Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

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Bilingual Questions – Which Language Do You Dream In

While linguists by and large have abandoned the idea that bilingual people are to be compared to people suffering from schizophrenia, most laymen still seem to think that a bilingual person must have two different personalities, and each of them affected by one of the two languages a bilingual person claims as her own. To be equally confident in both languages, to be the same person in both languages, seems to be an impossibility according to the public, and it is often pointed out that bilingual people seem to behave differently, depending on what language they are speaking. At the same time, the people who point out these things seem to forget that even a perfectly monolingual individual changes registers, voice, and vocabulary depending on who she talks to, and this is at the same time never referred to as a sign of schizoid tendencies.

But what is even more remarkable is the fact that many bilingual people themselves, especially expatriates and people who have acquired bilingualism later in life, rather than people who have become bilingual as a natural effect of their upbringing often portray their experiences of bilingualism as ‘having two personalities’; and while natural bilingualism should be the form of bilingualism studied, it is still acquired bilingualism that defines our mainstream society’s responses to multilingualism.

The main problem here lies in a simplification of what constitutes the self; too often people tend to interpret self-perception as the equivalence of performance, not to mention the notion of self as equivalent with the concept of someone’s identity. On one hand it is impossible to divide the self from our language(s), it is through the use of a communicative system that we establish ourselves as real, but to equate one language with one identity, to think that bilingualism is constructed as a bicycle or a pair of binoculars to paraphrase Baker is to mistake bilingualism for an extension of monolingualism, ‘rather than a unique linguistic and psychological phenomenon’. (Pavlova, 2006:1).

The idea that bilingualism is a version of monolingualism has led to many political disastrous decisions; the choice to discourage the use of home languages was long state policy in a number of countries around the world, and it is only recently that bilingualism has started to be perceived as a good thing in the Western world, cf. CILT’s report Positively Plurilingual, focusing mainly on Portuguese bilingual students in London and in which it was established that ‘those who had attended Portuguese classeswere five times more likely to obtain five or more GCSEs at A*–C than those who had not been encouraged to develop their home language’. (CILT 2005).

On a side note; I would like to emphasise the use of Western in aforementioned sentence — while the Western world has been predominantly monoglot at the expense of the discrimination and persecution of its minorities, polyglot communities are perceived as the norm, rather than a deviation from the expected in most African, South American and Asian countries. Then again, by virtue of being perceived as Others by the Western mind, their opinions seldom form a part of the public or academic discourse in our part of the world.

Anyway, back to the schizoid me; as a bilingual individual I am often asked which language I think in, and the problem is that I, as well as the majority of the world’s bilingual people think in both our languages. The fact that we may behave differently in different languages are, to me, far more an effect of cultural expectations, than a proof of my untrustworthiness, my schizophrenic self, and my Communist wish to spy on the American government, which were some of the arguments offered by FBI and CIA when they influenced the government to discourage bilingual education during the Cold War.

This is not to say that a bilingual individual does not feel as if she’s constantly dealing with two different ways of perceiving the world; most bilingual writers remark on the near impossibility to express a thought in the same way in both languages, and Todorov remarked that as languages are intimately linked with a culture, the discourse will be different depending on the imagined audience, meaning that, to take an example from my own bilingual experience, it is far more important to be polite, and to use linguistic markers of my understanding of said cultural trait in English, than it is in Swedish. This is however not to be seen as a proof of the fact that the Swedish ’I’ is a ruder and less polite version of me, than the Scottish ‘I’, but rather as a proof of the fact that culture affects our linguistic experiences. Todorov however, drawing on Bakhtin’s texts on polyglossia, referred to heteroglossia as something which more often than not led to mental distress and ultimately silence, than as something which ought to be celebrated, and in many ways Todorov is the main reason as to why I am still sitting here today, trying to prove that I’m in fact just one individual, and not two, even if he never explicitly argued against bilingualism per se.

I think the best answer to the question of one’s true linguistic identity has been given by the writer and academic Chinua Achebe. Ridiculing the idea of one’s true language asbeing the one in which one dreams he says;

‘Sometimes [people] seek to drive the point home [about my real linguistic identity] by asking me in which language I dream. When I reply that I dream in both languages they seem not to believe it. More recently I have heard an even more potent and metaphysical version of the question: in what language do you have an orgasm? Which would settle the matter if I knew.’ (Achebe in Griffith, 2006: 143).

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2 Comments

  1. luranabrown says:

    Reblogged this on mrsbrownsparlour and commented:
    “To be equally confident in both languages, to be the same person in both languages, seems to be an impossibility according to the public, and it is often pointed out that bilingual people seem to behave differently, depending on what language they are speaking. At the same time, the people who point out these things seem to forget that even a perfectly monolingual individual changes registers, voice, and vocabulary depending on who she talks to, and this is at the same time never referred to as a sign of schizoid tendencies.”

  2. I find such misconceptions are only relics of past eras when people used to be born and die in their same village, without daring to challenge misfortune by risky encounters with “the other”.
    In the conditions of a global society such primeval fears have no more place to exist – if they do, they only help create a sort of wariness against learning or speaking two or more languages, so it’s a good thing to try and clarify the matter (I myself think and dream in two or three languages). Great job, thank you.

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