that no deus ex machina can bring this tragedy to a bloodless conclusion. Regardless of the course of affairs at Iraq what seems clear is that we, non-Iraqis, are not entitled to any more mistakes, to any more gambling of human lives in our futile attempt to transform "vision" into action. Our duty is to help: may we be fortunate to find ways to assist - not to absolve ourselves from our atrocities, but, simply to decrease suffering. And to lower this damned 94.

References and Links:

in English: Blasts kill at least 70 in Baghdad; U.N. reports 34,000 Iraqis died in '06

en Français: Irak: plus de 100 morts dans des violences, 34.000 civils tués en 2006

an interesting study of Arendt's "banality of evil" in the context of fear is to be found in Corey Robin "Fear: The History of a Political Idea" (Oxford: OUP, 2004).

Friday, January 12, 2007

The world could be a better place: Irène Némirovsky

Duty often befalls upon us, future generations, to speak of those most capable and enlightened individuals who did not receive recognition during their lifetime - not to say were maltreated. One such person that deserves to be honored is author Irène Némirovsky, a Ukrainian-born French-raised Jewish woman whose last book "Suite Française" was published in 2004 by Denoël in France.

Remarkable as the literary style of Némirovsky may be, it is the "Némirovsky-individual" as opposed to the "Némirovsky-author" that I wish to bring up here. Besides, if it was just about the prose, a literary review would suffice; instead here is the case of an honorable person which happens to be known to us via books and manuscripts.

A woman of principles and values, a woman that perhaps exemplifies the true meaning of 'love of the other', the symbol of anti-racism, Némirovsky was born in Ukraine in 1903 to a Jewish family and to a mother that paid little attention to her. Thanks to her French gouvernante, Némirovsky adjusted easily in France - where her family moved and grew to love as her own; yet France never granted her citizenship paving the way to her death. Like many and despite being a published author already, Némirovsky was not spared from Nazi horror; she was arrested in 1942 and died at Auschwitz shortly thereafter.

"Suite Française" comes to us half a century after her premature death in the form of a manuscript; foreseeing her arrest in 1942 Némirovsky put her handrwritten loose pages in the suitcases of her two daughters as she was sending them off to a Monastery so that they -at least- could escape Nazis. In the first edition of "Suite Française" one is able to read notes from the Cahiers (Notebook) of Irène where she explains in detail the ambitious project that "Suite Française" would be: a series of four books that would commence with the raid of Paris and would end with the triumph of peace and love epitomized by a marriage. But Némirovsky managed to write only parts I and II: the rest of the book remained forever with her.

The narrative, the full structure, even her choice of simple words all receive praise from critics; truly, the full book would be an epic achievement. What is most important in this book to me as a reader is the humanity that comes out of it. I cannot think of a better example of dignity and nobility than Némirovsky's portrayal of average German soldiers. Nothing strikes me as a greater proof of kindness than conceding virtue to one's enemies knowing that such men will have to kill you and your children. It requires great reserves of kindness to be a Jew during World War II and to create the character of Bruno von Falk: powerful as the descriptions are one almost comes to believe that Némirovsky feels pity for the fate of the Germans. Everyone sees the dividing line between Nazi ideology and average German soldiers; one can hardly believe nonetheless that such words of peace and solidarity come from a woman that knows her death is coming.

The following is a passage from "Suite Française". Némirovsky initially talks about Bruno von Falk and later permeates into his soul to talk about how the soldier fantasizes taking his French hostess -with whom he shares a lot- Lucile to a Ball... The passage comes from Book II (Dolce).

"Bruno s'abandonnait à cette excitation puérile à la fois un peu folle et presque désespérée qui s'empare des soldats dans les moments où le combat fait trêve et où il espère quelque diversion à l'ennui quotidien. (...) Il avait envie de dire, comme un enfant à qui l'on a promis le cirque et que l'on voulait garder à la maison(...) Il n'était pas uniquement soldat du Reich. Il n'était pas mû simplement par les intérêts du régiment et de la patrie. Il était le plus humain des hommes. Il songea qu'il cherchait comme tous les êtres les bonheur, le libre épanouissement de ses facultés et que (comme tous les êtres, hélas, en ce temps-ci) ce désir légitime était constamment contrarié par une sorte de raison d'Etat qui s'appellait guerre, sécurité publique, nécessité de maintenir le prestige de l'armée victorieuse. (...) Mais ce que les Français n'auraient pu comprendre, c'est qu'il n'était pas orgueilleux ni arrogant, mais sincèrement humble, effrayé de la grandeur de sa tâche.

