Language: How liberated are you?
[the following article was published in the International Doula Journal, Vol. 22, Issue 2, 2014]
I recently participated in an international conference on Current Women’s Issues in the UK. For the first time I was exposed to the terms “language oppression” and “language liberation.” I owe gratitude to the late Milena Ruzkova, Greek-based Czech obstetrician/gynecologist and board certified lactation consultant, who brought me in touch with very special ideas and material for parents and children, as well as for people involved in perinatal care. Through her I was led to this very special event. While at the conference I saw up close how the language issue was being handled, one of the many issues that we all deal with, especially since we are in touch with international knowledge and professionals.
Some of us (especially if we do not live in an English-speaking country or if we work or live with non-English speakers) may deal with more than one language in our personal, professional or social lives. As we try to open our horizons into multi-culturalism, by being aware of languages other than the dominant ones, I want to share my thoughts and experience on the language issue.
Language liberation is personal work. Each of us is affected by how language is dealt with where we live. Doulas may come in contact with women from different cultures and languages, and the perinatal period is especially sensitive to language and the mother’s native or mother language.
Using English as the usual common ground for everyone to communicate thoughts, visions and knowledge serves us as a great tool and I am grateful for it. However it is so important to remember that there are people worldwide who communicate in many different languages!
In this article I will try to give a glimpse of some facets of the issues that involve doulas in their one-to-one work with mothers and families, doula trainers and educators in their group work, and doulas as activists and world motivators in their work on an international level as organizers of events, conferences, and open discussions. I will start with a few thoughts that may raise awareness and emotions, then offer some suggestions from my personal experience.
I would like to present some thoughts and assumptions regarding language so that we can study, contemplate and discuss them:
- Every language is unique and important; no one is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than any other.
- Knowledge and information should be easily accessible to everyone, no matter in what language it is spoken or written.
- We should all be aware of the power of one’s own language(s) upon pregnant women, birthing women and mothers of newborns. It’s important that we do our best to honor them in the best ways possible.
- All presentations and workshops taking place in a country should be given or interpreted into the language of the host country, unless they are addressed to people whose mother tongue is the same as the presenter’s.
- Non-English speaking people have been oppressed regarding their languages.
- We can find ways to organize international workshops and events so as to show respect to themother tongue of each participant.
- We have the easiest, fastest, fullest and most accurate access to our higher intelligence when we speak and hear information in our mother tongue. Even if we speak a foreign language very well, most of the time interpretation is delayed in our minds. When there is interpreting during public events, foreign speakers gradually become more sensitive to speaking slower, and the audience gets the chance to digest the information while listening at a slower pace.
- When the mother tongue of the client or participant of an event is not being honored or represented, it is as if a part of them is not participating. We should show respect to each and every person, recognizing the importance of their mother tongue and their contribution to the event.
- The presence of other languages - besides the prevailing English - at international events helps us all realize that in big parts of the world people think, talk and dream in many other languages.
- The common worry that we waste time when interpreting, leads us to a general atmosphere of haste, which is characteristic of our society. This dynamic comes in total opposition with the central subject of our work - birth, postpartum, breastfeeding, unconditional support - where the birthing woman, her baby, her whole family and sometimes the caregivers need to take their own time for maximum results. In this case, rushed actions could lead to compromise in the physical and psychological health of the mother and baby.
- As cultures move and mix, it is becoming more and more likely that we meet expecting or new mothers who do not speak our language. It is good practice for all of us who support the mother-baby couple to be aware of language.
- The decision of what language to use during interviews/meetings/events with international participants raises class and other issues of discrimination, as well: non-English-speaking people usually avoid admitting that they cannot easily follow the language because this may mean that they have received lower or insufficient education, or that they come from a lower class, etc. Very often the people who speak languages other than their native one(s) fluently (and who have not been raised in a multi-lingual environment), speak mostly the common western-European languages, with English being the prevalent one, and have had the privilege of studying, whether in their own countries or abroad, investing both time and money in this pursuit.
So, what can we do differently?
My sensitivity to the language issue comes from my personal history: I was born and raised in a small country in between the west and the east - Greece. Very few people in the world speak Greek, so English is almost a must for Greek people who are interested in communicating with the wider world. It is very rare now to find a young Greek person who does not speak English well enough to communicate. As a young adult, I lived in western European countries (United Kingdom, Netherlands and a little in Spain, with short visits to Germany, Italy, and France). In these countries I was able to communicate in English and, due to my classical studies (Ancient Greek and Latin), I could also understand and use the basic Latin-based languages (German, Dutch, Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese). Then I lived in Greece for almost 10 years married to a New York-Italian man who never felt he had to learn Greek.
It is my understanding that a person born and raised in the United States could spend all their lives speaking and hearing English with no need to learn another language, even if they travel abroad or work with foreign clients. This can happen because the United States is so big and its culture so widely accepted and spread all over the world.
As doulas, doula educators and activists, I am convinced that it would help immensely if we took steps toward understanding the language issue while serving a wide range of the multi-cultural spectrum.
If you belong in the native English-speaking population
- Be aware of the place of the English language in a historical context. In many places in the world people have been forced to speak the three or four main prevailing languages (English, French, Spanish or Portuguese) and often their mother tongue (often transmitted by oral tradition) was banned or spoken in secret.
- Try to learn another language! Be committed and see how long it takes for you to be fluent in speaking, reading and writing. Only then will you be able to understand what it means to communicate in a language that is not your native one.
