Julia Ruck (Webster Vienna Private University)
After my graduate studies in the U.S., I returned to Vienna to teach German and Linguistics at an American university. The students at my university have lived all over the world; only a minority is American or Austrian. Quite a few have learned German in different educational settings in the past, some intend on staying in Austria, others will disperse all over the world again. As truly diverse as the student population at my university is in terms of their social identities, almost all of them have one disheartening thing in common: their experiences of discrimination by being marked as illegitimate users of German in their daily lives in Vienna. These experiences are shaped by pressures to ‘finally learn proper German’ expressed by public authorities and parts of the general public.
Many students at my university find themselves in a system that too often makes them feel marginalized, powerless, and stifled in their interactions in Vienna. It is one of my central aims to try to give students a sense of belonging, agency, and a voice in the sometimes difficult social and political context in which they are using German. In this regard, Claire E. Scott’s (2019) post on this blog, which discussed the connections between affect and power structures, resonated with me. It reminded me of insights from The Multilingual Subject, in which Claire Kramsch (2008) showcases the pivotal role of emotions and subjectivities in individuals’ multilingual practices. Tim McNamara (2019) writes about his language learning process in similar terms: “the learning of each language has had an important meaning for me as a person, and has been both an expression of, and a force for change of my sense of self” (p. 100). McNamara as well as many other applied linguists working within discursive approaches to language learning have pointed out the crucial role of discourses shaping both the language and the subjects who learn and use it.
In this sense, public discourses on language in Austria may impact how learners in the country relate to German. In a talk on discursive constructions of national identity, Ruth Wodak (2018) highlights how language can act as a gatekeeper. Language – or rather the results of standardized proficiency tests – becomes an indicator of who deserves to be in the country and who does not. Horner and Weber (2017) critique such testing regimes, which tie residence status to the passing of standardized language tests, as a neo-colonial practice. The so-called integration agreement, which legally binds non-EU citizens residing in Austria to learn German, was initially introduced by a right-wing government in 2003, legally refined several times since, and complemented by an ‘Orientierungs- und Wertetest’ (in a multiple-choice format!)in 2017 (Österreichischer Integrationsfonds, n.d.). While experts in professional organizations (e.g., ÖDaF (2017), Netzwerk Sprachenrechte (n.d.)) have been critiquing these practices, the public outcries tend to quickly abate after each reform. These policies have considerably shaped the public discourse on integration in Austria and perceptions on what it takes to ‘deserve’ to reside in the country.
This polemic sociopolitical climate that gives rise to troubling language policies in Austria leave me concerned. If language learning has such a deep emotional impact on one’s identity, how can we, as teachers, mitigate the sometimes deeply hurtful acts of discrimination that students experience when using German? In my courses, I try to provide a platform where students can share their affective reactions to their experiences of discrimination in order to, as Scott (2019) writes, dismantle the institutional injustices and the pain that one experiences in being subjugated to them. One of the challenges that I face in this process is, as Scott also points out, the seeming impossibility to change these structures. Therefore, my goal is to have students build knowledge around and critically analyze linguistic policies and attitudes that affect them, engage with alternative narratives, and offer them a protected environment in which they can share their own experiences.
One example to do so is through a critical analysis of teaching materials endorsed by the Austrian government that aim to “prepare learners to get acquainted not only with the German language but also with the rules and opportunities upon which our common life in Austria is based” (Dengler et al., 2018, p. v, my translation). One of the emotionally most negative experiences for students is their regular visit to the immigration and visa authorities in Vienna. In an intermediate/advanced-level German course, I designed a module that focuses on language policies and public migration authorities. In a first step, I work with students on some of the most basic forms (e.g., visa extension forms) that are only available in German and discuss bureaucracy in Austria and elsewhere. As a second step, I work with a chapter in the above-mentioned textbook that aims at preparing migrants for their appointments at the migration offices. The materials offer sample dialogues, vocabulary exercises, as well as an audio recording with advice from a so-called integration advisor on how to prepare for and interact with public authorities. Students work through the material in the classroom and then analyze them with guiding questions based on critical discourse analysis. We discuss students’ first reactions to the materials and their contents, and analyze connotations of specific words that are used. We discuss questions such as the authors’ potential intentions in designing the materials, the intended target audience, and the authors’ underlying beliefs about the audience. As a third step, students write an official letter to the editors in which they, as the target audience, provide their critical opinion on the teaching materials. While many students found the linguistic resources in the materials helpful, many tended to critique the political agenda, paternalistic ideologies, a focus on migrants’ deficits, and the lack of representativeness as compared with their own experiences.