Mais justement aujourd'hui, il n'y voulait pas penser. Il préférait jouer avec cette idée de bal ou bien rêver à des choses irréalisables, à une Lucile toute proche de lui par exemple, à une Lucile qui pourrait le suivre à la fête... Je délire, se dit-il en souriant. Bah! tant pis! En mon âme, je suis libre. Dans son esprit, il dessinait une robe à Lucile, pas une robe de ce temps-ci, mais semblable à une gravure romantique; une robe blanche aux grands volants de mousseline, évasée comme une corolle, afin qu'en dansant avec elle, en la tenant dans ses bras, il sentît par moments, autour de ses jambes, le fouettement d'écume de ses dentelles."

(Extract from: Irène Némirovsky. Suite Française. Paris: Denoël, 2004, pp.367-368.)

Friday, January 05, 2007

"Κοιτάζοντας" το 2007

Από τις σπάνιες φορές που δύναμαι να διαβάσω την τυπωμένη έκδοση της Καθημερινής, η 31η Δεκεμβρίου του αισίως παρελθόντος έτους επεφύλασσε για μένα μια έκπληξη στη δημοσίευση της έρευνας-δημοσκόπησης της V-PRC. Θέμα της η σφυγμομέτρηση της ελληνικής κοινωνίας για μείζονα ζητήματα εσωτερικής και εξωτερικής πολιτικής, οικονομίας και ανάπτυξης και το συμπέρασμά της διττό: η ελληνική κοινωνία υποστηρίζει τις μεταρρυθμίσεις και τις ιδιωτικοποιήσεις αλλά εμφανίζεται επιφυλακτική και ανασφαλής ως προς το μέλλον. Στην αντικριστή σελίδα σχολιάζει τα αποτελέσματα αυτά ο έγκριτος δημοσιογράφος-αναλυτής κ. Παπαχελάς αλλά εγώ από το «βήμα» τούτο θα ήθελα να σταθώ σε τρεις «λεπτομέρειες» που μου πρόκαλεσαν έκπληξη και προβληματισμό ταυτοχρόνως.

Η πρώτη αξιολογείται ως μία εκ των αιτιών της προαναφερθείσας ανασφάλειας και αφορά το μεγάλο ποσοστό των Ελλήνων που κατά το τελευταίο έτος δεν αποταμίευσε τίποτα. Το γεγονός ότι το 67% των ερωτηθέντων απάντησε αρνητικά στην περί αποταμίευσης ερώτηση αποκτά ανησυχητικές διαστάσεις δεδομένου ότι το 65% δήλωσε αβεβαιότητα και «καθόλου σιγουριά» για το μελλον του στην ερώτηση περί κοινωνικης ανασφάλειας. Αποτελεί όμως και αντιφατικό στοιχείο τη στιγμή που οι Έλληνες διαθέτουν σεβαστά ποσά για «δευτερεύουσες» αναγκες μην έχοντας καλύψει σε πολλές περιπτώσεις βασικές. Στο άρθρο του «Οι απίστευτες διαστάσεις του υπερκαταναλωτισμού στην Ελλάδα: Υπερβολή χλιδής και γκλαμουριάς» στο Forum (Δεκέμβριος 2006) επικαλούμενος στοιχεία της Εθνικής Στατιστικής Υπηρεσίας ο κ. Παπαναγιώτου σημειώνει: «Παραπονιούμαστε για την ακριβή βενζίνη, αλλά είμαστε πρωτοπόροι στη χρήση του Ι.Χ. ακόμη και σε διαδρομές μικρότερες του ενός χιλιομέτρου. Πάνω από 10.000 μικρά σκάφη πωλούνται ετησίως στην Ελλάδα. Καθημερινά, πληρώνουμε για το καινούργιο μας αυτοκίνητο περί 10.000.000 ευρώ και οι πωλήσεις των πολυτελών ακριβών μοντέλων σημειώνουν φέτος εντυπωσιακή άνοδο μέχρι 35%». Ο τίτλος από μόνος του νομίζω αποτυπώνει το μέγεθος ενός προβληματος που εμπειρικά γνωρίζουμε, τεχνηέντως αποσιωπούμε και αδιάλειπτα βιώνουμε.