- Expose yourself to different cultures, especially those of women you serve. Films, poems, art and music of their culture will give you a different perspective of who she is and even what she may need during the birth and postpartum period.
- Encourage your client to speak her mothertongue in front of you with her children, partner, mother, etc. If she is trying to be integrated into the new culture she may be timid or embarrassed; it’s good to show acceptance and willingness so she can fully reveal herself.
- Ask your non-English-speaking client her name. Ask her to teach you how to pronounce it correctly (if it’s an uncommon name). Ask her what it means. Ask her if there is a special meaning around her name (if she was named after someone special or a special event related to her culture).
- Be aware of possible social or racial issues hiding behind the language issue. If your client belongs to a culture that has been oppressed or is targeted by racism and poverty, speaking her mother tongue may mean re-stimulation of negative or traumatic feelings for both you and her regarding her social, economic, racial and religious status. Do not underestimate the implications of language oppression!
- Be aware of how fast you are speaking when you are not speaking with native English-speaking people. Also be aware of your speaking when you don’t have personal contact with non-English-speaking people (through phone, Skype, recordings). For someone whose mother tongue is not English it usually takes a bit longer for the information to sink in, and speed may make it more difficult. Additionally, if you are in a position of authority (e.g. the woman’s doula or educator), she may be timid to ask you to repeat or rephrase because she cannot follow your speaking rhythm.
- Do the terms “language liberation” and “language oppression” mean anything to you?
- Knowing how sensitive this issue can be, I suggest you read the above thoughts and assumptions and see what feelings they bring up for you. We cannot move forward with this issue if we feel offended, insulted, unaware, guilty, confused, etc. Such feelings are to be expected, and ways can be found to release the emotional tension around the issue.
If you belong in the non-English-speaking population
- Explore your relationship with your mother tongue. Do you speak, read or write it? Do you honor it? Do you respect it? Do you think more of it or less of it in comparison to the language spoken in the country you live in?
- Explore your relationship with the language spoken where you live (if it’s not your mother tongue). Did you enjoy learning it? Did you struggle to learn it? Did you have to learn it or was it your choice? Do you think more of it or less of it in comparison to your mother tongue?
- Experiment with speaking your mother tongue where appropriate. You could organize poetry reading, movie screenings, discussions, singing/dancing, or other events that are open to your natives and others too, so you can be seen in your mother tongue context.
- When you are with people speaking your mother tongue in a country where another language is spoken, which language do you speak? Is it acceptable to speak your mother tongue everywhere or anywhere you want? Are there any implications with speaking your mother tongue (regarding your professional, social or economic status?)
- What is your personal or family history regarding your mother tongue? When did you start learning the language of the country you live in? What language did you learn in school? What did you speak at home? Have you given up on your mother tongue?
- If your name is not common in the country you live in, is it properly pronounced? Do you care to teach people to pronounce it correctly, according to your mother tongue rules? Do you know what it means? Do you tell people what your name means?
- Do the terms “language liberation” and “language oppression” mean anything to you?
If you organize public events
- Find out what your audience will be like. If it is mixed backgrounds, make an effort to somehow have all languages represented. Interpreting upfront and/or silently with volunteers or professionals are possible solutions.
- Discuss and find ways to release the emotional tension that the issue may bring up if applicable with your organizing team. What would it really mean to acknowledge other languages by allowing sufficient time for interpreting, by slowing down the pace of the event, by committing to your decision when people demand the easy solution of having one dominant language?
My personal experience
The following is my perspective on how the language issue was dealt with at an international conference I participated in recently. I hope it gives a realistic example of the above ideas.
The interpretation during the conference was one of the most fascinating experiences of my whole life! In Greece, where I live and often organize or co-organize international events (trainings, conferences, workshops), we often encounter many feelings around language. Reactions may vary from the absolute conviction that we don’t need foreigners to talk to us about our own issues, especially if they don’t speak our language, to the conviction that English is and should be the commonly accepted language, and whoever does not speak it delays the rest of us from quick access to international knowledge.
The conference I attended had approximately 170 people in attendance. During the workshop there was upfront interpreting next to the speaker, while at the same time there was whispered interpreting in small groups in all the other languages (there was also the possibility of interpreting through microphones when whispered side-to-side interpreting was not possible). All interpreters were volunteers. Every 20 minutes the interpreting language would change and up to the end of the conference all the languages of the participants had been heard at least once: that is 21 languages from four continents (Europe, North and South America, Asia and Africa). Every 20 minutes there was one minute of silence for each interpreter to regroup and clear their minds. This also gave time for the topics to sink in for the audience. For better organization there was a posted list of all the languages, with at least two names next to each of them: one name was the main interpreter who stood next to the speaker and the other was their support person who was responsible for helping with words/phrases if needed, support when the issue discussed was difficult emotionally (we discussed some heavy issues, like racism, genocide, pornography, violence/rape, etc.), and to support her during the one minute break.
The speaker was an exclusively English-speaking American woman, with a tendency to go too fast. When she would speak too fast for the participants and interpreters to follow, the interpreting coordinator of the conference would silently raise beautifully made written messages: “Short phrases please,” “Please speak slower,” “Please pause more frequently.” This was a gentle and non-critical reminder to the speaker, which did not interrupt her train of thought and gave her the opportunity to slowly adapt in her own time, with respect to all.
My hope is that these thoughts will help us to serve our clients and organize interesting events with sensitivity, respect and appreciation to our colleagues, the people we serve, ourselves and our common goals and visions.