Language Maintenance: A Conversation with Carol Renner
Note from the editor:
U.S.-born Carol Renner (B.A. in Political Science, M.A. in German) has taught EFL, ESP and American Studies as a Lektorin at the University of Regensburg, in Regensburg, Germany, since 1970. She is married to a German national and has three children. Renners interest in questions relating to language maintenance is both personal and professional. In 1975, after having given her six contracts in five years, the university decided against renewing her contract or making it permanent. Their reasoning: she had been in Germany so long, and had become assimilated to such a degree that, although it was not evident in her case, language deterioration was inevitable. In 1978, after a series of court decisions in her favor, Renner received a permanent contract from the university and compensation for lost earnings
SutherlandThe basic issue I would like to talk about today is language maintenance as it relates to native speakers living and working outside the English-speaking world. In your experience teaching English in a German university setting, what are some of the major factors affecting language maintenance?
Renner: Well, to start out with, the native speaker teacher in Germany, if he is an academic, is probably not in EFL; hes probably in Linguistics, or in Comparative Literature. Hes a young academic who wants to be in Germany to do research on something to do with Germany, or to get some teaching experience in a foreign country, and hes supposedly going to go home and use that experience in his research but maybe never teach the language again. In other words, the foreign language teacher here is not considered a professional.
Sutherland: Right. And I remember any time I proposed teaching a course that came anywhere close to what I was trained in, i.e., literature, red flags went up all over the department, while people who didnt have qualifications in literature were allowed to teach things like poetry reading. If you were a poet, it was ok, because you were sort of exotic anyway, or if you were old, really old, it was ok, you were indulged, because you werent really going to do serious literary studies. But anyone who had fresh training in literature was not allowed near the field. Maybe thats changed...
Renner: I dont think so. I think its pretty clear. [-1-]
Sutherland: In other words, theres a conscious attempt to keep the position non-professional.
Renner: Now there, of course, I think youre falling into the same trap, Janet. Why is teaching language itself not professional?
Sutherland: Well, for me it is! And theres a lively movement in the United States to professionalize it and to give, not just ESL, but also the language teaching contingents of foreign language departments credibility and professional status, and to honor the kinds of activities that language teachers do as opposed to what literature teachers do. But I havent seen any sign of that here.
Sutherland: And thats what I mean when I say theres a conscious effort to prevent Lektors from doing anything that could be viewed here by the professors as professional. Both language and area studies courses are seem by the professors as secondary in importance. And the people who teach those courses... In the six years I taught at the university, only one Lektor was hired who had TEFL training, and that was only because she was recommended by someone already in the department.
Renner: Well, a good foreign language teacher is going to be a generalist in some respects, anyway. I mean, hes got to be teaching the culture, hes got to be aware of lots of things, he has to have a varied vocabulary, he may have to teach English for Special Purposes, so he has got to have a broad general knowledge. Its not good if hes just an expert in one narrow field. Its better if he can provide his students with a broad view of the language and the people who speak it and their history and culture.
Sutherland: Yes, but that kind of broad view is viewed with particular contempt here, because if your interests are so broad, you cant possibly be really good at anything.
Renner: Yes, because theres no depth. I realize that. You know, survey courses are looked down upon, too, for that reason. But there is a gift involved in structuring knowledge, very complicated and complex and varied knowledgeof structuring it in such a way that the students get a kind of outline in their minds, a skeleton to which they can attach whatever other facts they happen to acquire.
That brings us back to the question of maintaining your sense of your own worth, of your own identity, because the system here says more or less that youre only worthwhile as long as you are a new, [-2-] fresh native speaker, and as soon as you have assimilated or been integrated into the community, you are no longer useful as a person.
Sutherland: In other words, as soon as you develop certain competencies within the system...
Renner: Basically, thats what it amounts to. The more competent you are in dealing with German and dealing with the society here, the less you are considered a typical American or native speaker.
Sutherland: Why is it that typical American and typical Britishtypical native English speakers are so highly valued at German universities, anyway?
Renner: The assumption is, I suppose, that their English is up-to-date, which is a strange thing in a way, because there are so many language communities within one language. Older people speak differently from younger people. Children speak differently from teenagers. I dont think that it is really a serious argument, frankly. However, I think it does have psychological implications for the people who come here as native speakers to teach their language. Those people are made to feel, whether they want to believe it or not, that suddenly theres a natural law governing their ability to speak their native language, and whatever they do, simply by being here, theyre fated, destined, doomed in time to lose their competence.
