Multilingual and multicultural people are increasing in number. Some from curiosity, others from necessity. Their backgrounds vary just as their combinations of languages and cultures do. Polyglots attract respect in the area of language learning, but also mistrust for their chameleonlike behaviour in different cultural environments. Many polyglots choose to move around between two or more countries, for various reasons. What happens to the identity of a multilingual person when they move? What do people around them think?
Where are you from?
This is one of the first questions asked on meeting someone for the first time, as if place of birth were the main factor determining the identity of a person who moves around. What is the answer if the person has lived in several countries during their life, speaks several languages and is immersed in several countries? The question Where do you come from? contrains identity to a static definition; it refers to a geographical location, a starting point, but also to any place taken as a reference point.
Cultural or ethnic identity is formed as the result of many influences that a person has experienced or wished to experience. When a polyglot or multicultural person tries to sum themselves up by their place of birth and mother tongue, they deny their polyphonic identity. What becomes of the identity of a person who is always on the move? Who decides such a person’s identity? The person themselves? Those around them? Who has the right to define it?
For many, language is a core part of cultural or ethnic identity. Nonetheless, it’s possible to claim to be Breton while speaking only French. A person may wish to be someone else ethnically or nationally, to adopt a “foreign” lifestyle and live in another language, for various reasons: simple attraction, love, a desire to distance themselves from their own culture which they consider too restrictive, identifying with their spouse’s culture, with the culture of a new country in the case of immigration. Identifying with another culture or language precedes any externally perceptible changes. A language creates links for us, links us to a country, to places, regardless of our feelings towards these places. A language is a door that stays open forever.
I have lived in four countries. My six main languages, which I use every day, all serve the same areas of my life. While French gets used most often, all six are used in professional contexts, in study and in my private life. My languages are not compartmentalised, as is often the case with bilingual people from an immigrant background: for example, one language may be reserved for family use and another for work scenarios and interactions with people in the environment.
Despite what many bilinguals and polyglots claim, I feel no different in the six languages I use these days. People around me say that I switch from one language to another, often associating a language with a context. One wonders how someone who doesn’t speak the language can say that my personality changes in that language. How is judgement possible without understanding? I have asked myself whether my perception of people I know changes with the language: the answer is no.
But how do you feel deep down?
This is another common question. As far as I’m concerned, deep down I feel like me: languages and cultures don’t cause divisions or identity conflicts; I see my cultural identity as a kaleidoscope in which the elements, while always remaining the same, form different pictures. I’m not role-playing when I switch languages or cultural contexts. They are part of me. All at once. Every second. Continuously. Before the health dictators grounded the planes, I used to spend a third of the year outside the country I lived in. I led several lives, and not in a pejorative sense.
But what language do you dream in?
The answer is disappointing: we dream in the languages we use when we are awake. Yet another dead end…
Authors with an interest in transnationalism use the expression “flexible citizenship” in place of postmodern and postnational considerations of citizenship and residency. The expression flexible citizenship refers to the flexible identities of those who have several homes, connections, relations or colleagues in different countries, either simultaneously or in consecutive phases of their lives, irrespective of the reasons for this situation. Globalisation and communication technology have made the phenomenon stronger.
A multicultural polyglot’s identity is a whole and must not be disassembled for monolingual or bilingual people. Multicultural polyglots do not have to choose between the identities perceived by those around them, who do not always understand the dynamic flexible nature of their identity. It is the multicultural polyglots, and they alone, who get to decide who they are. As regards me, I do not feel the need to define myself: definitions and labels are required by those around me. Every single person has the right to decide how to position themselves within their linguistic and cultural space-time, independently of others.
Dr Natalia Dankova is professor of psycholinguistics at the Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO) and a member of the ESF Advisory board.
With thanks to Simon Davies for the translation.
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Thank you for this article, I can relate to everything you wrote, feels like I could have written it myself 😉 I am curious though on how all these changing cultures and languages affect our sense of stability and feeling truly understood in the difficult moments in life. I’m raising this questions because I wonder how other multicultural polyglots feel or handle difficult moments (death of a loved one, divorce, disease etc.) My experience in the difficult moments in my life is that I feel the need to be surrounded by people that I know for a long time and that know me very well, preferably that have known me as a child or teenager. But most of the times that is impossible since most of my dear friends and family members are scattered over the world. I also often feel the need to be in a place I can really relate to, where I feel at home, where I have childhood memories and where everyone that I love would live and where I can speak my mix of languages and everyone would understand. This is of course not possible either… So on top of having to deal with the “difficult moment” I often also have to deal with the frustration of feeling unrooted and thus more vulnerable. I wonder wether NOT having a more “physical” and simpler sense of Home complicates or affects the way multiculural polyglots deal with emotionally difficult moments in their life. 🙂
The ESF-supported symposium on language and migration currently going on and still open for late registration without charge (https://migration.princeton.edu/symposium) addresses some of these questions, adroitly handled by Natalia. Bilingualism is both simpler and more complicated than we are apt to think. Among those speaking at the symposium are the novelists Jhumpa Lahiri, who has adopted Italian as a third language, and Pulitzer prizewinner Viet Thanh Nguyen, born in Vietnam and raised in the US. And what about Esperanto bilingualism? What does it mean to inhabit a linguistic universe that is partly situated in one place and partly situated in no-place?
Fantastic article. Many thanks. I identify with some of the ideas expressed and some of the feelings described in the piece.