Saturday, 28 January 2012

Split identities, and other ugly words

I think I can safely say that whoever calls you Auntie Beth or Your Excellency is not very likely to call you Elizabeth or pooky-schnookums as well. Although you may respond to all four forms of address, being addressed in different ways doesn’t mean that people can’t decide who you are: it means that different people have learnt to address you appropriately. The same is true of whoever calls you Mary, Maria, Marie or Mei Li. Accepting to be addressed in different ways is not a symptom of split identity, it is evidence that you have learnt to acquire different identities, which suit you at different times and in different ways.

Identities are social constructions, negotiated through and with other people. Our identity, to my mind, is composed not so much of what we are as of what we are being, depending on where we are, when, why, and with whom. Much like clothes, we need to change out of a few identities and into a few others in order to fit our daily needs. We also grow in and out of identities: I still remember the first time someone referred to me as “the lady over there”, instead of “the girl over there”, and I still remember the cafeteria attendant at the school where I took my first degree seamlessly switching from “Madalena”, his usual form of address to me, to “senhora doutora”, the Portuguese title we bestow on graduates, as soon as it became clear to him that I had also switched from student to lecturer. It wasn’t until I had those labels applied to me that I realised that they did indeed apply to me: their appropriateness to my identity was new to me.

This flexible process of acquiring, losing and/or complementing features of our identity is the reason why it might make better sense to talk about individual identities, in the plural, because speaking of identity in the singular makes it look like there’s a single one which either etches itself onto an individual from womb to tomb, or should do so. This is also why suggestions that those of us who are multilingual and multicultural may have split linguistic and cultural allegiances cannot make sense. “Split” in relation to which integer(s)? Hyphenated identities only make sense if we believe that non-hyphenated ones not only exist but exist as default. Being multilingual and multicultural does not involve unlawful encroaching upon territories which rightfully “belong” to other people either, because there is no copyright in languages or in cultures. Whatever the number of languages that we happen to use, we’re not made up of bits and pieces of someone else’s behaviours, we’re made up of our own bits and pieces.

Image: © Adaiyaalam 2011 (Wikimedia Commons)

We actively enact the process of acquiring our identity, as Robert Le Page and Andrée Tabouret-Keller argued in their book Acts of Identity. Their observations among Caribbean Creole speakers and among West Indian communities in London led them to conclude that our wish to be identified by others in specific ways drives our social interaction: we act to create the image of us that we want others to have, and we do this through our uses of our language(s). Michèle Koven, in her book Selves in Two Languages in turn observed how the use of different languages impacts both the ways in which we express our identity and the ways in which others perceive it.

As we grow up, we learn to shape our persona(lity) through progressive adjustments to the ways other people see it fit to engage with us and, in turn, to the ways they allow us to engage with them. Children will naturally experience glitches along this path. They may, for example, inadvertently project an image which does not fit them, not because they haven’t yet learnt how to assert their identity, but because they haven’t yet learnt how to use their language(s) in order to do so. The next post will have something to say about this.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Speaking like mummy, and speaking like daddy. Saturday 4th February 2012.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Multiculturalism, and other big words

Words which come prefixed with “multi-” give the impression that “multi-” refers to ‘many, different, varied’, and therefore that the same words can be used with some contrasting prefix referring to ‘one, same, uniform’. In some cases, multi-words appear to make some sense, examples being multimedia or multinational. In other cases, I wonder: what does a word like multitasking contrast with, and what might contrasting concepts refer to?

Photo: MCF

Another such word which provides me with much food for thought is “multicultural”. Your culture can be defined as anything that you are and do which is not determined by your genetic patrimony. That is, what you are and what you do because you’ve been nurtured to be so and do so. Cultural behaviours are localised in time and space, which is why we find phrases like Victorian culture or Asian culture. But big words like Victorian and Asian refer to analytical concepts, whose vagueness ends up turning them into stereotypes. As we know, analyses, including cultural analyses, are made by the big shots of their time – often for other big shots of all time. Real-life culture is small in both time and space, because the groups which socialise us into it are also small. We eventually develop into culturally local individuals.

Our languages are naturally part of our cultural patrimony, because they are there to serve socialisation into the practices, physical as well as intellectual, which characterise the people in our environments. The locality of cultural behaviours is what explains that languages associate with neither countries nor cultures, one to one, and that attempting to attribute cultural portraits to nationalities says more about the portrayer than about the culture or the nationality. More than one language is used in virtually all countries, and the same language is used to express widely different cultures. The same locality also explains language variation, whether geographical (what linguists call dialects) or social (sociolects). There are northern, and southern, and regional, and urban, and so on varieties of the same language; and we don’t speak in the same way to our childhood’s best friend and to the head-hunter who just found out about our ideal profile for the latest starvation-wages job.