Sutherland: Didnt they try to use that kind of argument in connection with your court case?
Renner: Well, one of the main arguments they used against me in court was that I was married to a German and obviously gave all signs of being integrated into German society, and therefore it was merely a matter of time before I became like all other Lektors, I suppose. (laughter) That is particularly insidious because your language is part of your identity, and when they say you are bound to lose your language...
You know, they say you can never become a German. That means you can never have a full-fledged identity in the new country, within the new system, and yet you are, by some sort of natural law, bound to lose your identity in the culture that you come from. It means basically you become a nobody. You have no identity. The implications are that you lose whatever you are. And for someone who is insecure, or who internalizes those values, theres the sense of, you know, I am worthless.
Sutherland: I suppose its very difficult not to internalize them on some level, too, if you stay here. [-3-]
Renner: I suppose so.
Sutherland: Considering we are talking about living human beings, thats a pretty mechanistic view: all that sentimentality about irrecoverable loss. The idea that you automatically lose your competence in your native language suggests you are a machine, like a wound-up clock thats bound to run down. And if thats the case, then why bother...?
Renner: Well, the clock image isnt bad, because it implies you get everything youre going to get in terms of language either at birth or in childhood, and you reach a stage of development in adulthood that says, OK, she has mastered her native language. And then she moves somewhere else, and from that point on the clock starts to run down and theres no way of rewinding it.
Sutherland: I am not aware of a similar concern about loss of competence in the foreign language community, say, in the United States. In other words, if you happen to teach German or Dutch or Swedish or Japanese, or whatever, the concern is there when you are hired that you be good at the language, that you have native or near-native fluency, but I dont know that anybody frets if you dont spend all your vacations and holidays updating your language skills and gathering cultural studies materials in the country where the language is spoken. There is an expectation that you will be committed enough to your discipline to remain active, but language maintenance per se seems to be a matter of personal commitment. Of course, scholarly publishing is another matter altogether...
Renner: Thats interesting. Thats certainly true about not questioning whether or not someone speaks well or not after theyve finally gotten a position in the United States.
Sutherland: And I wonder to what extent the German professors belief about what happens to native speakers when they come here is shaped by their own experience as scholars. After all, they dont have the same kind of pressure to continue to develop and produce that Americans have. Theres no publish or perish ethos here, and as a consequence a lot of German professors do simply stagnate. They can afford to because their power and authority derive for the most part from entirely different sources. Do power and politics enter into the picture, too?
Renner: Of course. Usually the native speaker teachers begin as relatively powerless, anyway. Their only power is their ability to speak the language that they are teaching. If you accept the devolutionary view, it means from a beginning level of minimal power you gradually sink into absolutely nothing! (laughter) There is no incentive to, well, theres no positive reinforcement for improvement because the assumption is that you cant improve.[-4-] Power and politics enter into the picture in other ways as well. You make choices about language when you talk to your boss as a foreign language teacher. And you consider, Is he going to speak German to me, so that he is at an advantage, because my German obviously isnt as good as his, or is he going to speak English to me. And does that imply that hes saying Your German is awful and therefore Im going to show you how great my English is and how poor your German is...
And I think theres also something generically uncomfortable about a foreigner who is assimilated. A foreigner who is not distinctly recognizable as a foreigner makes most natives feel uncomfortable. They want to be able to categorize you, and if you are a foreigner and they dont immediately hear it, they feel as if they have been fooled.
Sutherland: I wonder if theres something like that also in Japanese society. I heard a story some time ago when I was teaching in-house courses at a Japanese-owned computer company. There the story made the rounds that someone who knew Japanese quite well had been hired by another company, and he didnt tell anyone he could speak Japanese. I dont suppose he was even asked, because the assumption would have been that one did not speak Japanese unless one was Japanese. But as it turned out, he did, and he was very good at it, and when it became known that he knew Japanese, they fired him for not revealing that to them before. In other words, not being able to know that someone was listening in gave them a strong sense of being vulnerable, of having been in some way violated. Whether or not the story was true, I think it said something about the anxieties of the Germans who told it to mewho were themselves working for a Japanese employer. And I think the concern about maintaining boundaries is very strong in German society, as well. If you dont speak with a recognizable accent, or wear the right armband or the right patch on your clothing, youre not easily categorized, not readily identifiable as an outsider. And that makes them uncomfortable.