Another approach that I have chosen is to integrate literary and cinematic texts that address personal histories of people with diverse backgrounds. I aim to give students models of multilingual and multicultural users of German who may share some of their experiences and offer alternative subject positions to dominant hegemonic narratives. For example, since many of my students are Russian speakers, I work with an excerpt from Vladimir Vertlib’s (1999) Ich und die Eingeborenen in which the narrator recounts his different subject positions growing up as the son of Russian Jewish immigrants to post-war Vienna. The central theme of the narrator’s history is how his languages have shaped him and his relationships, his affective associations with his languages, the shared collective histories with his different communities, and the empowerment of being able to stand up against discrimination in a society in which he eventually found his place. After reading and analyzing the text, students discuss the narrator’s history and how it relates to their own histories. In a writing project, they compose a fist-person narrative of their own history and experiences as multilingual and multicultural people, choosing from a variety of phrases taken from Vertlib’s text.
To conclude, with these two examples I try to provide students with background knowledge on policies and attitudes they encounter, equip them with tools to critically analyze them, provide them with a venue in which they can learn to express their affective experiences, and have them engage with different multilingual and multicultural users of German.
Some readers may wonder how this is relevant for the German curriculum in the U.S. First, I believe that metalinguistic discussions need to transcend structuralist linguistic analyses and include issues of the intersections of language, identity, and society. One such aspect are linguistic policies and attitudes, which in my eyes form an underrepresented yet important topic in discussions of social and political issues in German-speaking regions in collegiate university curricula. Linguistic policies have a direct impact on people seeking residence in German-speaking countries and shape the public discourse on who is taken to be a legitimate resident. Second, as so many other authors on this blog, I can only reiterate the importance of representing diverse voices of users of German which provide students with ways of identification that many essentializing and homogenizing textbook representations of white, native-speaker, middle-class Germans cannot offer.
Dengler, Stefanie, et al. Linie 1 Österreich A2.2: Deutsch in Alltag und Beruf plus Werte- und Orientierungsmodulen. Stuttgart: Klett, 2018.
Horner, Kristine, and Weber, Jean-Jacques. Introducing Multilingualism. A Social Approach. London: Routledge, 2018.
Kramsch, Claire. The Multilingual Subject. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
McNamara, Tim. Language and Subjectivity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
ÖDaF. Stellungnahme zum Integrationsgesetz. 7 March, 2017.https://www.oedaf.at/site/interessenvertretungsprac/stellungnahmenpresse/article/524.html
Österreichischer Integrationsfonds. (n.d.). Mein Sprachportal. Materialien zur Prüfungsvorbereitung
Scott, Claire E. Why do German Gender Studies matter now? DDGC Blog.https://diversityingermancurriculum.weebly.com/ddgc-blog/why-do-german-gender-studies-matter-now
Wodak, Ruth. Discourse and National Identities: Austria 1995 – 2005 – 2015[Video]. 4 December, 2018. YouTube. https://youtu.be/ipzkglA2PFE
Netzwerk Sprachenrechte. (n.d.). Stellungnahmen zur Integrationsvereinbarung. http://v004107.vhost-vweb-02.sil.at/tag/iv
Vertlib, Vladimir. "Ich und die Eingeborenen.“ Die Fremde in mir. Lyrik und Prosa der österreichischen Minderheiten und Zuwanderer, ed. Helmut Niederle. Klagenfurt: Hermagoras, 1999. p. 317–320.