It felt appropriate to couch a structured conversation on multilingualism in metaphor. In Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self – a book that four of the five on the panel moderated by Wendy Baldwin began discussing months before within the online MET-HSS Hub – Julie Sedivy describes language as a well or ill-fitting garment. She analyses the process of acquiring, forgetting and regaining languages, how we juggle them in our thoughts and lives, and how we manage the sometimes acute sense of rootlessness a multilingual trajectory entails.
The multilingual audience was riveted by the panellists’ varied responses to each of Wendy’s thoughtful questions, not least the one about motivations for learning a language. Linda Jayne Turner learned Czech because all her flatmates spoke it, and she felt left out. Theresa Truax-Gischler recounted how, having newly migrated to Canada, the world became new again for her nine-year-old self the day she started learning French and realised that a star is not just a star but “une étoile”, and so on. Kate Sotejeff-Wilson began learning Polish formally because she wanted to communicate with her maternal grandparents. She overdid it somewhat and ended up getting a PhD in Polish history and working for several years in the archives department of a Polish library. Aleksandra Chlon’s language learning stems from her innate curiosity; she learnt Dutch simply by listening to it all around her, even though she made no deliberate choice and nothing obliged her to do so.
Migration influences a multilingual’s life, identity and the type of work they do. Yorkshire-born Linda is a Czech citizen living in Prague, yet culturally, she feels most at home in Berlin. Aleksandra, who feels that she does not belong anywhere, finds herself yearning for the kinds of roots she sees others have. Theresa’s multilingual, multiply disabled daughter communicates with sign language and AAC. Life in the Netherlands means that most interactions regarding her care occur in Dutch, a language Theresa seldom uses in her work. Her experience with her daughter has sharpened her awareness of concepts as a communication tool and made her better at thinking from the ground up, a useful skill when editing academic papers written in English by her mostly Turkish clients.
That English has become the lingua franca in academia and business communications for much of the world raises some hefty questions in the multilingual sphere where translators and editors operate. The World Bank calling English a “prestigious” language hurts minority languages and cultures. Kate observed that all speakers of minority languages keep an internal tally of the value of their languages. Finns are seeing their language being devalued as most doctoral theses in Finland are written in English. Aleksandra added that among the Polish in the UK, where they are the biggest foreign population, English has been elevated as the language of success.
Theresa pointed out that a language can have more than one status: Turkish is a hegemonic language in Turkey, but is a minority language in Europe. Turkish academics all over the world, like their counterparts of other nationalities, write in English because they want to reach a wider audience. This is where our multilingual hybrid status as editors and translators becomes something of value.
Multilingualism is a tool when collaborating with clients, too. As a translator, Kate speaks and writes in her strongest languages (English and Polish). For her, the most effective way to revise is by using English in comments. She advises her clients to comment in their strongest language too, even if it is different from the one she uses, but one that she understands. This results in greater mutual understanding and, usually, a better text. Aleksandra communicates in the client’s language, which is normally English, if only to prove that she can indeed speak English, despite her “foreign-sounding” name and multicultural background.
In her book, Julie Sedivy writes that languages come and go, with some being used more and some less at different stages of our lives, but that what we know of our language goes beyond words. It struck her that a native speaker knows how to wear the language, how it is worn.
In the years spent away from native speakers, Kate has had to engage in bouts of darning and patching her mother-tongue garment to ensure she passes muster among other members of that language group. Kate’s clients do not demand the high degree of vigilance she imposes on herself, but she “needs the certificate”, the validation, for her own sense of professional self-worth. Similarly, Aleksandra views keeping her garments in a good state of repair as “continuing linguistic development”, not unlike the concept of CPD that we all know and love. Aside from reading, she focuses persistently on forging meaningful connections and interacting more in Polish because she does not live in Poland. Wendy lost fluency in spoken Spanish for want of daily interaction with the local population during the COVID pandemic.
From the lively Q&A it was clear that the audience loved the panel discussion. Jennifer Gray sparked an insightful exchange on how one’s personality changes from one language to the next. Theresa felt that aptitude and context were determining factors; she is much more expressive in Dutch than in English when talking about her daughter. Virve Juhola, a native Finn, feels more positive in her outlook and is more extroverted when interacting in social contexts where English is the dominant language.
From an emotional perspective, it is important to Theresa that those close to her know her “English me”, just as she is glad her Dutch husband reveals his Dutch self. Danielle Carter does not see too much of a dichotomy, since she made a conscious effort to bring her US self into her Dutch self when she settled in the Netherlands. Theresa often wonders whether either self is “fit for purpose”, and how much each of those selves is a fit in the other culture. Başak Balkan feels as if she doesn’t speak any language perfectly; living in Belgium, she feels both Belgian and Turkish and places herself somewhere in between the two cultures.
Kate says the register of the English and Finnish mix she speaks at home does not work in an academic context, so she sees switching from one type of language to another as merely donning a different item of clothing, to use Sedivy’s metaphor. Valentina Baslyk from Quebec said that it was the sense of place that informs her personality rather than the three languages she lives with, code-switching and all. Welsh-Finnish Alice Lehtinen, whose family language is Finnish, felt artificial in English when speaking it in the presence of her Finnish mother, who understands English. So, Julie Sedivy’s idea that language has a role to play in the assertion of self resonated strongly with her.
In closing this fascinating panel discussion, Wendy commented that the discussion could have continued for much longer than the allotted time. By the sound of numerous conversations erupting in the auditorium after the applause died down, there is no doubt that they are still going on somewhere, in some foreign country called home, in one or several languages.
This METM22 panel was chronicled by Allison Wright.
Featured image by the author using DALL∙E AI capabilities; embedded photo by METM22 photographer Jone Karres.