At school and at home, the information you receive is mainly in your native language. But what if you are suddenly moved to a different country and you do not understand what is being said around you, what would you do? You would learn the language, and with it, the culture in which it is spoken.
Axel Fleisch, Professor of African Languages and Cultures, leads the Helsinki Area & Language Studies research project (HALS) and is quick to state the most important thing about the project: learning language through culture. And vice versa.
Ever since he was a schoolboy, Fleisch has been interested in languages, their structure and the culture behind them. The study of languages has changed from the formal linguistics of the 1980s to the study of the connection between language and culture. Fleisch became interested in African languages since the continent is home to more than six thousand different languages. A third of the world's languages are spoken in Africa.
“Africa is a rich research environment, and Africans are quick to pick up new languages. It seems natural to them," says Fleisch.
After completing his Master’s degree studies at the universities of Cologne and Lisbon, Fleisch received his doctorate in Namibia in 2000 in a project run by the University of Cologne. In his dissertation, he studied the language of Angolan refugees and tried to redefine it. After this, Fleisch worked his way through the University of California Berkeley, the University of Barcelona and the University of Leipzig, arriving at the University of Helsinki in 2008, where he has worked ever since.
Why is the research conducted by HALS important? According to Fleisch, research in the humanities always seems difficult to justify, even though languages and culture are at the very core of humanity – without them, we would be nothing.
“There is no ready script: we are studying communicative migration and social capacity. Europeans have become more multilingual,” notes Fleisch, who himself is fluent in several languages. “It’s important to observe how teachers teach children.”
Axel Fleisch describes himself as a down-the-earth German pragmatic. His hobbies include African and European film and travel – recently increasingly to Latin America. As a special skill he mentions that he speaks Lucazi, a Bantu language spoken in Angola and Zambia.