Being Multilingual: Languages come in flavours

Being Multilingual: Languages come in flavours

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Madalena considers how some words simply can't be translated without failing to capture their true essence and meaning.

If you’ve ever visited a foreign country, you may have been struck by the exotic features of the local cuisine. Later back at home, you may have wanted to replicate the experience for yourself or to impress relatives and friends. You bought the ingredients, you spent time studying the recipe and bringing it up to edible standards... to then find that no, not really, it tasted better, or stronger, or stranger when you were there, as you try to explain your disappointment to yourself or to your guests. 

It could have been anything, really. That the shrimp was fed and fished locally, that the pasta was home made, that tap water was harder, or that the cook washed her hands with a different brand of soap. But I don’t think this is it. I think that whatever struck you when you were abroad was that it struck you there and then. You can’t replicate the there-and-then in the here-and-now.

It’s the same with languages. The language in which you express yourself makes you express yourself in its special ways. Languages have flavours, local flavours, that make them unique experiences when you use them. I’m not saying that translations aren’t possible: sometimes they even manage to improve on the original. What I’m saying is that original and translation are not the same thing. I can try to explain what I mean with a couple of examples. Compare this translated version with its original.


Language in its original version

I don’t know about you, but hearing Edith Piaf bereft of her French 'r' has the same effect on me as experiencing a kräftskiva in English. The Swedish word kräftskiva can be rendered into English as ‘crayfish party’, an expression whose words both exactly translate the Swedish one and fail to retain the faintest whiff of what a kräftskiva actually is (Hej, alla svenskar! Är det inte så??). The Swedish word tastes Swedish, quite literally.

  Photo © David Castor (Wikimedia Commons)

How to insert flavour into your language

This is one of the reasons why multilinguals mix. Different languages are not simply alternative ways of saying the same things: their use shapes things, instead. So whenever I want to explain to non-Swedish speakers what a kräftskiva is, I do exactly what I’ve done here: first, I describe it roughly, in the language that we share, or by means of visual aids; then, I say that it is called a kräftskiva; and, from then on, I say kräftskiva whenever I want to talk about it with non-Swedish speakers.

You could say that I’m corrupting that other language by mixing funny words into it. I would say that I’m contributing to the globalisation of culture. And to broadening the vocabulary of that other language. If you think about it, there’s no big difference between doing this and using the word spaghetti, in English. Or in Swedish. All words were new, once upon a time.

Languages can be cooked in different ways. We can say this sort of thing, and we can say it in this way. It depends on what we are using the languages for. In multilingual interactions, the habit of using several languages shows as naturally as any other set of acquired habits: if we’re used to driving both on the right and left-hand side of the road, or if we regularly type using different language keyboards on our laptops, our fluency in each of these modes will also reflect upon our automatic behaviour.

I think one of the reasons why mixes have gained such a sombre reputation is that languages have come to be seen as objects of reverence rather than means of expression. We have to obey them, instead of having them serve us.

Meanwhile, let me leave you with a taste of another language and a thought for the day:

            “... it isn’t a noise, it’s my language!”

Miriam Makeba: The Click Song


Reprinted with permission of Being Multilingual.

Madalena Cruz-FerreiraBeing Multilingual - 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.

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