Η δεύτερη αφορά απάντηση στο ερώτημα για την ικανοποίηση από τη λειτουργία της δημοκρατίας στην Ελλάδα και συγκεκριμένα το 19% των ερωτηθέντων που απάντησε ότι δεν είναι «καθόλου ικανοποιημένοι» με τη λειτουργία της. Παρόλο που αδιάσειστα στοιχεία αναφορικά με τη διαφθορά (η Ελλάδα στη 54η θέση στην κατάταξη των λιγότερο διεφθαρμένων χωρών της Διεθνους Διαφάνειας, 47η το 2005), τη διαπλοκή και τα δημοκρατικώς κληροδοτούμενα πολιτικά αξιώματα αλλά και λιγότερο απτές πλην όμως εμπειρικά επιβεβαιωμένες παρατηρήσεις περί αναξιοκρατίας και πολιτικής για ψηφοθηρία συνάδουν με την άποψη ότι η δημοκρατία στην Ελλάδα παρουσιάζει αδυναμίες. Ωστόσο το γεγονός ότι ένας στους πέντε Έλληνες δεν είναι καθόλου ικανοποιημένος με μια δημοκρατία η οποία πληροί όχι μόνο τις βασικές προϋποθέσεις (καθολική, ελεύθερη, δίκαιη ψηφοφορία) αλλά και ειδικές προβλέψεις (σταθερότητα, εναλλαγή κομμάτων, κυβερνητικός έλεγχος, ανοικτές διαδικασίες) οφείλει να προβληματίζει. Τριάντα και πλέον χρόνια μετά την παλινόρθωση της δημοκρατίας και εικοσιέξι (αισίως) χρόνια συμμετοχής στην Ευρωπαϊκή Ένωση δε δικαιολογούν το υψηλό αυτό ποσοστό – ένα ποσοστό το οποίο θέτει ερωτηματικά ως προς την αντίληψη και άποψη μας για ένα πολιτικό σύστημα του οποίου την πατρότητα νεμόμαστε με κάθε ευκαιρία.

Το τελευταίο σημείο στο οποίο θα ήθελα να σταθώ αφορά το υψίστης σημασίας ζήτημα της μετανάστευσης και ενσωμάτωσης των μεταναστών στην ελληνική κοινωνία. Παρόλο που δεν καθίσταται σαφές αν υπήρχε η δυνατότητα πολλαπλής απάντησης στην ερώτηση «που πρέπει να ρίξουν μεγαλύτερο βάρος οι κυβερνήσεις στα χρόνια που έρχονται» και παρόλο που όλες οι επιλογές αφορούν βασικά προβλήματα της κοινωνίας μας, το γεγονός ότι μόνο το 2% των απαντήσεων αφορούν τη μετανάστευση είναι ανησυχητικό. Το χαμηλό αυτό ποσοστό αποτυπώνει την άρνηση μας –ίσως και την άγνοια της αναγκαιότητας– να προσδώσουμε την πρέπουσα βαρύτητα στο σημαντικό αυτό ζήτημα που ήδη διέπει και επηρεάζει το φάσμα της οικονομίας αλλά και της ελληνικής κοινωνίας. Για παράδειγμα αναφορικά με την κοινωνική ένταξη διαφόρων πληθυσμιακών ομάδων ο καθηγητής Ψυχολογίας κ. Μαρβάκης σημειώνει ότι «οι απαιτήσεις μας πρέπει να στηρίζονται στην ανάγκη (και να ορμώνται από αυτήν) για όλο και πιο διευρυμένη και γενικευμένη (κοινωνική) αλληλεγγύη με στόχο την κοινωνική χειραφέτηση όλων. Πρέπει να απαιτούμε, δηλαδή, ίσες κοινωνικές ευκαιρίες και ίσες δυνατότητες συμμετοχής στο δημόσιο/πολιτικό χώρο, και όχι να φαντασιώνουμε ότι είμαστε εμείς αυτοί που θα παρέχουν κάτι σε κάποιους ‘ξένους’». Ωστόσο για να επιτευχθεί αυτό απαιτείται η ωρίμανση της ελληνικής κοινωνίας που σκόπιμο είναι να γίνει αυτοβούλως και προοδευτικά και να μην είναι προϊόν κοινωνικών συγκρούσεων και ρηγμάτων – κάτι το οποίο μεν φαντάζει δραματικό σενάριο αλλά μπορεί να μετουσιωθεί και σε πραγματικότητα αν εξακολουθούμε να εθελοτυφλούμε στη θέα της πραγματικότητας.


Κυρίως άρθρο: " 'Ναι' των πολιτών στις μεταρρυθμίσεις"
και Το σχόλιο του Α. Παπαχελά

Παπαναγιώτου, Χρήστος. «Απίστευτες Διαστάσεις του Υπερκαταναλωτισμού στην Ελλάδα: Υπερβολή χλιδής και γκλαμουριάς.» Forum Νο. 382, Δεκέμβριος 2006 σ.38-40.

Μαρβάκης, Αθανάσιος. «Κοινωνική ένταξη ή κοινωνικό απαρτχάιντ;» στο Η Ελλαδα της Μετανάστευσης: Κοινωνική συμμετοχή και ιδιότητα του πολίτη. επιμλ. Μίλτος Παύλου και Δημήτριος Χριστόπουλος. Αθήνα: Εκδόσεις Κριτική, 2004. σ.188-120.

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