The Multilingual Subject

image for multilingual subjects article

The Multilingual Subject

Claire Kramsch

"Quick, what does a Bedouin do when he loses his way at night in the desert? What stratagem does he use to find human habitation, and therefore find himself?. . . Taking his cue from the monkey, he resorts to a rather simian ploy: he starts barking (incredible but true). . . If there are any dogs in the area they will start to bark in turn and indicate human habitation to the traveler . . . One must bark in order to find one’s way; in order to become human one must first turn into a dog” (Kilito 1994: xxii).

Thus begins the playful essay by the Arab francophone writer Abdelfattah Kilito, a witty allegory about language and identity, how one creates the other, and how the act of speaking a different language can both threaten the speaker’s self and relocate it in the third place of art and the imagination. Travelers between languages can, like the tricksters in folktales, play with double meanings in the interstices of words and codes. They can imagine possible scenarios based on cross-linguistic connotations; they can draw on the sounds and shapes of different languages to conjure imagined worlds inaccessible to the monolingual traveler.

People who live their lives in more than one language are what I call ‘multilingual subjects.’ The words they use in one language remind them of words they know in another. These words are associated with emotions and fantasies, and a different sense of self than words used in another language. Under multilingual subject, I include people who use more than one language in everyday life, whether they are learning a foreign or second language in school, or speaking two or more languages in daily transactions, or writing and publishing in a language that is not the one they grew up with. In most cases, they will have acquired one or several languages as a child, and learned the others in various formal or informal settings. They might not know all these languages equally well, nor speak them equally fluently in all circumstances, and there are some they used to know but have largely forgotten. But for all of them, living in more than one language opens the possibility of constructing for themselves imagined identities that are every bit as real as those imposed by society.

This way of talking about multilinguals might sound a little pompous. After all, people learn languages for a variety of reasons, not all having to do with a search of self. Some, out of desire or necessity, strive to approximate as much as possible the native speaker they encounter (or imagine encountering) on the streets of New York, Paris or Beijing. Some only want to get by in international encounters and business transactions. Others want to reconnect with the language of their ancestors. And a few even want to read foreign literatures in the original. But it is worth giving special attention to those adolescents and young adults who, everywhere in the world, learn a foreign language at academic institutions as part of their general education. At an age when they are seeking to define their linguistic identity and their position in the world, the language class is often the first time they are consciously and explicitly confronted with the relationship between their language, their thoughts and their bodies. While they are subjected to the tests and sanctions of the school, the foreign language serves to express their innermost desires and aspirations.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the testimonies of our college students when asked what language learning means to them. In a freshmen seminar on Language & Identity that I taught in spring 2011, Judith wrote:

"Finally, I have one of my own. I found a language of my own in Paris. . . I’d first accessed it without understanding in a classroom. There it had belonged to no one, a lost language ill at home in the stuffy California air. But here, French was wedged comfortably between the cobblestones and my flowered dress. It was mine. . . French is so me that my entire body becomes inhabited by the words. En français, I experienced all things disallowed. I can be crazy, wild, and reckless because no one will understand. For me, French is free.

Spanish too is free but in an entirely different sense. It has a freedom just out of bounds…like trying to harvest the fruits at the top of a guava tree. For me, Spanish was born spontaneously, not from a book but from Costa Rica. [It] expressed the earth. It is gurgled and whispered. But it was always just out of reach, spoken quickly and muttered like the wind.…

That is not to say that my first language bores me, because Dutch does not. But, Dutch is the past. Dutch is the language of my parents, of my whole family… In Dutch, I’m an expat. In Dutch I crave nothing. I need nothing… I can never become something new with Dutch, but it is not a constraint. There is comfort in stillness and stability.

Still it is in English that I write this, because it is in English that I find my outward voice. English examines, criticizes, analyzes, controls, but it does not seep into my body. It remains on the outskirts. English is responsible for the old bump on the third finger of my right hand… English has since threatened to colonize Dutch, to edge out French, to overcome hints of Spanish. But I have welcomed it as a necessary invader. To the world, English gives me legitimacy. A well argued sentence of English removes the stigma of immigrant, of feminist, of raging liberal. Mostly it clears the shame of a scared Dutch child thrust into America. It is my business suit, my outer face.

Despite the outward Anglicism, I dream in tongues. I dream of drunken twilights and of overripe guavas and crinkled recipes and stacked notebooks. In all truth, I live at the intersection."

It is clear that for Judith language is not a bunch of grammatical rules and vocabulary lists. It is an embodied reality to be tasted, mouthed, felt, heard, seen. Often it is the contact with a loved one that imbues the foreign language with a special emotional resonance. Katie, for example, writes:

“When I returned from my year in Italy and decided to study German, it was not because I wanted to 'expand beyond Romance languages' or speak with Dave’s cousins in Berlin. It was because when I visited Dave the year before, just before Christmas in Freiburg, we had gotten a little drunk on Glühwein at the Weihnachtsmarkt and wandered hand in hand through the snow stopping in doorways to sneak a kiss. When I got back to the U.S., he was in New York and I was in North Carolina, and taking German was a way of being closer to him. Our teacher taught as if we would all be headed to Germany the next spring to study abroad. But I did not want to learn how to ask directions to the train station, I wanted to learn words for church bells and cobblestones and snowflakes and quiet and soft light through tree branches. There was nothing functional about that.”

Indeed, the imagined worlds accessed by our students in a foreign language resemble the worlds conjured by Kilito’s Bedouin lost in the desert. Students learn to experience language in another relation to time—the time of the child intersecting with the time of the adolescent and the adult. They also learn to have a different relation to place—not only places on the map, but a third place between grammars, styles and categories of thought. The world they engage with is not a world of functional instrumentalities or cost-benefit analyses, but voyages of self-discovery and explorations into the very boundaries of meaning.

Claire Kramsch is the founder and former director of the Berkeley Language Center and Professor of German and Foreign Language Acquisition at UC Berkeley. Part of this essay was published in the International Journal of Applied Linguistics 16:1 (2006), 97-110.

This article can be found in the September/October 2011 newsletter.