Renner: Theres an economic aspect, too. Theres the feeling that foreigners ought to be happy theyre allowed to work here, and once their working life is finished, then they should go away.
Sutherland: So the native speaker teacher is in something of a dilemma.
Renner: Well, for me there came a point where I had to make some decisions. You meet people who are expatriates living in the foreign country and for some reason or other, like so many people when they first come to a foreign country and are learning that countrys language, they want to immerse themselves in that culture. And for one or two years, they do nothing but speak that language or associate with those people. And during that time, it is possible [-5-] for the interference between that language and their native language to occur. But the wrong assumption these people make who say, you know, that its a natural law that your competence decreases with time is the fact that its much more uneven than that. It depends on your situation in life, on what youre doing, what decisions youve come to, how much you are pursuing one language or the other.
Sutherland: How committed you are to the language?
Renner: Yes, how committed you are. You come to a point where you say, Do I want to forget my other identity? Maybe there are people, and I think there are, who are unhappy with themselves, and they seek another culture out in order to find a self that they are more comfortable with. And then they are, at least for a while, perhaps very happy to forget who they were. And then, at some point, after theyve been in the foreign culture for a while, their childhood occurs to them, there are aspects of their personality that cant be quite reconciled, or wishes that they cant realize in the foreign community, and then they suddenly realize, Im missing something. I dont want to give that up. And then they turn back to their native language and put more effort, more commitment into maintaining both languages equally. And that is the same thing anyone does who is committed to any sort of subject.
Sutherland: Language work is never finished.
Renner: No, its never finished. Its a work in progress. I mean, language is a work in progress. Theres no reason to reconcile yourself to a plateau.
Sutherland: And identity is a process.
Renner: Right. And for someone living abroad maybe its a process of reconciling these two cultures continually, or even continuously. Its the growth and change that they ignore. They only see change as a slow process of deterioration, of dissolution. And it isnt that way.
Sutherland: OK, but doesnt that imply having input from both cultures? I know that was one of the things that I missed when I stopped teaching at the university here. At the Polytechnic I am essentially the only native English speaker. At work, I constitute an English language community of one.
Renner: Well, obviously that is one of the good things about being in a department that is large. The community of native speakers is also relatively large. If you are teaching a more exotic language, its far more difficult to keep in touch. Those of us who teach English are in a privileged position because not only is German culture filled with English, and opportunities to listen to [-6-] English and to talk Englishyouve got fellow native speakers to share with, to discuss with, to keep abreast of ideas with.
I think, depending on the size of the expatriate community in which you live, it is more or less difficult to keep abreast of developments in your language. I reject on principle the idea that you naturally lose a language. But of course, theres a pleasure involved in hearing someone else use a word that you havent heard for a long time, and you think, Ah, I forgot that, thats so delicious, thats great! I must remember to use that again myself sometime. You get it in part from reading, but...
Sutherland: The pleasure is not the same.
Renner: No, its not the same as hearing someone use a word that you may know but that you just havent heard recently, and you think, Ah, yes, that word!
Sutherland: You get flashes of that on e-mail, too. Gadzooks was not exactly in when I was a kid, as far as I know, but it has for me such a delightful, harmlessly melodramatic qualityI love it! And I use it occasionally, and when I use it on e-mail, I invariably get comments back, like How old are you? or Wow, havent heard that for a while. And theres an active enjoyment, fascination, interest, involvement...
Renner: ...in using the language. I guess its sort of like playing tennis or badminton. If you really enjoy it, you feel Aha! I returned that one nicely! Its the skill! You admire each others skill and share aspects of each others skill, and thats very pleasurable.
Sutherland: Yes, but you have to do it. It doesnt just happen to you, its an active...
Renner: Right, its a decision. Its intentional. Thats one of the main mistakes the professors make, is the assumption that there is nothing you can do, that you must passively accept, resign yourself to the slow deterioration of your language.
Sutherland: Like a terminal disease.
Renner: And thats ridiculous. We have a satellite dish, you know. And I know, for example, when I think about my seven-year-old son, Max, that the words he knows are directly related to the fact that he sits in front of the television and watches Cartoon Network or other films in English for maybe a couple of hours a day.
