Quick on the heels of the Americans for the Arts annual convention, I headed to France for the biennial conference of AIMAC (International Association of Arts and Culture Management) where I presented a paper titled “Means and Ends: A Theory Framework for Understanding Entrepreneurship in the US Arts and Culture Sector.” Context is important; the framework I posit may not necessarily apply in the European context where “cultural entrepreneurship” is more widely studied and understood. An American in Provence with only a few years of high school French to help me, I quickly felt incredibly humbled by my position as someone who could not follow a complex conversation, read (or find) a street sign, or understand the conference plenary session without simultaneous translation headphones.
It is astoundingly arrogant to presume that anywhere Americans travel in the world, we will encounter only people who can speak English. Time and again in the last few days while away from the conference, I have witnessed American tourists walk into a shop or up to a counter and immediately begin speaking English, expecting to be served with the immediacy we have grown used to in the US. The unalienable rights we hold to be self evident on this 4th of July do not extend to a right to impose our language on others abroad (or at home, for that matter). If all men – and women – are created equal, we each have equal and individual right to our culture, including our language.
How, then, can we communicate across cultures? Given the topic of the conference, arts and cultural management, and my own interests both professional and personal, I couldn’t help but think that art in many forms is extra-lingual. We can share, appreciate, and understand much art across the boundaries of our linguistic capacities, even if we may not be able to talk to one another about it.
I estimate that 80% of the AIMAC conference attendees were not native English speakers, yet with the exception of the opening plenary, the conference was held in English. That means that 80% of the scholars presenting were presenting in a second language! In every country except the US (or at least most), the higher education system and the schooling leading up to it teaches people to navigate the world multilingually. I am thankful that enough high school French has come back to me that I can have an (almost) conversation with a French person, albeit not at a very high level.
Coincidentally, just as I was starting to write this post, an article in the Atlantic came up on my feed that seems relevant. Maybe we don’t like to speak other languages because we don’t like making mistakes. As the article points out, we should get over it because making mistakes is how innovation happens. It also makes us humble — and a little humility is a good thing.