Being Multilingual: Hyphenated nationalities

Being Multilingual: Hyphenated nationalities

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Linguist Madalena Cruz-Ferreira discusses the age-old expatriate question: when do you assume the nationality of your new home country?

Some time ago, I listened to an interview on Swedish radio, where the guest was a best-selling novelist. The novelist was Swedish, officially, by which I mean that he had one of those 'hyphenated nationalities' (ie. Swedish-German), where the left-half sticks to you no matter how long and how well you have been naturalised into the right-half. That’s what happens when you choose to label people by means of locations, and then decide that locations identify people.

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?”
There seem to be 'proper' answers to questions like these, which have less to do with what people actually feel than with what people are expected to feel. Which doesn’t mean that the questions make sense. I’ve also lived in Sweden (on and off, admittedly), I’ve also written in Swedish (though not books, let alone novels), I’ve also adopted and shed a few Swedish and other traditions, and I can’t answer the question either. Perhaps I am not entitled to be asked this question anyway, because I am not 'Swedish'. But do I feel 'Portuguese', which I am? Hmm....

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?


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.


Photo credit: Walt Stoneburner (photo 1).


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8 Comments To This Article

  • Madalena Cruz-Ferreira posted:

    on 24th July 2013, 09:34:57 - Reply

    Sally: I’ve also noticed what you report, that if English is your only language, then there’s no reason or expectation to learn any other language because “everybody speaks English”, even if you move to a country where English isn’t a primary language – or isn’t used at all except perhaps as a school subject. I find this really funny: it’s like assuming, in the European Middle Ages, that knowing Latin would be enough to get you settled down wherever you happened to need to be. Would you shop for your food, read the news, talk to your neighbours, get to know your new country in Latin??

    Samreen: Multilingualism has indeed become a fashionable “possession”, for career or social purposes. Some of us enjoy boasting about the number of cars or pairs of shoes that we own, others about the number of languages. For many of us, though, different cars, shoes, and languages are a necessity: we need them because we use each of them for different purposes. So how can we answer questions about which one is our real, or favourite, or “home” one? The problem, to my mind, is that such questions make no sense at all to multilinguals.

    Carrico: We can indeed be multilingual in many different ways. I also speak a few languages that I can’t write, or read a few that I can’t speak. It’s only natural to be different things when we use each of our different languages, just like I’m also a parent, a teacher, an academic and quite a few other things, even in a single language.

    Many thanks to all of you for your comments and your kind words!
  • carrico posted:

    on 18th July 2013, 13:11:15 - Reply

    lovely article,equally lovely responses. I post on PressEurop under my name,which seems to shock Europeans, for most prefer. I don't know, cute names, subterfuge. At first they asked me where I was from, because I kept mixing up my screens. I can read, but not necessarily speak, several languages. Once they identified me as an American mutt, some quizzed me where my roots are. I thought mostly Scotch-Irish-Basque. Now the Portuguese tell me my name means 'reed' in their language. Yeah, I can do reeds, see the bending in the rain. What does this mean? Maybe Eminem has the Answer: "I am whatever you think I am." A bien tot.
  • Samreen M posted:

    on 18th July 2013, 07:30:32 - Reply

    Madalena, interesting article! Being multi-lingual has also become a trend besides being a necessity. I am also a bilingual though I had never been in some other country. I agree with you, languages do make people feel at home.
    What I have observed that many people learn second languages for the development of their career because multilingualism adds more to the employee’s profile. But to answer the question that remained unanswered in the interview becomes really difficult.

    Samreen M
  • sally veall posted:

    on 16th July 2013, 20:18:44 - Reply

    Thank you for your interesting article. I was born in London as I am "British" I am not expected to speak anything other than English. In fact, I have lived in Italy, France
  • Madalena Cruz-Ferreira posted:

    on 13th July 2013, 10:53:57 - Reply

    You’re so right, Andreas! The answers we give to questions expecting “mono-minded” answers are no real answers. Such questions have no answer, for the simple reason that they don’t make sense to us. I love the way you put this: a gentle answer to make someone else feel comfortable.
    “Where are you from?” is one of my favourites, too. I blogged about it here:
    I enjoyed reading about your eye-opening experiences very much, thank you so much for this wonderful comment. A sua vida é muito, muito interessante, e uma verdadeira fonte de inspiração! I couldn’t agree more that learning the languages of the places that matter to us is the way to foster understanding among all of us.
    I hope you will enjoy my other writings on multilingualism. Come back any time? I write for you and for all the other multi-minded people out there.
  • AndrasSupka

    on 12th July 2013, 13:51:32 - Reply

    Bom dia Magdalena ! I write here out of an impulse without having even had an opportunity to look into your blogs and books ( which now I certainly will :) Each persons brain has different receptors and filters and I am happy that due to my families travels and lifestyle mine and those of my children have been very active in the language field. When one has been a gypsy across borders and languages for so many years, it is becoming increasingly difficult to "fix" your feeling of belonging to one or other culture. Where are you from ? has become one of most hilarious questions I come across nowadays. How do you explain this when you are a child of hungarian political emigrés, born in Switzerland, spent teenage years in Brasil, and after returning to Switzerland for studies, moving to Belgium, then France . Having spent my professional life until now travelling in various countries, I always felt the urge to learn the local language to really UNDERSTAND what people really feel, think and dream. I did learn ( at different levels of course) Hungarian, German, Swiss-German, Brazilian, French, Dutch the Flemish way, Russian and Polish. My children grew up in Belgium, so Flemish, French and English is normal for them, in addition to quiet good spoken Hungarian. Now I live in Poland and my wife is Australian with Polish roots... When I am in Poland I feel Polish, when in Switzerland, my youth years make me feel Swiss, in Hungary my roots make my heart feel good, and in Belgium I feel Belgian. So when someone asks me to "put me in a classification" Where are you from, I answer him genltly with the answer I think will make him feel comfortable :)

    And I think the answer slowly becomes more precise with age:

    I am a child of many countries, and my home is where my family and friends are, at any given moment :)
    God, nao escrivi tanto sobre a mia vida en tantos anos :)

    Greetings from Poland


  • Madalena Cruz-Ferreira posted:

    on 10th July 2013, 22:36:41 - Reply

    Obrigada eu, Pedro, for wanting to let us know about your own "home" experiences! I am very glad you found this post of relevance to you.
  • Pedro posted:

    on 10th July 2013, 15:06:00 - Reply

    Very good post Madalena!
    I am also bilingual (I speak Spanish and Portuguese) and I live in The Netherlands, where I speak English every single day, and my wife and child are Dutch. So, I try to learn the language and customs of the country.
    I have to say that I have a very large mix of languages and cultures going on in my life right now.
    But I feel very much at home over here, even when I'm not Dutch, and that's very important and I have to agree with you when you say that languages make us feel at home in some many different ways!
    Have a wonderful day Madalena and thank you for your fantastic words!