One Language: A Sound Experiment

By Jimena and Maria

In 1998, Jacques Derrida published Monolingualism of the Otheran interesting reflection on issues such as identity, language, citizenship, and colonialism. Derrida confessed his personal history to analyze how exclusions -as the one he faced- “come to leave their mark upon this belonging or non-belonging of language, this affiliation to language, this assignation to what is peacefully called a language”. He stated:

“…My monolingualism dwells, and I call it my dwelling; it feels like one to me, and I remain in it and inhabit it.  It inhabits me. The monolingualism in which I draw my very breath is, for me, my element. Not a natural element, not the transparency of the ether, but an absolute habitat. It is impassable, indisputable (p.1)…Yet it will never be mine, this language, the only one I am thus destined to speak, as long as speech is possible for me in life and in death; you see, never will this language be mine. And, truth to tell, it never was (p.2).”

During the whole essay he goes back over and over again to one particular sentence that, in a way, sums up the core of his reflection: I only have one language; yet it is not mine.
We found this sentence in particular -and the whole reflection in general- both compelling and transcendental. We felt that the sentence contains contradiction, anxiety, frustration but also a sort of poetic language. When we read the text, we inevitably thought of the condition of the immigrant, and in some contemporary unsolved conflicts inside nation-states that remark how those categories (language, culture, citizenship, and identity) create boundaries that still exclude and miscommunicate.

Our own thoughts on Derrida’s reflection were the inspiration for our sound experiment. We didn’t attempt to fully interpret Derrida’s ideas by conducting this modest sound exercise, but to explore this idea about language beyond the text.

The experiment


We walked over 5th avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and recorded the voices of 8 people, all of them immigrants who work in various stores and restaurants. We asked them to say what their mother tongue was, in their native language and in English; then, to read the sentence from Derrida (I only have one language; yet it is not mine), and finally to translate the sentence it into their native language.

At first, we thought our directions were straightforward and didn’t anticipate any misunderstandings or special reactions. But when we hit the streets, the interaction with people we encountered was both a challenging and enriching experience. Most of the people were immediately engaged in the conversation as soon as they were asked to speak in their native language, although some of them said that they only spoke little English. After speaking in their native language, they asked if we understood what they were saying, and some of them offered to explain the translation or write it down for us.

Most of the people had a hard time understanding what the sentence in English meant and because of our language differences, we struggled to explain it. Some of the participants required a few minutes to think of the best way to translate what we asked them to say. And this is how we learned, among many other things, that the exact meaning of the word language is hard to translate in some languages, such as Bengali.

At the end, we put all the voices together in a piece that captures not only our interpretation on Derrida’s reflection but, what is most interesting, these 8 people’s interpretation at first glace.

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6 Comments on “One Language: A Sound Experiment”

  1. miranda shafer
    February 21, 2012 at 10:39 am #

    This sounds really interesting.

  2. February 22, 2012 at 11:17 am #

    I was delighted to hear your project and its background. It reminded me of an enjoyable passage from the section The Spoken Word of McLuhan’s book Understanding Media.

    “Our new electric technology that extends our senses and nerves in a global embrace has large implications for the future of language. Electric technology does not need words any more than the digital computer needs numbers. Electricity points the way to an extension of the process of consciousness itself, on a world scale, and without any verbalization whatever. Such a state of collective awareness may have been the preverbal condition of men. Language as the technology of human extension, whose powers of division and separation we know so well, may have been the “Tower of Babel” by which men sought to scale the highest heavens. Today computers hold out the promise of a means of instant translation of any code or language into any other code or language. The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity. The next logical step would seem to be, not to translate, but to by-pass languages in favor of a general cosmic consciousness which might be very like the collective unconscious dreamt of by Bergson. The condition of “weightlessness,” that biologists say promises a physical immortality, may be paralleled by the condition of speechlessness that could confer a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace.”

  3. Jimena
    February 22, 2012 at 11:51 am #

    Thanks Miranda and Peter for your comments!

    Peter,
    When we were recording I was thinking of the idea of the Tower of Babel too…
    And now that you mention this idea of the promise of “instant translation” of the computers, it is funny to remember that one of our interviewees suggested we had the phone (his smart phone) say the phrase instead of him, arguing the “phone’s Arabic” was better than his…

  4. danmesa
    February 22, 2012 at 10:22 pm #

    I loved it! It was really great.

    • Jimena
      February 25, 2012 at 11:31 am #

      Thanks, Daniel! 🙂

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. One Language: a sound experiment « - February 21, 2012

    […] >> Keep reading and listen to the sound piece in the Civic Media Collective Blog. […]

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