Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Continental Divide

For the third time, I have exchanged the air-conditioned, often windowless classrooms of City College for those of the Palazzo Zenobio in Venice. This somewhat derelict but enchanting building dating back to the 16th Century was once an Armenian
college. My students in New York are 18 to 25 year old children of immigrants. They live in the Bronx, Harlem, Brooklyn and Queens. My students in Venice, aged 13 to 75, were mostly natives of their countries and came from Melbourne, Oxford, Hong Kong, Vienna, Cologne and Zurich. They were accomplished professionals, teachers, lawyers, historians, economists and journalists. Both groups shared a passion for writing.

In New York, I teach writing in English; the past two years in Venice, I taught in German. An article in the Guardian about the Summer Academy Venice produced a spike in English speaking students and I found myself in the predicament having to teach creative writing in two languages.

I was worried. The Austrians, Swiss and Germans might be able to follow instruction in English, but they ‘d certainly write in their mother tongue. Would their English be good enough to understand the texts of the English speakers? It takes years to grasp the nuances, Zwischent√∂ne, of a foreign language. Would the English speakers—unable to understand and comment on the German texts—be bored while listening to the Germans read?

I do not recommend a bilingual writing class to anyone unless they are fluent in both languages. Miraculously, the class worked. Most participants produced twenty pages of new material and one short text nearly ready for submission. Unable to understand the language, they listened to the musicality and rhythm of the words. English words found their way into German poems. A 75 year old Jewish man, forced to leave his native Holland in his youth, recalled his German. His wife, a native of Chile, who had lived in England for the past 50 years, suddenly began to write in Spanish again. The English speakers recalled the German words that had found their way into the English language: Zeitgeist, Schadenfreude, Wanderlust. Both groups living in Venice, immersed in the Italian language and culture, allowed Italian words to lighten up their stories. A Swiss-Iranian woman who attended kindergarten in the Italian speaking canton, produced a delightful story about her early childhood beautifully punctuated with Italian words.

As improbable as it may seem to teach writing in a multilingual setting, the results were stunning.