In response to my post about the banal cosmopolitanism of multilingual welcome signs last week, a number of people suggested that they quite enjoy finding their language(s) in such signs. This made me think of the ways in which global linguistic hierarchies are being produced and reproduced through practices that ostensibly value multilingualism. Even being listed in such signage may be an index of privilege while the majority of the world’s languages and peoples are rendered invisible and speechless.
The fridge magnets in my house constitute a perfect example of banal cosmopolitanism: there is one in the shape of a rooster that says “Portugal” and “Macau Souvenir”; one that spells out “Abu Dhabi” (the model horse that used to be stuck under the name has come off); one that has a map of the North American West Coast and says “California – a view of the world”; there is one that says “New Zealand” and features four colorful kiwis; another one in the shape of the map of New York State that says “Ithaca of New York”; a round one with “Buddha Eyes” from “Nepal”, where “Nepal” is written in the Latin script but stylized in a way that looks vaguely like Devanagari; a doll-shaped one with Korean script and the English caption “hand made”; and then there are six magnets featuring a toy rabbit by the name of “Felix”, who plays with a globe, travels by plane and is placed against a bottle of “original American ketchup”.
The toy rabbit Felix is the main character in a series of German children’s books and animated films. The character has been immensely successful since it was first launched in 1994. Books in the series have been translated into 29 languages (which is highly unusual for German children’s books) and more than seven million copies have been sold worldwide. There is a feature-length movie and a huge range of Felix-branded merchandise including toys, lollies, reading glasses for children, travel accessories and much more. Since 2013 Felix has been an ambassador for the global charity SOS Children’s Villages.
In my house, we have a copy of one of the German-version books in the series, the well-read and much-loved Briefe von Felix: Ein kleiner Hase auf Weltreise (“Letters from Felix: A little rabbit on a world tour”). It is a prime example of banal cosmopolitanism: it presents the global sphere as mundane and socializes young children into the practice of tourism and international travel as normal.
It also presents the “world” of Felix’ “world tour” as an exclusively North-Atlantic world.
The plot is straightforward: it all starts with an airport scene and a family returning from their (obviously international but destination unspecified) summer holiday. Sophie, one of four children in the family, loses her toy rabbit Felix. After this sad end to the holidays, the new school year starts with a surprise: a letter from Felix. It turns out that the rabbit had ended up on the wrong flight and is now visiting London. The remainder of the book consists of the letters that Felix sends from his travels – in addition to London, he visits Paris, Rome, Cairo, Kenya and New York City. Each letter is read by the whole family and taken as an educational opportunity to learn more about each of Felix’ destinations. On December 06 – St Nicholas Day, when children in Germany get gifts – Felix comes back to Sophie with a suitcase full of souvenirs.
The book is highly multimodal: in addition to text and images, it also features airmailed letters that can be removed from their envelopes and read separately. The letters serve to connect the world of the German children as they go through the fall period between summer holidays and Christmas to the six international destinations visited by the toy rabbit.
In each letter, Felix proves to be a keen observer of language and culture and provides information about Paris, Rome, Cairo, Kenya and New York City that could be considered educational for children. One piece of information that children can take away from the book is that the world is multilingual; or, rather, that the Western world is multilingual. In other words, language is a topic of Felix’ letters from London, Paris, Rome and New York City but not of his letters from Cairo and Kenya.
London: “Und noch etwas ist komisch, alle reden hier ganz anders.”
|London: “And something else is interesting: people talk differently here.”|
|Paris: “Chère Sophie, das ist Französisch und isch liebe Frankreich! Isch habe jetzt einen Koffer, er ist très chic, so sagt man hier.”||Paris: “Chère Sophie, this is French and I [imitation of French accent] love France! I [imitation of French accent] now have a suitcase, which is très chic, as they say here.”|
|Rome: “Darauf steht etwas in einer Geheimschrift. Wenn ich wieder zuhause bin, können wir uns auch eine @#*҂-Schrift ausdenken. […] Ciao bella (so sagen hier alle!)”||Rome: “On it there is something written in a secret code. When I’m back home, we can invent a @#*҂ code, too. […] Ciao bella (that’s what everyone says here!)”|
|New York City: “My dear Sophie, so heißt das in Amerikanisch!”||New York City: “My dear Sophie, that’s how you say it in American!”|
In addition to these language fun facts, the letters from London, Paris, Rome and New York City also provide information about famous buildings and other tourist sights. Each letter then provides a learning opportunity for the family as Sophie asks her parents, grandma or aunt about further information, which they then look up in an encyclopedia, another book or even a photo album from previous travels. Through this kind of further research, Sophie, for instance, discovers that the “secret code” Felix refers to in his letter from Rome is actually Latin. Unlike her older brother who studies Latin in school, we learn that Sophie is too young to study Latin but that she really enjoys looking through her brother’s Latin textbook and looking at the images of ancient Roman buildings such as the Colosseum or the Pantheon.
By contrast to these four cities, Cairo and Kenya are represented differently.
In the letter from Cairo there is no mention of Arabic or contemporary life in Egypt; rather Felix visits the pyramids and it almost seems as if he had travelled back in time to the age of the pharaohs. The sense of time travel is reinforced through the fact that Sophie’s additional research is not undertaken through conversations with other family members and books but through a visit to the museum where there is a show entitled “ÄGYPTEN – ein vergangenes Königreich” (“Egypt – a bygone kingdom”). Further related learning is achieved by building a Lego pyramid.
Kenya – the only destination that is identified as a country rather than a city – has neither language nor culture: in fact, it seems empty of people. Felix only observes animals: elephants, zebras and lions; and to do further research about Kenya, Sophie visits the zoo.
There can be no doubt that the playful integration of multilingualism in this book is valuable for young children: they learn that there are many different languages in the world, that linguistic diversity is intriguing and that speaking different languages is enjoyable and pleasurable. It’s an important message.
However, the fact that the message of the pleasure of language learning and multilingualism is restricted to European languages also carries another message: that Egyptians and Kenyans do not have languages that are intriguing and worth paying attention to. In fact, along with their languages, the people of Africa are neither heard nor seen: for all the reader learns in the book, they may not even exist.
Felix’ “world tour” reminds us that the world of banal cosmopolitanism is not flat, as many globalization pundits would have us believe. It’s a hierarchy where even being listed can be a privilege.
- Banal cosmopolitanism
- What makes foreigner weird? A quick guide to orientalism
- Chapter Two “Linguistic Diversity and Stratification” of Piller, I. (2016). Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice: An Introduction to Applied Sociolinguistics. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.