Posted by & filed under Benefits of multilingualism, How to learn languages with songs and the media, Multilingual identity.

So far, I’ve written about language learning and the importance of being multilingual. But I haven’t covered a much more personal and psychological element of being a polyglot: my multilingual identity. I joke that I have a multiple personality disorder because I’m a different person in each language I speak. But beyond the comic part of being a linguistic chameleon, there’s a serious need for me to express myself in and explore my various languages and cultures.

Being a polyglot necessitates the opportunities to speak all my languages.

Several years ago, before attending a dinner in San Francisco for people who emigrated from the former USSR as children, I was taking a walk on Ocean Beach in San Francisco thinking about my writing career. As my progression eyeglasses turned darker in the sun as I looked down at the sand, my inner voice said, “I want to write like I think, in various languages”. I don’t recall in which language(s) this thought articulated itself in my mind.

My thoughts come in any variety of languages, sometimes with orphan words from languages like Arabic of which I know very little. But when I settle to speak to someone, I have to be conscious of which language(s) I need to use. As a result, my thoughts don’t always come out so naturally because my mind might want to stick in words and phrases from languages the other person doesn’t know. There’s a linguistic gatekeeper in my head making sure I don’t switch to the wrong tongue. So writing a blog post in various languages would alienate most people as they won’t be able to understand most of what I write. I choose to write in English as I can reach more people with English.

English is my strongest language but coincidentally, it’s not always the one my mind gravitates towards. Serbo-Croatian-Bosnian (or whatever your politically correct or incorrect name preference is for this language) is my weakest language and sometimes, believe it or not, I think in it. I almost say words and phrases in it although I have almost no one nearby with whom to speak the language.

I joined the San Francisco group for child emigrés because I thought I’d find like-minded people. I did find some people with whom I did bond, but there was another huge cultural-linguistic aspect of me I couldn’t fill with most of these Russian-Americans who struggled to speak good Russian. I regularly visited various parts of the former USSR and was more in tune with modern Russian life than they were and I was also much more comfortable speaking in Russian. (Most people I’ve met who left the former USSR at a young age, either have a strong American accent or don’t speak it very naturally.  My wanderlust had taken me to odd places and my ability to speak languages other than English and Russian were uncommon traits in the community. I found no one else like me. My Russian side was only one of my sides, I had others. But if I went to a French, Spanish, Italian, or Portuguese language or cultural group, I ran into the same thing: I could only exercise that specific language or enjoy that culture. But what about all of my other sides?

It’s rare, extremely rare, for me to find other people who seamlessly flow in between all of my languages at a good enough level where we can have intelligent adult conversations. Several people can say niceties or have basic talks in different languages. But I am talking about real conversations.

The only movie I’ve ever seen where the conversations flow from one tongue to another is A Talking Picture (Portuguese:  Um Filme Falado, by Manoel de Oliveira, a celebrated Portuguese movie maker. The movie is about a Portuguese history professor who takes her young daughter on a cruise to historic places. On the ship, the mother and daughter meet the American captain (played by John Malkovich), a French business woman (Catherine Deneuve), an Italian actress (Stefania Sandrelli) and a Greek woman (Irene Papas). They each speak in their own language (English, Portuguese, French, Italian and Greek) with no need for translation (except for the little girl). In this scene, four adults at the dinner table philosophize about their lives in their native tongues and it feels natural:

Does anyone know of other movies like this?

I wish I had more opportunities to communicate like they do in the scene in the movie because as soon as you have to stop to interpret someone’s words, you break the rhythm of the conversation.

Although I am a linguistic chameleon, I like to show my multilingual identity, exhibit all of my colors at once and just be me, without the need to interpret or translate for anyone.

  • alice

    This actually seems to me a drawback of being multilingual. I was once involved with a group of people who could all speak and/or understand English, French, Spanish and Japanese. It reached the point, where none of us could start and end a sentence in the same language. These days, I make a conscious effort to speak the langauage that I am speaking and not to mix it up. But this is what I don’t like. When I am speaking my mother tongue, I often have to focus on speaking only that, without bits of other languages, whereas I used to just be able to speak naturally, without any effort. I know a woman who lived in Spain who said “instead of becoming bilingual, I became semi-lingual”. Whilst I am in favour of learning other languages, I think this drawback should also be addressed.

    • admin

      Addressing this drawback too much could possibly alienate people from becoming multilingual:) Seriously though, I found a dearth of writing on this topic and I decided to write about it to see if there were others with the same situation. Michael Erard in his book, Babel No More, touches on this auto-censorship that polyglots experience when they have to limit themselves to one language.

      I was in Poznan, Poland last month and had a lot of fun meeting with hyperpolyglots Luca Lampariello and Richard Simcott and switching from language to language to my heart’s content.