Who is Afraid of Speaking in Tongues?

Several years ago, when I was still new to the institutional culture of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, I proposed to the colleagues that we should consider extending an invitation to Daniel Beauvois to deliver a seminar lecture. Professor Beavouis is the French doyen of Eastern European history. He researched and wrote ground-breaking and minutely documented works on the University of Vilna (today’s Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania) and the educational system, which existed between 1803 and 1832 in the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania, then within the borders of the Russian Empire. This university, with the largest number of students out of the empires’ all universities, accounted for roughly a quarter to a third of all Russia’s students at that time.


The University of Vilna was the center of the educational region in the former Grand Duchy, where – quite counterintuitively from today’s point of view – Polish was the language of instruction, not Russian. However, prior to 1832 the Russian Empire was content and relaxed with its own multiethnic and polyconfessional character. This open-mined attitude changed radically in the wake of the uprising of the Polish-Lithuanian nobility against the tsar in 1830-1831. This upheaval laid waste the lands of the Grand Duchy and turned the tsar against the Polish-Lithuanian nobility themselves. In 1832 the University of Vilna was liquidated and its asset used for opening, two years later, a new university in Kiev (today’s Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine). Exclusively Russian was now the language of instruction at this new university, though Polish, almost on a par with French, continued to be employed as an important language of social and intellectual advancement in Kiev until the turn of the 20th century. The pushing of Polish out from public live was completed in 1840, when the administrative and legal distinctiveness of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania was finally abolished. Thus disappeared any remaining shred of legal basis that would require the use of Polish in administration.


After this caesura, Professor Beavouis turned his attention to the history of the Polish-Lithuanian nobility in the Russian Empire’s southwestern region of ‘Little Russia,’ or today’s central and eastern Ukraine. He was especially interested in this tiny social group’s Polish-language cultural life between 1831 and 1863. In the latter year another anti-Russian uprising of the Polish-Lithuanian nobility erupted and was summarily suppressed in 1864. The repressions broke the group’s hold on the mainly agricultural economy of the region, and limited the nobles’ previously decisive influence on the politics and culture in Little Russia. The ‘trick’ was achieved through the abolishment of serfdom (1861-1864), expropriation and exiling ‘ring leaders’ (insurrectionists), together with their families, to Siberia. Afterward, the Polish speaking nobles of the former Poland-Lithuania could not fall back on free peasant labor any longer. Like everyone else, they faced destitution, if unlucky in investment or in taking up gainful employment. Many elder nobles moonshined as tutors of ‘correct’ Polish and French.


Both discussed areas, the lands of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania and ‘Little Russia’ coincided with the imperial Russia’s notorious Jewish Pale of Settlement. Jews were legally prohibited from leaving this pale and settle anywhere else in the Russian Empire. Jewry was seen as ‘spiritual danger to and pollution’ to ‘Holy Orthodox’ Russia. Hence, Jews were to be contained to the empire’s multiethnic and polyconfessional western borderlands. Jews, speaking Yiddish and writing it in Hebrew letters, being educated (courtesy of the state) to become fully and more literate in Russian that ethnic Russians themselves, and toying with the idea of a Jewish nation-state with Hebrew as its language, constituted the socioeconomic background to Beavouis’s captivating narrative. Further in the background, you can also find Slavophone ‘White and Little Russians,’ who came into their own only at the turn of the 20th century, when the respective Belarusian and Ukrainian national movements had grown to the rank of political forces to be counted for. A bit earlier, along Russia’s Baltic Littoral, the same feat had been achieved by Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians.


In light of this fascinating ‘transnational’ story, incisively analyzed and told by Daniel Beavouis in his monographs, I thought he would be an ideal candidate for delivering a high-profile talk for a research seminar at St Andrews. I suggested he might speak either in French or Russian or Polish. In turn, my surprised colleagues asked whether Professor Beauvois might consider speaking in English. Alas, no. So, suddenly saddened, the colleagues opined that inviting him over to St Andrews is out of question. All incoming speakers must speak in English. Full stop.


I was stunned and inquired why it was so. If there was any rule preventing us from having a speaker that would talk in a language different than English. Yes, that was the point. There are no specific rules on it, but the unwritten and even unspoken agreement is that English is the sole medium to be used for educational purposes at the University of St Andrews. Some exceptions are possible in the School of Modern Languages, but even there the use of other languages is typically limited to respective language classes, where students learn them. Invited seminar speakers, by default, are expected to talk in English.


Apparently, this linguistically myopic approach to education and knowledge dissemination is the norm at all universities across Anglophonia, or in the countries officially designated as English-speaking. But this norm is poignantly at variance with the highly international character of the University of St Andrews whose students and staff stem from over 120 countries. Strangely, in the official process of education and of the imparting of research findings, both staff and students are limited to the tunnel vision of English only. They have to close their eyes and ears to information in other languages that flows through the doors of perception.


In the non-English-speaking countries ‘on the continent,’ no one thinks much about inviting speakers from all over the world to talk about fascinating subjects in a variety of languages. It is expected that staff and students would have some knowledge of other languages apart from their own. Obviously, in the case of more popular talks, when not everyone in the audience would necessarily know the language in which a lecture is delivered, the simple solution of simultaneous interpretation is implemented. When I mentioned this possibility to my colleagues at St Andrews, they got even more scared than of my earlier proposal of allowing a foreign lecturer on the loose to speak in tongues.


Their gut reaction was that simultaneous translation would be for sure too expensive, and the university would not be able to afford it. But how come than on average significantly much less well funded ‘continental’ universities can allow themselves such a largesse? Maybe it is not the actual price of simultaneous interpretation that is at the issue. I would say the unwritten normative principle is that of total monolingualism in English. No law designates an official language for the entire state either in the United Kingdom or the United States. But the unshakable protective attitude is for pure and undiluted Anglophonia. So even considering the use of another language at an English-speaking university is felt to be like letting a linguistic enemy through the portcullis of the as yet invincible fortress of Anglophone education.


One can speak in tongues in Anglophonia, as long as these tongues are the single language of English. Alas.


February 12, 2016

Cill Rìmhinn

Saunt Aundraes

St Andrews