Sutherland: You mean he uses lots of POW! and ZAP! words? [-7-]
Renner: No, not so much that. But we were playing Dungeons and Dragons recently, and we were playing it in English for the benefit of my father. Max said to my father, We come into this tunnel room, and there are chests with treasure, and foods, and other delicacies... And my father said, Delicacies??? But you know, theyre the words that he hears in the context of his Dungeons and Dragons and certain cartoons that he likes, and so exposure is a very important aspect of... I wouldnt want to say keeping your language alive because I think that would be too strong.
Sutherland: Keeping your language lively?
Renner: Lively is more like it. Exposure is important for that, but exposure is important for everyone. I have students who come back from a year abroad in an English-speaking country, and theyre just great in English. And they come to me a month later and say, I feel it all going. All the immediacy that I had is becoming artificial again. What can I do? And everyone needs a real language community if they are going to practice a language, whether youre a foreigner learning the language or a native, language just doesnt sit there like a block of stone. It moves. And youve got to move with it.
Sutherland: Youve said this before. That the language is so much larger than any one speaker of it, that the moment we are taken out of a society, to a certain extent, we bring the language with us in the state that its in when we leave. And were not teenagers anymore. Were not yet old people. (laughter) We come from certain regions. We come from small towns or large cities, from certain social and economic groups, and we bring all that with us, and we dont magically become speakers of the whole language, any more than we were at home.
Renner: No. And its the same with specialized vocabulary, although, I must say that the language teacher is far more aware of the need to extend his language into different areas than is the person who always remains who he is in the United States, in a certain function, in a certain region, in a certain socio-economic situation. It would be a pity if the language teacher remained what he was when he came, actually. Because thats part of his growing awareness of the varieties.
A person who comes straight from the United States, the first time he has to grade a paper, and hes confronted with, say, at the weekend or any of dozens of other British forms the students have learned in school, hes going to count those wrong. Hes going to see them as wrong. And part of being here and being with other native speakers from other places, and part of seeing the typical mistakes that Germans make and knowing German well enough to say, [-8-] well, thats that, you know, recognizing interference as being thatall that is something you gain by being here, not something thats a question of loss.
Living languages arent static. They dont stand still so we can collect them and put them in museums. And the language teacher living in a foreign country is living on the line of change, the place on the border in that space of tension where the two languages are interacting. And he is the embodiment of that interaction, and he shouldnt try to deny it.
Sutherland: We should learn to see the value of living on the margin. Out there at the semi-permeable membrane where things come into the language or go out of itor dont.
Renner: Not only language teachers, but language teachers in foreign countries, reporters, anybody who is living in two places at once, whose life work, whose profession involves...
Sutherland: ...working with a kind of stereoscopic vision. Looking at this culture and trying to mediate, and especially where you are reporting events here and trying to make them make sense to people over here.
Renner: So you have to accept interference, because interference is what it is all about. Interference is where you try to explain differences. Interference, I think, should be seen as something positive, rather than as something negative. Interference is where the two languages or the two cultures differ and have to be explained to one another. I decided at some point, Im not going to be worried about interference, Im going to accept it as natural, and Im going to deal with it. Most of the time, its not a question of my not being aware of it. Usually, what happens is, you say something and then you think, Ah, thats not it. Ive just been influenced by...
Sutherland: And then do you go back and correct it, or just make a mental note of it for the next time?
Renner: I think most of the time I correct myself immediately.
Sutherland: I remember when I first met you, I was fresh enough myself at that time that I was still really resisting developing my German skills because I was still buying into the idea that my value here was as an unadulterated native speaker fresh from the jungle, so to speak. In all our conversations, I remember noticing a single expression that you used, one word, one instance out of all the things we ever talked about that I would have called a Germanism.
Renner: It was interference. [-9-]
Sutherland: Yes. And I always had enormous respect for you because you were so good in English, and so good in German, and neither one ever seemed to interfere with the other.
Renner: Well, they do, of course. But Ive just decided it doesnt make that much difference. That is part of being multilingual, bilingual, whatever. And you know, you try to clean your act up, but you know, I dont think perfection is where the language is. I think a little messiness, a little change, I mean, obviously you do aim for various standards...
Sutherland: ...depending on the situation?
Renner: Depending on the situation.
Sutherland: Gee, you dont sound like a foreigner to me. (laughter)
Renner: I think it was an act of will to decide that I was not going to let this society sell me the theory that I was no longer competent in my own language, and from that point on I no longer felt that anyone could tell me that.
Sutherland: Its like you said in the last Forum, that language belongs to those who claim it.
See Discussion (F-2) for a dailog on language maintenance. [-10-]
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