by Maddalena Fumagalli – iCN Journalist (Switzerland)
Like many of us, I am a multilingual. I typically juggle several languages in my daily life, switching between different vocabularies that sometimes overlap, other times complement and, often, don’t communicate, leaving me stuck in a lost-in-translation void. I find that some things make more, different or no sense at all to me, depending on the language in which I hear or say them. I feel that the Italian-me is not quite like the English-me, or the German-me, and I believe that even though my mother tongue is Italian, I do not fully identify with it. This can’t be just a matter of vocabulary, can it?
As a coach-to-be, I began reflecting and researching on the theme on multilingualism and its implications in the coaching practice. I came across the work of Prof. Jean-Marc Dewaele, a prolific researcher in applied linguistics, and his investigation of multilingualism in a number of contexts, including education, mentoring and psychotherapy. He very enthusiastically agreed to answer some of my questions and curiosities about the topic.
Easy start: what does it mean to be a multilingual?
JMD: Prof. François Grosjean, one of the pioneers in bilingualism research, explains that bilinguals are not necessarily equally proficient, fluent, or at ease in all languages in all their discourse domains. That is, they don’t use all their languages in all their life situations: there are things they can discuss in one language but struggle to discuss in another language. However, it is dangerous to create categories because everything, especially in multilingualism, is always fluid, forever changing, depending on who you are interacting with, what you are working on, where you are living. For all of us, but especially for children, all the languages are constantly changing in activation level, to use a psycholinguistic term. I would say that one’s multilingualism is in fact the reflection of the use of languages in the previous couple of months. This is true also for non-verbal aspects. I find the non-verbal behaviour, particularly interesting. We can code-switch easily between one language and another, but our behaviour does not necessarily switch in the same way. When this happens, we can find ourselves out of sync with those around us, and this can create identity issues: we thought of ourselves as belonging to that culture but, when we talk to people belonging to that culture, they don’t recognise us entirely as one of them.
Identity issues. My multiple me immediately pricking up ears. Who are we then? Can we really feel, or actually be, different persons in different languages?
JMD: I do not feel any different in any of my languages, but I seem to belong to a minority. Based on our research, about three quarters of multilingual report feeling different when switching language. My opinion is that one can be superficially different, but not deeply different. Does feeling unsure and clumsy in a foreign language make you a different person in that foreign language? I think it is still the same you. This is a very subjective experience, though, and it’s rather hard to control all the variables when doing research on that topic.
About Maddalena Fumagalli
Maddalena is a scientist and an individual with broad interests in biodiversity, conservation and sustainability. She believes that a sense of togetherness and connection are required to let discourses progress and new solutions emerge. She is driven by strong ethics and an imperative to use my personal and professional competences to solve conflicts and help make our lives fairer, more respectful and harmonious with each other and with nature. Madda is an experienced field researcher, scientist, project manager and educator. So far, her research and efforts have taken her to Italy, Tunisia, Egypt and New Zealand, where she focussed on assessing and interpreting wild population responses to anthropogenic disturbances, as well as on investigating social, economic and human perspectives in collaboration with local and international partners.