Blog from February, 2013

Stepping across language borders at the Vakki Symposium

I have just returned from my visit to the XXXIII Vakki Symposium in Vaasa. The town itself is an excellent example of a place where different languages live in mutual cooperation ­− or so it seems to an outsider. The town has a large Swedish-speaking population, and the services are offered in both Finnish and Swedish. You can hear the two languages everywhere and anytime.

Of course challenges may be expected of the somewhat seventy other languages that also have speakers in the Vaasa region due to increased immigration. However, Vaasa with its long history of bilingualism is probably better prepared to tackle with the possible problems of multilingual coexistence than many other places in Finland.

The Vakki Symposium itself is a prime example of multilingual reality, where borders between languages are crossed more or less naturally. The symposium has four official languages − Finnish, Swedish, English and German − and they are all actively used. The opening address of course welcomed the participants in all those languages, and it was such a pleasure to hear Sirkku Aaltonen (chairing the plenary speech by Helle V. Dam) mixing two, or sometimes even three, languages together within a single sentence just as if it were something she would constantly do in her every-day life. Moreover, the symposium had participants from countries such as France, Russia and Turkey, which further increased the number of languages spoken in the less formal occasions of the event.

This leads me to one of the presentations that I heard at the symposium. Vaasa’s own Tommi Lehtonen was talking about the perspective challenge presented by relativist philosophers, who claim that intercultural understanding is impossible, since different traditions, i.e. different cultures, have their own standards of rational justification and cannot therefore accept or comprehend the perspectives of other cultures. Lehtonen argued against this view by providing an example from MacIntyre (2003), who maintains that the fact that there exists successful translation between languages shows that we are indeed able to overcome the perspective challenge. Lehtonen then continued to suggest a few concrete steps to further our way on this route.

I suppose that foreign language learning could offer another example of our ability to overcome the perspective challenge. People do learn foreign languages and by doing so obtain new world views that help them understand and interpret the cultures where those languages are used. At the same time they may even learn to appreciate some the aspects of their own culture that they had not thought of before. I’m not claiming that this happens easily, but I firmly believe that the possibility is there.