This means that we all use our languages, one or more, in many, different, varied ways, in order to satisfy many, different, varied cultural needs, and this is why I find it quite baffling that only part of humankind somehow got to be labelled as “culturally and linguistically diverse”, or as users of “heritage languages”. Aren’t we all? The belief that mystifying labels such as these refer to relevant facts, and the related effort to make sense of what doesn’t make sense takes time, and human, administrative and financial resources. Not to mention, of course, the expectations about linguistic and cultural proficiency which we go on pasting on those people whom we’ve got used to label in this way. I develop this argument in a book chapter, Sociolinguistic and cultural considerations when working with multilingual children, included in a collection dedicated to assessment of speech disorders in multilingual children.

There’s more to any individual than the singularity of the pronoun “I”. Being “multicultural” doesn’t mean being a patchwork of cultural bits and pieces which “belong” to other people, and which besides stand in conflict with one another. It means behaving according to the cultural conventions which make sense around us. The next post explains how the conflicts which presumedly afflict multilinguals and multiculturals arise from the implications of the prefix “multi-”.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Split identities, and other ugly words. Saturday 28th January 2012.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

“Do you feel Swedish?”

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 whose left-most half sticks to you no matter how long and how well you have been naturalised into the right-most 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 like 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 standardly 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 interview’s last question because the novelist didn’t answer it. This is one of those information questions disguised as yes-or-no questions, like “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 no answer, 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, to no avail: Ja, men känner du dig svensk? (‘Yes, but do you feel Swedish?’). So he talked some more, about differences and similarities between Otherness and Swedishness, that likewise were neither yesses nor noes, 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? Like 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? The next couple of posts deal with these matters.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Multiculturalism, and other big words. Saturday 21st January 2012.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

My homeland is my language?

If you’re familiar with one of the great figures of 20th century literature, my fellow countryman Fernando Pessoa, you must have recognised the title of this post as a tribute to him.

Pessoa didn’t question that his homeland was his language, though: he stated it. In his autobiography of sorts, Livro do Desassossego (‘Book of Disquiet’), he wrote that “Minha pátria é a língua portuguesa” (‘My homeland is the Portuguese language’). Far from me to engage in the speculation surrounding what Pessoa meant by this, but I like the idea that your language, any of your languages at any given time and place, feels like home.

Languages are not just sets of conventions to express meanings, they also reflect those meanings which their users find relevant to express. This is why we talk about kräftskivor in Swedish and about fado in Portuguese, but not the other way around. (I had to say this: in case you haven’t been told, my beloved, multi-rooted, multi-cultural, and very Portuguese fado gained recognition among UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage just recently.)

Nevertheless, it doesn’t follow that a Portuguese-Swedish multilingual, say, will relate to both kräftskivor and fado – or to whichever local practices these languages reflect. In order to feel at home in a culture, you need nurturing in that culture, a point made by Una Cunningham in her book Growing Up with Two Languages. Both the languages and the ways of living those languages need input, so that they can be made ours. You can find out more about this at Una’s website, where you can also listen to parents’ and children’s reports about their cross-linguistic and cross-cultural experiences. 
Nurturing is something that people do, according to the practices of the groups to which they belong at specific times and in specific places. The places, however, instead of the people, somehow came to be seen as the owners of cultural practices – and so as the owners of people, too –, in the sense that you “belong” somewhere. “Somewhere”, in turn, came to mean not only ‘a single place’, usually the one where your mother happened to give birth to you, but a homogeneous place – in the sense that if you belong to Portugal, say, then you relate to fado. But there’s fado and fado, actually, both of which are Portuguese because the two places where they come from, Lisbon and Coimbra, respectively, happen to be located in the piece of land we call Portugal.

The problem with defining who you are by means of a place is that places are, well, stuck in place, whereas you and your languages aren’t. The association of (one) land with (one) identity didn’t hold water for Fernando Pessoa either. Like many literary figures past and present, he used several languages, and published in them too. But it was his “homeland” which spoke in multiple ways through the different voices of his heteronyms, all of them Portuguese. Granted, these were literary personae, but there’s no difference between what they represent and what all of us do in everyday uses of a single language: there is more than one way of being at home in any single language.

Small wonder, then, that so many of us find our home in different languages too. I never understood the funny claim that belonging to more than one place means that you don’t in fact belong anywhere: having several homes doesn’t mean you’re homeless. And it doesn’t mean either that you must belong to one place more than to another, in a replay of the myth that you must also have one language that tops them all. So what happens when someone can’t accept, or won’t accept, that people don’t need to belong, or don’t want to belong, to a single place – and perhaps don’t care about issues of belonging? The next post gives one example.

© MCF 2012

Next post: “Do you feel Swedish?” Saturday 14th January 2012.


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