Being Multilingual: Hyphenated nationalities
Linguist Madalena Cruz-Ferreira discusses the age-old expatriate question: when do you assume the nationality of your new home country?
The Swedish-Swedish interviewer steered the conversation along the well-trodden tracks of chats with writers, asking things such as when his literary epiphany had manifested itself, and whether/when/how he had been able to turn book-writing into a livelihood. There followed a sample of equally standard questions which are asked of multilingual writers in countries where the standard persuasion is that everyone within their borders is monolingual, mono-ethnic and monocultural – why had the immigrant emigrated? How had he managed to gain such command of Swedish, so late in life and in such a way that he wrote highly-regarded literature in the language? – all of this duly interspersed with the usual awed noises about multilingual proficiency. And then, the million-dollar question: "Känner du dig svensk?" (‘Do you feel Swedish?’).
I don’t know whether the interviewer had any more questions in stock, but this one ended up being the last question because the novelist didn’t answer it. This is one of those information questions disguised as yes-or-no question, such as, 'Could you tell me the time, please?' or 'Haven’t we met before?', whose modus operandi you can read about in Chapter 10 of The Language of Language. The short of it is that a simple yes-or-no answer is insufficient, although a definite yes-or-no turned out to be what the interviewer demanded. The novelist started by talking a little about Swedish traditions that he had learnt to cherish, and about other traditions that he no longer cherished, and expanded a little on how and why, but to no avail. "Ja, men känner du dig svensk?" asked the interviewer (‘Yes, but do you feel Swedish?’). So the novelist talked some more, about differences and similarities between 'Otherness' and 'Swedishness', that likewise were neither yes or no, until time was up.
The impression that lingered on at the end of the interview was that the novelist had refused to answer an important question, one which was so important that the interviewer had in turn refused to let go of it. I wondered: What does it mean to 'feel' a nationality, and a single yes-or-no nationality at that? For example, if you’re a twin, and someone who isn’t asks you what it feels like to be one, what do you say? I wondered what the interviewer would have answered, if the novelist had countered with something like, “Do you?”
Like many of us, the interviewer appeared stumped by two things. First, the evidence of a competent user of a language which is not 'his' – with literary elegance to boot. That’s what happens when you choose to assign ownership to languages, and then decide that ownership doesn’t transfer. Second, the assumption that a Swede, even (or perhaps especially) an other-Swede, should be able (or willing) to answer questions about things 'Swedish'. That’s what happens when you haven’t had a chance to read my previous post.
What happens in real life, then, where people own different languages for the same reasons that they own different clothes, relate to what these languages represent in different ways that make different everyday sense to them, and feel at home, also in different ways, in all of them?
Madalena Cruz-Ferreira is a freelance linguist who works on debunking myths and misconceptions about multilingualism at home, in school, and in clinic. One of her books, Multilinguals are ...?, is "a breath of fresh air in a field which desperately needs ventilation" (David Crystal), and "should be required reading for those who work closely with groups and individuals who use multiple languages" (Jeff MacSwan). She is Portuguese, married to a Swede, based in Singapore, and the mother of three trilingual children. She runs two blogs, Being Multilingual, on multilingualism, and Lang101 Blog, on linguistics for starters. You can find her on Twitter.
Photo credit: Walt Stoneburner (photo 1).
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