Saturday 30 April 2022


By Valentina Vagliani

(The following article is a contribution to SWAN's discussion of languages and translation, in collaboration with The Caribbean Translation Project.)

As a multilingual child, I remember feeling surrounded by a variety of tones, rhythms and melodies, all at reach to seize and happily combine. Every word you catch as a toddler is welcomed by marveling grownups; any combination is allowed and whatever you formulate is seen as “adorable”.

Then comes the time for separation, when variety turns into difference. You discover what is right and what is wrong in each separate tongue, what is possible and what isn’t in one or the other, how unity must be shattered. Each culture clearly sets its boundaries, but along with my growing knowledge and love of these cultures, there was no single one growing inside me, and never will be.

Later, strangers, acquaintances and family started asking questions: “Which one is your favorite?” “Which one is the strongest?” “You must have a first language.”

I can still see them, on the lookout for confirmation of the answers they wanted to hear. I don’t think they were ever interested in the actual frame of mind of the “whiz-kid”. One way or another, the response had to fit their own assumptions.

I realize now how those innocent questions were all about discrimination and grading, and how I instinctively protected my opposite mindset as an inborn reflex of self-preservation. Why should I put my musical friends - my languages - in rivalry, when I loved them all?

When you speak several languages, people assume you are a born translator. What else could languages be useful for?

While you may or may not enjoy the challenge of translation, the beauty of natural born multilingualism is precisely that there is no need for translation. You don’t need to refer to a dominant culture to understand another.

However, a strange phenomenon occurs: you are always seen as from the other country by locals, even your own kin. You are still a member of the family, but a different one. I’ve heard that it happens to all expats as well. Once you’ve seen your country from the outside, you become an outsider. You are no longer really one of them. It’s not all bad, you stand out as an exception, you attract attention and interest, but it affects your sense of belonging.

Then your “exoticism” can become invasive. That shouldn’t always be the source of interest towards you. It gets in the way of what you want to say and to do with your life.

And that’s when someone says: “Come to think of it, you’re really nothing, since you are none of them completely” (meaning none of my three cultures). “Nothing personal…”

Seriously? Certainly nothing you can imagine.

The dismay caused by those words is reflected in Toni Morrison’s famous quotation:

“Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do.” (Portland State Public Lecture on the theme of the American Dream, 1975)

I was also told: one day “you’ll find your idiom”.

Multilingualism is a way of thinking, not only the ability to switch languages. Is that what makes some people so uncomfortable? Perhaps they can sense but cannot see, and therefore can’t quite understand or even imagine the mind of the multilingual person? Yet, when we explain what we experience, it doesn’t calm the threat, it just triggers more provocation, which reveals denial of multilingualism’s specific characteristics. And it is this denial that creates issues.

In people’s defense, the lack of words to represent what exists in multilingual persons’ minds doesn’t help others to envisage the possibility of what one describes. The expression “father tongue” is not as commonly used as “mother tongue”, and how does one refer to the language you acquire from attending school in another country? The lack of specific terminology shows how little multilingual culture is represented.

To further describe the multilingual mindset, imagine being everywhere at once, having a certain gift of ubiquity, as you can stand in a culture while watching it from the perspective of another, and this, without being watched in return.

Come to think of it, that in fact could be so disturbing to some people that they just lose it. How else could several cultures add up to nothing?

Fortunately, many individuals don’t need to know a second or a third language to use their imagination and open their minds. Putting thoughts into words is the first act of translation we all experience.  Others love to learn foreign languages. They enjoy discussing thoughts, concepts and are glad to explore the many ways of thinking and possible representations of the human mind. And that, in the end, is the most interesting part of life and of multilingualism.

Yes, you will find your idiom, it’s called freedom. 

Italian and American, born in France, of Jamaican and Barbadian origins, Valentina Vagliani is a dancer, singer and voice teacher based in Paris. She is naturally trilingual and also speaks a fourth language.

Editing by SWAN. Photos (top to bottom): Valentina Vagliani, by Rémi-Charles Caufman; image of Toni Morrison on the cover of The Source of Self-Regard, published by Knopf, 2019.

Follow the Caribbean Translation Project on Twitter: @CaribTranslate.